For today’s commentary, I will focus on the simple and noncontroversial issue of how life began.
… on second thought, let’s not do that.
Instead, let’s talk about what guidance the West Virginia Legislature wants to give high school science teachers on how to do their jobs.
The Senate Education Committee last week passed SB 280. It says, “No public school board, school superintendent, or school principal shall prohibit a public school classroom teacher from discussing or answering questions from students about scientific theories [emphasis added] of how the universe and/or life came to exist.”
Originally, the bill allowed for intelligent design, which is a version of creationism, to be taught as a scientific theory of how life began along with the theory of evolution, but the bill was watered down at the last minute.
There is a lot wrong even with the modified version of the bill.
Any science teacher worth their salt should already be able to field any question on the subject and answer it accurately and fairly if they stick with the science and the established course requirements.
Biology teachers should “utilize evidence to support common ancestry and biological evolution(SB 19,20).” Eighth grade science students are taught to “analyze scientific ideas to construct an explanation of anatomical similarities and differences among modern organisms and between modern and fossil organisms to infer evolutionary relationships (8.7).”
That, according to the National Academy of Sciences, is science. “Evolutionary biology has been and continues to be the cornerstone of modern science,” the organization states. “Intelligent design” creationism is not supported by scientific evidence.”
Clearly there are faith-based views of how life began, and those are deeply held beliefs. Plenty of scientists and faith leaders believe the different versions can coexist, but they are different. Creationism is not science, nor does it fit the scientific definition of a theory.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, a theory is “a well-established explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences and tested hypotheses.”
The most significant legal case on the issue was Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (M.D.Pa2005). After a six-week trial, U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III, a Republican and George W. Bush appointee, ruled that Intelligent Design is not science.
“ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community,” the judge wrote. “It has not generated peer reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research. The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere relabeling of creationism, and not scientific theory.”
The best case scenario is that if SB 280 becomes law, it won’t do anything. But it is also possible it will open a door to a teacher proselytizing about the origin of the universe based on their religious beliefs.
Some will cheer that because they rue the day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school-sponsored prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. They would like science teachers to include a version of Genesis in their origin of life lectures. But think about it this way:
What if the teacher is a devout Muslim and during a question and answer period in science class, they explain that according to the Qur’an, Allah created man “from sounding clay, from mud molded into shape.”
What if the teacher is Hindu and they lecture on their “theory” which is that a lotus flower grew from Lord Vishnu’s navel with Braham sitting on it and Braham separated the flower into heaven, earth and the sky.
I have heard the argument that allowing science teachers to engage students in other supposed “scientific theories” of life’s origin is simply an expansion of “academic freedom.” That is a convenient catchphrase that sounds good, but it is wildly inaccurate.
A more appropriate description of positing non-scientific information to young minds is educational malpractice.