To the chagrin of the science thought police, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has signed into law an act to protect teachers who want to encourage critical thinking about hot-button science issues such as global warming, human cloning, and yes, evolution and the origin of life.
Opponents allege that the Louisiana Science Education Act is “anti-science.” In reality, the opposition’s efforts to silence anyone who disagrees with them is the true affront to scientific inquiry.
Students need to know about the current scientific consensus on a given issue, but they also need to be able to evaluate critically the evidence on which that consensus rests. They need to learn about competing interpretations of the evidence offered by scientists, as well as anomalies that aren’t well explained by existing theories.
Yet in many schools today, instruction about controversial scientific issues is closer to propaganda than education. Teaching about global warming is about as nuanced as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Discussions about human sexuality recycle the junk science of biologist Alfred Kinsey and other ideologically driven researchers. And lessons about evolution present a caricature of modern evolutionary theory that papers over problems and fails to distinguish between fact and speculation. In these areas, the “scientific” view is increasingly offered to students as a neat package of dogmatic assertions that just happens to parallel the political and cultural agenda of the Left.
Real science, however, is a lot more messy — and interesting — than a set of ideological talking points. Most conservatives recognize this truth already when it comes to global warming. They know that whatever consensus exists among scientists about global warming, legitimate questions remain about its future impact on the environment, its various causes, and the best policies to combat it. They realize that efforts to suppress conflicting evidence and dissenting interpretations related to global warming actually compromise the cause of good science education rather than promote it.
The effort to suppress dissenting views on global warming is a part of a broader campaign to demonize any questioning of the “consensus” view on a whole range of controversial scientific issues — from embryonic stem-cell research to Darwinian evolution — and to brand such interest in healthy debate as a “war on science.”
In this environment of politically correct science, thoughtful teachers who want to acquaint their students with dissenting views and conflicting evidence can expect to run afoul of the science thought police.
The Louisiana Science Education Act offers such teachers a modest measure of protection. Under the law, school districts may permit teachers to “use supplementary textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner.” The act is not a license for teachers to do anything they want. Instruction must be “objective,” inappropriate materials may be vetoed by the state board of education, and the law explicitly prohibits teaching religion in the name of science, stating that its provisions “shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine.”
The law was so carefully framed that even the head of the Louisiana ACLU has had to concede that it is constitutional as written.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped the usual suspects from denouncing the bill as a nefarious plot to sneak religion into the classroom. The good news is that the disinformation campaign proved a massive failure in Louisiana. Only three members of the state legislature voted against the measure, which attracted nearly universal support from both political parties. Efforts to prevent local scientists from supporting the bill also failed. At a legislative hearing in May, three college professors (two biologists and one chemist) testified in favor of the bill, specifically challenging the claim that there are no legitimate scientific criticisms of Neo-Darwinism, the modern theory of evolution that accounts for biological complexity through an undirected process of natural selection acting on random mutations.
Fearful of being branded “anti-science,” some conservatives are skittish about such efforts to allow challenges to the consensus view of science. They insist that conservatives should not question currently accepted “facts” of science, only the supposedly misguided application of those facts by scientists to politics, morality, and religion. Such conservatives assume that we can safely cede to scientists the authority to determine the “facts,” so long as we retain the right to challenge their application of the facts to the rest of culture.
But there are significant problems with this view.