The Unscientific Model

This past Tuesday, Tennessee governor Bill Haslam let become law a controversial “academic freedom” bill that protects teachers who want to “help[] 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 within the curriculum framework.” The bill singles out “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning” as examples of the scientific theories whose “weaknesses” are deserving of review.

The inclusion of “biological evolution” should clue you in to what's going on here. The bill's supporters were primarily conservative Christian groups who prefer school children be taught explanations for human development that are less science-y and more Bible-friendly. Faced with daunting legal precedents that ban creationism and its mutant offspring from public schools, they're turning to slickly crafted proposals, like the new Tennessee law, to create an environment in which faith-based critiques of settled evolutionary science can safely creep into the classroom.

One fact that was largely overlooked in the media coverage of the controversy over the Tennessee “academic freedom” bill was that it was based on model legislation crafted by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that espouses the crypto-creationist theory of “intelligent design.”

Here's the model bill, which the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture officially debuted in early 2008. It states that no public school teacher “shall be terminated, disciplined, denied tenure, or otherwise discriminated against for presenting scientific information pertaining to the full range of scientific views regarding biological or chemical evolution in any curricula or course of learning.” It also contains the disclaimer that “nothing in this act shall be construed as promoting any religious doctrine.”

That tracks closely with the language from the Tennessee law quoted above, and the statute contains a disclaimer similar to the model bill's: “This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine.” A few media outlets noted the connection between the two, most notably the Los Angeles Times, which inveighed against the Tennessee bill from afar and reported prior to its passage that the “Tennessee bill is based in part on the [Discovery] institute's model legislation.”

The Discovery Institute is adamant that their bill does not promote the teaching of intelligent design. The words “intelligent design” don't appear anywhere in the text, they point out, and Discovery Institute research coordinator Casey Luskin insists that “we do not support pushing ID into public schools.”

These cutesy denials require of bit of context.

First, there's a reason why the Discovery Institute says they aren't pushing intelligent design in public schools: the last time they tried it they found themselves on the wrong end of a brutal judicial smackdown. In 2005, district court judge John E. Jones ruled in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District that intelligent design could not legally be taught in public schools as the “overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.” Two Discovery Institute fellows testified at that trial in defense of intelligent design and ended up sabotaging their own cause. Jones noted in his ruling that both men were trapped during cross examination into admitting that treating intelligent design as science would also allow astrology and “supernatural forces” to be treated as such.

Second, the fact that the model bill doesn't mention “intelligent design” and a disclaimer of secularity is largely meaningless, given that the intention of the bill is to undermine the teaching of evolution, which is a prerequisite to the promotion of intelligent design and other pseudo-scientific theories that pretend to be “alternatives” to the settled science of Darwinian evolution.

What's more, as Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education points out, a secondary effect of the legislation is to chill objections to teachers who introduce creationist and other religiously inspired doctrines in their science classes:

But because so many key terms are undefined, it's easy to see how a teacher could offer a creationist lesson, or one denying the reality or human causation of climate change, and refuse to drop that lesson by citing this law. A parent's objections, or clear instructions from a supervisor, could be waved away with the claim that any such interference would violate this provision of the law.

As reported by the Tennessean this weekend, the unfortunate reality in Tennessee is that many science teachers already preach creationism in the classroom and, according to an anthropologist who studied how evolution is taught in the state, “it's more likely teachers who wish to introduce intelligent design would understand the law as a way to do that.”

There's much more to be explored regarding the Discovery Institute's longstanding crusade to attack Darwinian evolution while hiding behind the cause of “academic freedom,” and we'll get into that at a later point. But for now what's most important to know is that these seemingly innocuous calls for “academic freedom” spring directly from a conservative think tank's dishonest campaign to undermine one of the cornerstones of modern biological science.