Federal

‘Academic Freedom’ Used as Basis Of Bills to Question Evolution

By Sean Cavanagh — May 12, 2008 7 min read
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In another twist in the decades-long battle over evolution’s status in public school science classrooms, state legislators are arguing that teachers have a right to raise doubts about that essential scientific theory as a matter of free speech.

Similarly worded bills that attempt to protect the right of educators and students to present critiques of evolution on the basis of “academic freedom” have emerged in at least five states.

Those measures do not call for teaching “intelligent design” or biblically based creationism. Instead, they generally describe evolution as controversial and seek to bar school administrators from interfering with teachers who describe what they see as flaws in the theory.

“Science moves forward when students and researchers are allowed to critically examine theories and the evidence that supports or does not support them,” said state Rep. John Moolenaar, a Michigan Republican and the sponsor of one such bill. His proposal, he said, “will encourage educators to promote a healthy scientific debate.”

The overwhelming scientific consensus, however, is that there is no debate about the core principles of evolution, which scientists regard as the only credible, and thoroughly tested, scientific explanation for the development of human and other life on Earth, and for its diversity of species.

Opponents of the bills see them as repackaged attempts to introduce religious concepts into science lessons by falsely implying evolutionary theory is riddled with doubt.

“Teachers don’t need this kind of protection—unless it’s about teaching creationism,” said Josh Rosenau, a spokesman for the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif., organization that supports the teaching of evolution. “If teachers are teaching legitimate science, they’re not going to get in trouble.”

Model Language

The recent legislation has emerged after years of court decisions rejecting state and local attempts to promote, in public school science, what judges have deemed religiously based views of life’s development.

The most recent came in late 2005, when a federal judge in Pennsylvania issued a landmark opinion declaring that intelligent design—the belief that humans and other living things show signs of having been created by an unnamed architect—is not science, but rather a descendant of biblically based creationism. (“Possible Road Map Seen in Dover Case,” Jan. 4, 2006.)

In that case, the judge ruled that a policy adopted by the rural Dover, Pa., district mandating that students be exposed to the design concept violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against government establishment of religion.

Recent state legislative proposals, introduced not just in Michigan, but also in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Missouri, make no mention of creationism or intelligent design. In fact, each of them specifies that they are not promoting religious doctrine.

Instead, they describe evolution as controversial or subject to doubt. A number of them, including Rep. Moolenaar’s bill, advocate allowing teachers to discuss “scientific strengths” and “scientific weaknesses” of scientific theories, though they do not define what constitutes a legitimate scientific analysis. The Michigan lawmaker’s proposal also identifies humans’ role in climate change and human cloning as science topics that “can cause controversy.”

The theory of evolution, as put forth by the British naturalist Charles Darwin in the mid-19th century, holds that humans and other living things have evolved over time through natural selection and mutation.

Evolution is one of the most widely accepted theories in science, supported by evidence from a range of disciplines, including anthropology, geology, chemistry, and physics. While scientists acknowledge that questions remain about certain mechanisms of evolution, as they do in every area of science, they say there is no doubt about the core tenets of the theory.

Scientific inquiry today focuses on “how, not whether, evolution has occurred and is continuing to occur,” says a report issued earlier this year by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, congressionally chartered research organizations.

State and local officials skeptical of evolution have previously maintained that they only seek to subject the theory to the same critical review that should be directed at any area of science. But many scientists have noted that such arguments, which also emerged during the Dover legal battle, mislead students by attempting to isolate evolution as worthy of skepticism and scrutiny.

In his ruling in the Pennsylvania case, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III indicated that he also found that the Dover school board, which had described evolution as “a theory” and “not a fact,” seemed to be holding Darwin’s theory to a different standard. That policy “single[d] out evolution from the rest of the science curriculum and informs students that evolution, unlike anything else they are learning, is ‘just a theory,’ ” wrote the judge.

Tom Hutton, a senior staff lawyer for the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va., said that as a general rule, state legislators have a legal right to craft laws that affect districts’ policies; he believes some decisions are better left to local officials.

But he also suggested that the recent academic-freedom proposals, if enacted, could face difficult legal tests in the courts. Despite language in the measures stating that they are not promoting religious views, and wording that promotes “scientific” rather than religious critiques, a judge is likely to question the motives behind the proposals, and the special scrutiny they seem to apply to evolution, he added.

“A court might say, ‘Look, we know what’s going on here,’ ” Mr. Hutton said.

The courts have generally not afforded significant free-speech protections to teachers for remarks made in classroom settings, said Michael Simpson, a lawyer for the National Education Association.

The legality of academic-freedom measures would depend on several unknowns, he added, such as how individual teachers presented their critical views of evolution in their classes, and possibly whether the legislation is in accordance with other state policies, such as state science curriculum.

Lobbying Via the Big Screen

The state proposals include language similar or virtually identical to model academic-freedom legislation supported by the Discovery Institute, a pro-intelligent-design organization based in Seattle. A Web site, www.academicfreedompetition.com, presents the legislation and an online petition in support of those efforts.

That site also promotes a pro-intelligent-design film now playing in theaters, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” narrated by the actor Ben Stein. (“Coming Soon: Movie Backs ‘Intelligent Design’,” Feb. 27, 2008.)

Casey Luskin, a spokesman for the Discovery Institute, said the academic-freedom model legislation served as a blueprint for several state proposals over the past few years. He dismissed the idea that the bills would allow the insertion of religious doctrine. Such criticism “is refuted by the clear language of the bills,” he wrote in an e-mail.

“College is usually the place [where you hear discussions of] academic freedom,” Mr. Rosenau said. “In high school, what you want taught is good science.”

Rep. Alan D. Hays, a Florida Republican who introduced one of the two “academic freedom” bills debated in that state this year, said he introduced the bill partly because he had heard from science teachers who were afraid to raise questions about evolution because they might draw the scorn of school administrators and others.

“I want our teachers teaching students how to think,” Mr. Hays said, “not what to think.”

Reaction to the bill was mixed, and strong, he added. “I’ve had some people who think I’m a hero and others who think I’m a bloomin’ idiot,” the lawmaker said.

Both Mr. Hays’ bill and a separate measure, sponsored by Sen. Ronda Storms, also a Republican, died at the end of the Florida legislative session early this month, when House and Senate lawmakers could not resolve differences between them. Mr. Hays said he plans to introduce similar legislation next year.

Florida was among the stops made by Mr. Stein in a tour promoting his film. The actor staged a private showing of the documentary in Tallahassee, which was attended by several state lawmakers, including Rep. Hays.

In the film, Mr. Stein says that scholars who have questioned various aspects of evolution or supported intelligent design have seen their opinions stifled by the academic community. The movie earned $6.6 million in box-office receipts through mid-April, according to boxofficemojo.com, a Web site on the movie industry. The film’s site, www.expelledthemovie.com, touts several promotions and resources for students.

Mr. Rosenau, of the National Center for Science Education, said the filmmakers and lawmakers were attempting to draw a link between the academic-freedom arguments common to higher education, and K-12, with regard to criticism of evolution. He hoped the public would not buy into that connection. His organization has set up a Web site disputing the film’s claims, www.expelledexposed.com.

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Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at www.kauffman.org.

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