This House believes Tennessee is correct to protect teachers who wish to explore the merits of creationism

The case: Teaching creationism in US schools

On April 11 2012, Tennessee passed a law that will protect teachers who choose to explore the merits of creationism alongside theories of evolution in public school science classes. Governor Bill Haslam claimed that the legislation would not change scientific standards in schools and refused to sign the bill. However, he refused to veto it either, so the bill became law. Tennessee thus became the second US state to enact such legislation, following the “academic freedom” law of Louisiana in 2008. It purports to support teachers wanting to “help students understand, analyse, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories”.

Its scope is not limited to evolution, as global warming and human cloning are also open to critique, though. These three theories are widely accepted in terms of scientific merit. Critics named the bill the “Monkey Bill” after Tennessee’s 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial”’, in which John Scopes was convicted under state law for teaching evolution and later exonerated on appeal. The law has attracted criticism, and some fear that it will inspire other states to pass similar bills in addition to acting as a backwards move in the fight to improve science and maths education in the US; others claim it violates the principle of the separation of church and state. Its supporters believe that it encourages healthy scepticism among students and that “critical thinking and analysis fosters good science”.

Casey Selwyn’s opinion

While the principles of academic freedom and critical thinking are of vital importance in fostering good science and education policy, I do not believe this Tennessee bill encourages these principles. Firstly, Tennessee undermined its own free speech credibility in education policy when that state’s House Education Committee passed a “Don’t Say Gay” bill on 18 April 2012, which prevented teachers from discussing homosexuality. Secondly, despite a provision in this law that claims that it does not “promote any religious or non-religious doctrine”, it clearly provides space for a religious creationist agenda.

While scientific principles uphold free speech to the highest standard in the practice of rigorous theory testing and the questioning of unproven facts, providing space in curriculum for children that promotes discredited theories while not truly subjecting them to rigorous scientific analysis provides them with a distorted view of facts versus fiction. So, while critical analysis does foster good science and is necessary to uphold principles of free speech, it seems that an “alternative”, an unchallengeable defence of creationism seems to be a cover for the promotion of ideology over science, even while it is being presented as an example of free speech that should be protected. If parents want to teach their kids about creationism, or the church does, that is absolutely acceptable, but to promote it as science in a secular public school setting is inappropriate. Otherwise it seems to violate first amendment principles of freedom of religion, as demonstrated by the 1987 supreme court ruling that requiring creation science to be taught alongside evolution is schools is unconstitutional.

- Casey Selwyn

Note for anyone reading the arguments: Debatabase already has a debate on the merits of teaching creationism in schools. There is also a debate on evolution vs creationism so this debate does not discuss the evidence for and against evolution. This debate will stick to the question of whether schools should allow teachers freedom in the classroom to teach creationism if they wish alongside or against evolution.

Read Teaching creationism in US schools and other case studies at Free Speech Debate

Title 
Freedom of speech should apply to teachers as much as anyone else
Point 

Freedom of speech and expression are protected by the first amendment to the US constitution[1] and teachers are entitled to freedom of speech and their academic freedom as much as anyone else. If a science teacher does not believe that the evidence supports evolution then why should s/he have to teach evolution as fact rather than just as one of several competing theories? The Tennessee bill protects freedom of expression by freeing teachers to include whatever other angles on controversies such as evolution or climate change as they wish.

[1] Legal Information Institute, ‘First Amendment: An overview’, Cornell University Law School, 19 August 2010, http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/First_amendment

Counterpoint 

This is not a freedom of speech issue. Teachers are already free to express their own views during their own free time. When teaching in a school however they are limited by the demands of what is necessary to teach their pupils. Freedom of speech does not give teachers qualified in one subject the wherewithal to teach their class a different subject which is effectively what teaching creationism means. Creationism should remain in religion classes and evolution should remain in science classes. Teachers are employed by the state in order to teach children facts, not spread personal ideology. It is therefore best to seperate facts and ideas into seperate subjects. 

Title 
Teaching creationism as well as evolution gives students freedom to choose
Point 

This bill that opens the door to creationism is really about changing the way that teaching is done to make it more critical and analytical. This is an improvement in scientific education as it will help ensure that science is about critical, constructive discourse rather than just imbibing ‘facts’.[1] This bill aims to “inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens”.[2] How can students be critical and learn to analyse if there is only one theory available to them through which to look at and analyse those facts? That would not be education, it would be indoctrination.[3]

[1] Zimmer, Robin, ‘Critical Thinking, Analysis Foster Good Science’, The Tennessean, 11 March 2011, http://www.discovery.org/a/16591

[2] Dunn, ‘House Bill 368 An Act to amend Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 49, Chapter 6, Part 10, relative to teaching scientific subjects in elementary schools’’, State of Tennesseehttp://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/107/Bill/HB0368.pdf

[3] ‘New Tennessee law: encouraging creationism or academic freedom’, Public Radio International, 23 April 2012, http://www.pri.org/stories/politics-society/new-tennessee-law-encouraging-creationism-or-academic-freedom-9548.html

Counterpoint 

Teaching just evolution does not prevent teacher encouraging students to analyse how well evolution fits with the facts the students have learned. Similarly there can still be critical discourse in the classroom; analysing a fossil to decide what kind of animal it was and what its various parts of its anatomy were for would be just as rewarding for students. Moreover analysing on a smaller scale would mean having all the available evidence whereas students could never be expected to study all the evidence on creationism and evolution.

Title 
The bill does not exclude evolution just allows room for other theories
Point 

What this bill allows is for the facts to be taught and then seen through the lens of various theories. The bill requires that the schools within the state remain within the state science curriculum. It “protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine”.[1] Evolution will therefore still have to be taught and won’t be replaced wholesale by any other theory. The result therefore is that this Tennessee law opens up academic enquiry and science rather than shutting it down as opponents claim.

[1] Dunn, ‘House Bill 368 An Act to amend Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 49, Chapter 6, Part 10, relative to teaching scientific subjects in elementary schools’’, State of Tennessee, http://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/107/Bill/HB0368.pdf

Counterpoint 

In practice allowing room for other theories is a “permission slip for teachers to bring creationism, climate-change denial and other non-science into science classrooms”. The singling out of these subjects in the bill shows that it is not about impartiality and objectivity in science.[1] Instead it is promoting a kind of science denial allowing anyone with some quack theory to demand to be allowed to teach it regardless of the evidence.

[1] Thompson, Helen, ‘Tennessee ‘monkey bill’ becomes law’, nature, 11 April 2012, http://www.nature.com/news/tennessee-monkey-bill-becomes-law-1.10423

Title 
Teachers should not have freedom to teach whatever they wish as fact
Point 

There is a difference between a demand for freedom to teach what you like and freedom of speech. Freedom of speech does not apply in the classroom; students are not allowed to stand up and discuss whatever issues they want and neither should the teacher. Both have to stick to a syllabus that ensures that the children are taught the basics of each subject so that the student can move on to more advanced instruction.

Ultimately for students to be able to exercise their right to freedom of speech they need to have a well-rounded education that provides a grounding of knowledge and how to analyse that knowledge. The student is then perfectly free to challenge this teaching and exercise their freedom of expression and explore many more ideas and dismiss evolution if they wish.

Essentially this bill is encouraging criticism of science at too early a stage, in elementary or even secondary school teachers are still teaching what science is, what it is for and how it works and it does not help to ‘muddy the waters’.[1]

[1] ‘New Tennessee law: encouraging creationism or academic freedom’, Public Radio International, 23 April 2012, http://www.pri.org/stories/politics-society/new-tennessee-law-encouraging-creationism-or-academic-freedom-9548.html

Counterpoint 

It is never too early to teach students to question ideas and theories no matter how well grounded they may claim to be. Students are capable of realiseing that there is a difference between the theories that interpret the facts and the facts themselves so educating in the facts will not be more difficult. The result will be classes that are much more engaged in the subject because they have more input in the teaching, this can only be good for science education.

Title 
Children should have the freedom not to be misled
Point 

Part of freedom of speech is the freedom to get accurate information. The students in school have this right not to be misled by their teachers[1] so teachers should have to concentrate on providing facts and evidence and what has been scientifically proven. Eugenie C. Scott of the National Center for Science Education argues “Telling students that evolution and climate change are scientifically controversial is miseducating them” because there is no controversy among scientists.[2] The law as it stands may attempt to sound balanced but preventing “discrimination for or against religion or non-religion”[3] opens the door to any theory seeking to explain the evidence no matter how flawed. This would be directly counter to the objective teaching the bill claims to promote. If there is to be objectivity schools must stick to the evidence and what it shows; evolution. The teachers may of course encourage the students to come up with their own interpretations of the evidence but should not be attempting to force their own views upon the students. 

[1] Zabarenko, Deborah, ‘Tennessee teacher law could boost creationism, climate denial’, Reuters, 13 April 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/13/us-usa-education-tennessee-idUSBRE83C0JR20120413

[2] Strauss, Valerie, ‘Tennessee back to the future with new anti-evolution law’, Post Local, 11 April 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/tennessee-back-to-the-future-with-new-anti-evolution-law/2012/04/11/gIQAJb7g9S_blog.html

[3] Dunn, ‘House Bill 368 An Act to amend Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 49, Chapter 6, Part 10, relative to teaching scientific subjects in elementary schools’’, State of Tennessee, http://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/107/Bill/HB0368.pdf

Counterpoint 

It is unquestioningly taking the ‘consensus’ view on issues like evolution and climate change that is misleading children. Teaching only the one viewpoint misleads children into thinking that the issue is fact and settled so denying the ongoing controversies in each of these areas.[1]

[1] Zabarenko, Deborah, ‘Tennessee teacher law could boost creationism, climate denial’, Reuters, 13 April 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/13/us-usa-education-tennessee-idUSBRE83C0JR20120413

Title 
Tennessee is not seeking to protect freedom of speech
Point 

While supporters of this bill justify it based upon ‘academic freedom’ this is clearly not a motivating factor for the Tennessee legislature. At almost the same time a bill that prevents teachers discussing homosexuality was passed through the state’s education committee, if freedom of speech has been a concern this would never have even been brought up.[1] Moreover if the bill was about freedom of speech there would be no need to highlight particular controversies or particularly pick out science as an area requiring more discussion and dissent. Students could learn much more about competing interpretations of historical events, competing ideas in geography such as alternative theories about how oil is created,[2] even the English language is not totally settled as new meanings are created and new words added.

[1] Selwyn, Casey, ‘Teaching creationism in US schools’, Free Speech Debate, 2 May 2012, http://freespeechdebate.com/en/case/teaching-creationism-in-us-schools/

[2] Glasby, Geoffrey P., ‘Abiogenic Origin of Hydrocarbons: An Historical Overview’, Resource Geology, vol.56, no.1, 2006, pp.85-98, http://static.scribd.com/docs/j79lhbgbjbqrb.pdf

Counterpoint 

First the ‘don’t say gay’ bill has not been passed as it was dropped by its republican sponsor Joey Hensley.[1] That this bill is directed at only a few subjects does not mean that it is not about academic freedom and freedom of speech. The bill is simply targeting and highlighting areas where the assembly believes free speech is lacking and alternative views need to be presented.

[1] ‘Tennessee ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill To Get Axed’, Huffington Post, 1 May 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/01/tennessee-dont-say-gay-bill_n_1...

Title 
As it is not science creationism should not even be covered by the Tennessee law
Point 

As creationism does not fit the definition of "science", it is not even addressed by the law cited in the introduction to this discussion. The act specifically allows to discuss "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories". It is a very false conclusion that because evolution is both scientific and a hypothesis, any other hypothesis must be scientific as well.

Creationism is lacking the key point of anything that could even remotely be called science, namely testability and falsifiability. Evolution posesses this property: There may one day be actual evidence that the theory is incorrect, such as a modern human fossil being found in a layer of soil that dates back aeons. Given enough such incidents, one could reasonably claim that evolution has been disproved and that there must be a better model to approximate reality. This is what commonly happens in the world of science. As a prominent example one may cite our views on atoms: They have been refined from "they are tiny multi-symmetrical grains" to the detailled analysis of sub-atomic particles we see today. This took innumerable steps, and yet we know for sure that our theories will never be accurate enough to describe reality.

However, such a process is impossible with creationism, as it is based on a belief. In theory, it could very well be true - God could have created C14 signatures in such a way that they would appear billions of years old to a modern researcher, and we could never know. This may be applied to each and every other aspect of research on the foundations of our universe. But excactly because we can never know, creationism can never be subjected to scientific analysis, and thus cannot qualify as scientific or science. It can only be subject to belief: You may well chose to believe that the creation happened excactly as described in the bible, as an omnipotent being would surely have the power to defy the laws of physics and just 'make things be'. Thus, in theory, any contradictory evidence such as the C14 signatures may be dismissed based on belief in an omnipotent being, whose non-existance may never be disproved either due to the laws of logic.

For this reason, creation may never be falsified, cannot be called a scientific theory and is not addressed by the law cited above. Hence, its discussion should not be supported by the state.

Counterpoint 

We cannot yet fully test evolution either; we can't recreate evolution in the lab. Creationism provides a valid critique and so should be taught alongside.

Bibliography 

Selwyn, Casey, ‘Teaching creationism in US schools’, Free Speech Debate, 2 May 2012, http://freespeechdebate.com/en/case/teaching-creationism-in-us-schools/

 

Dunn, ‘House Bill 368 An Act to amend Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 49, Chapter 6, Part 10, relative to teaching scientific subjects in elementary schools’’, State of Tennessee, http://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/107/Bill/HB0368.pdf

Glasby, Geoffrey P., ‘Abiogenic Origin of Hydrocarbons: An Historical Overview’, Resource Geology, vol.56, no.1, 2006, pp.85-98, http://static.scribd.com/docs/j79lhbgbjbqrb.pdf

‘Tennessee ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill To Get Axed’, Huffington Post, 1 May 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/01/tennessee-dont-say-gay-bill_n_1467396.html

Legal Information Institute, ‘First Amendment: An overview’, Cornell University Law School, 19 August 2010, http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/First_amendment

‘New Tennessee law: encouraging creationism or academic freedom’, Public Radio International, 23 April 2012, http://www.pri.org/stories/politics-society/new-tennessee-law-encouraging-creationism-or-academic-freedom-9548.html

Strauss, Valerie, ‘Tennessee back to the future with new anti-evolution law’, Post Local, 11 April 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/tennessee-back-to-the-future-with-new-anti-evolution-law/2012/04/11/gIQAJb7g9S_blog.html

Thompson, Helen, ‘Tennessee ‘monkey bill’ becomes law’, nature, 11 April 2012, http://www.nature.com/news/tennessee-monkey-bill-becomes-law-1.10423

Zabarenko, Deborah, ‘Tennessee teacher law could boost creationism, climate denial’, Reuters, 13 April 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/13/us-usa-education-tennessee-idUSBRE83C0JR20120413

Zimmer, Robin, ‘Critical Thinking, Analysis Foster Good Science’, The Tennessean, 11 March 2011, http://www.discovery.org/a/16591

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