Sunday, April 29, 2012
Several weeks ago Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam allowed an education bill to pass into law without his signature. This law, often referred to by critics as the 'Monkey Bill' in reference to the 1925 'Scopes Monkey Trial,' allows the discussion of alternative scientific ideas in classrooms. On the surface, this seems innocuous and perhaps even pointless to enact as law, but the one thing it does is open the door just a crack to challenge scientific theories such as evolution and climate change.
Here's an excerpt from the Bill Summary: "This bill prohibits the state board of education and any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or principal or administrator from prohibiting any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught, such as evolution and global warming."
Don't get me wrong, I am all for discussion and debate in general, even more so in an academic setting. But I don't think grade school science class is the place for such free wheeling, anything goes exchanges. School, particularly grade school, is there to, as quickly and efficiently as possible, build up a student's basic foundational knowledge of the currently accepted theories and practices. With this foundation they can then bound off in whatever direction life and their own imagination takes them. This includes challenging the validity of the accepted wisdom. My main problem with this law is that by saying it's OK to debate pretty much any idea in class, it quietly creates a false equivalency between supported scientific theories and faith based beliefs.
Look, we don't know everything and sometimes our reality gets turned upside down with new discoveries, but you can't teach on the basis of 'might' or 'could'. You go with what, so far, seems to be correct and encourage kids to always question and evaluate based on new data. Science is about what can be supported by data and observation and is also repeatable. It is not about belief or faith. And don't forget that teaching evolution does not preclude students considering other ideas, but you don't start students off by telling them any crackpot idea is as valid as a theory put forward by decades of scientific study! If someone wants to believe in creationism or its modern cousin, intelligent design, that's their right. But that is no basis for grade school science class! What's next? Do we spend hours of limited class time on an alternate explanation for why we don't fall off a spherical stellar body? This is just another attempt to artificially elevate unsupported beliefs, usually theological based, to the level of science. They are not the same thing, no matter how much some wish it were so.