The Anti-Science Brigade Marches Onward

I’ve said it before, but, seriously, I might just start a blog called “Late to the Ball.”  I saw this yesterday, but didn’t have time to write anything about it, and now it’s been hit by both Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers.  Oh well.

The New York Times has a new article up addressing the strangely unsurprising activity of some social conservatives in various state governments attempting to expand their science-denialism to things beyond biological evolution.  Though hardly alone, the most recent of these state governments is Kentucky who just put forward a bill in which

Teachers, principals, and other school administrators are encouraged to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories being studied.

7Universal-thumb-600x428 The reason this should set off alarms is because it would appear to be wholly unnecessary to pass a bill that encourages “critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion.”  That’s precisely what teaching is supposed to do without some special writ from the state government.  As such, one has to wonder exactly what is going on here, but, unfortunately, we already know.  The problem is that this whole “teach the controversy” thing is old news.  It’s the same trojan horse used by creationists to get Genesis taught as legitimate science in biology classrooms.  What makes this particular brand of subterfuge all the more frustrating as it plays on the very virtues praised in this and other pro-science and reason blogs.  As Liza noted in private correspondence with me yesterday, it’s hard not to get angry “when people use the term ‘critical thinking’ as euphemism for legitimizing absurd myths.”  And she nailed it.

Let’s look at item two in this bill:

After a teacher has taught the content related to scientific theories contained in textbooks and instructional materials included on the approved lists required under KRS 156.433 and 156.435, a teacher may use, as permitted by the local school board, other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner, including but not limited to the study of evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

The clear implication of this is that evolution, origins of life, global warming, and human cloning are all theories that should be reviewed in a critical manner, but there is an enormous problem here.  Only one of these areas even has a dominant theory overarching the domain, and that’s evolution, and it’s both telling and disturbing that the authors of this bill equate these subjects in the way they do.  The dominant theory of evolution has become synonymous with its domain, but, of course, the theory, the new Darwinian synthesis, as it’s often called, is distinct from the fact of evolution that the theory, along with the interrelated laws of which it is made, is meant to explain.  With that in mind, we can see that evolution, then, is distinct from the other three, which themselves are not all in the same category.  “Origins of life,” does not yet have some dominant theory.  Rather, there are several competing hypotheses about abiogenesis.  Global warming is different, still, in that it’s not a theory or a hypothesis; it’s just a fact.  The earth is getting warmer.  That’s it.  Explanations for that would not be some “global warming theory.”  They would be the theories that make up the broader fields of meteorology, geology, geophysics, and environmental science in general.  Last in the line, human cloning, is even different from all those others in that it’s not even a fact, yet.  Human cloning doesn’t exist at this point (assuming it ever will), so, at this point, it’s a complete hypothetical.

I don’t want to leave other states out of the fun.  A recent resolution in South Dakota includes this in its list of reasons to be wary of the teaching of global warming:  "WHEREAS, carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but rather a highly beneficial ingredient for all plant life on earth. Many scientists refer to carbon dioxide as ‘the gas of life’.”  Seriously?  SERIOUSLY?!  Of course, what should we expect from these clowns?  Here are the conclusions they draw from “facts” like the one above:

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, by the House of Representatives of the Eighty-fifth Legislature of the State of South Dakota, the Senate concurring therein, that the South Dakota Legislature urges that instruction in the public schools relating to global warming include the following:

            (1)    That global warming is a scientific theory rather than a proven fact;

            (2)    That there are a variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological, thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics that can effect world weather phenomena and that the significance and interrelativity of these factors is largely speculative; and [astrological?  cosmological?  and what the hell does “thermological” even mean?]

            (3)    That the debate on global warming has subsumed political and philosophical viewpoints which have complicated and prejudiced the scientific investigation of global warming phenomena; and [see Liza’s earlier post]

    BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Legislature urges that all instruction on the theory of global warming be appropriate to the age and academic development of the student and to the prevailing classroom circumstances.

The point of the above is to highlight the brazen ignorance of the authors of the bill about science in general.  I mean, I’m not even a scientist, and I know this stuff.  It’s not that complicated.  And yet, these people who have, by their own interference in science education, made it their jobs to understand what science is and how it works can’t even get this low-level stuff right.  In that case, what is the chance they have anything at all to say of any worth about the higher-level stuff?  What makes them or anyone else think they have any business at all dictating what goes on in science classes?

We actually know the answer, and it’s not about science at all.  This is all about defending dogma, primarily religious, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  The NYT piece does a great job of showing this and highlighting the connection between this kind of political activity and the anti-science goals in education of social conservatives in general by getting quotes from various people who support this kind of curriculum change, showing the link between this new concern for teaching global warming “skepticism” and things like evolution, and demonstrating that these religious conservatives form the group with the greatest overlap in terms of concern for these areas.  But we really don’t need to go beyond the Kentucky bill to see what’s going on there.  In the middle of what have been issues of significant religious interest, e.g. evolution, origins of life, and even human cloning, you have this odd duck of global warming just crammed in there.  The difference here is that the general public, for reasons mysterious to me beyond just finding it depressing, is more skeptical about global warming than the others in terms of the science behind it.  By linking global warming to the religious issues, these people hope to have some veneer of legitimacy.  That is, by tapping into a “legitimate” worry about the science behind some issue and tying that to these other issues, they hope to convince everyone that they are merely trying to guard against overreaching scientists with political and social agendas of their own.  The problem with their plan is that they blow it by being so damn bad at the science, which, of course, was the problem in the first place. 

Good science can’t be legislated, and the absurdity of partisan politicians pretending to be working to keep science classrooms free of politics would be comical if it were not actually happening.

Hopefully, people will see through this sham and keep this bunch of science illiterates out of the science classroom.  Of course, I’m not big on hope.

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