Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tennessee Puts a Stop to Science

So the anti-science bill went through and passed in the Tennessee state legislature, and now the Governor of Tennessee (Bill Haslam) has announced that he's basically sure to sign it into law.  Though there is pressure from people who have functioning brains to urge him to veto, it's not really all that likely that he would, or even that it will end there.  And thus will end science in Tennessee public schools.  It's almost that the same state that held the infamous Scopes Trial should also come full circle and now bring creationism and religious horseshit back into the schools.

I'm sure it's easy to make light of the situation since it doesn't cover a whole lot, but that's exactly the reason why it's so subversive.  Much as with SOPA which had very little detail and very vague language -- which in turn made it open to be a lot more dangerous and destructive than was probably designed.  The other thing is that the opportunity to let creationism or anti-vaccine or climate change denialism into the science classroom is there, but it's only really a risk if there is a significant population in the state who would actually lean that way.  If this same law was passed in...  say, Japan, it would probably not even raise a blip...  because anti-science thinking isn't that strong a movement in Japan.

But this is Tennessee...  a "Red" state...  I don't think I need to finish that sentence for people to see that there's a problem.

Way back in the Dover trial, the law in dispute was one that actually required school textbooks to contain passages in support of creationism (repackaged as intelligent design).  It put a new textbook into the cycle that actually contained creationist material.  This trial ended in a victory for those who actually think science should be about science.  However, one of the reasons it worked out that way was because the questionable content was actually required to be added to the curriculum.  Because of this, there existed direct indisputable demonstration that the rule introduced religious doctrine into public school science material.

The design think-tanks like the unworthily-named Discovery Institute (a foundation which is universally and unequivocally opposed to any and all discovery) have since learned from the Dover mistake and written laws which do not work on a foundation of force.  Rather they have repackaged their delivery in the form of permissive so-called "academic freedom" bills.

The Tennessee bill which will soon become law basically puts forth a principle like so --
Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit 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.
Well, on the face of it, that doesn't seem too bad.  It essentially only removes the power of the school board or any of a teacher's superiors to intervene on matters of critique and analysis of scientific theories.  But at the same time, it does include the words "in an objective manner" and scientific strengths and weaknesses.  And since there are no truly objective arguments against evolution or climate change or the Big Bang, or whatever else people want to argue against in science class these days, it seems like it doesn't really give room to insert creationism...  does it?  Well...  how do you demonstrate that something like intelligent design isn't a scientific principle in a court of law?  In legal debate, it's generally rhetoric that wins the day, not facts.  The other thing is that the only way for a judge, tribunal, or jury to really see that ID for instance is not scientific is for them to be scientifically literate themselves.  Even if you don't understand the science of climate change, you can at least be convinced if you're knowledgeable about science in general and are able to comprehend how something can or cannot be scientific.  That, as it so happens, is quite a tall order.

Here's the other problem.  In order to show that a law introduces creationism into the school, you have to make the direct causal connection in a court of law.  With a law like this one, you don't really have a direct force, but really a permissive open door.  Now, the effect is no longer direct, nor is it easy to demonstrate with evidence that sort of causal link.  Generally, it's only demonstrable when it gets a little out of control, and by that point, the damage is already done, and that's exactly what anti-science activists and religious leaders want.  What this sort of law really lends is that individual teachers have a sort of immunity that protects them from reprimand should they choose to no longer adhere to strict academic standards...  at least in the case of science education.  If a teacher wants to teach that vaccines cause autism in science class, he/she can do it now, and not have to answer to anyone.  It gives the personal convictions of the teacher superior weight to the facts.

It's what happens when you have religion on the brain.  And by this, I don't necessarily mean that religion itself is the sole enemy here.  While it generally is in the case of evolution denial, that isn't necessarily the case with, say, anti-vaccine or climate change denial or even animal rights (which is also pretty anti-science, btw).  What I mean is more along the lines of the sort of mindset that religion induces.  There's a sense of personal conviction as well as personal interpretation.  People have loads of interpretations of the Bible or the Vedanta or whatever.  But because there is no methodology of testing, all interpretations are rightfully designated as opinion.  Science does not work this way as interpretations of facts are then put to the test, and those that pass countless test without fail are the ones that hold...  ultimately making science not at all built on opinions.

Notice also, that the law doesn't really extend this sort of immunity to other fields besides science.  It doesn't, for instance, allow a history teacher to teach that the Nazi Holocaust never happened.  No.  It specifically applies to the study of science.  There's simply no escaping the fact that regardless of what people think might happen in the classroom, the law itself is inherently anti-science.  What it does is make opinion and personal belief a member of scientific discourse...  and that's unacceptable in every way.  It is nothing short of a complete and utter academic disgrace.