July 15, 2008

The Louisiana Science Education Act: A Step Closer to Religious Science

Louisiana, with strong support from it's Rhodes Scholar Governor, Bobby Jindall, recently signed into law the "Science Education Act." The stated goal of the legislation is to allow for "academic freedom" in high schools with the respect to teaching science (more on academic freedom later), but this is in fact a cover for the true reason behind the law, to allow the teaching of religious ideals at the expense of examining the evidence and reasoning that have led to the modern synthesis of science.

Under the Act Louisiana teachers may, under protection of the law, "use supplementary textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner." The law is also explicitly clear on prohibiting teaching religion in the name of science, stating that its provisions "shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine." This is the biggest lie I've seen in legislation in a while, although I understand why its there, to protect the constitutionality of the law. By denouncing religious motivation the Act will not be subject to federal separation laws, but the law itself is meant to encourage unconstitutional behavior from local school boards.

Here's where the tricky part comes in, the ACLU knows they can't challenge the law in court as it was deftly written to conform to constitutional standards, but its implications will not be covered under the law. If religion is brought into a science classroom the ACLU will sue, or parents who were irked by religious instruction will sue. This will produce a noisy, expensive federal lawsuit, followed by even noisier and more expensive appeals. Guess where a local school board is going to get the money to fight these lawsuits; the property owners of the school district. The Discovery Institute (DI), a creationist think-tank and clear leader in the anti-science movement, helped support this bill and promoted it over the state. Where will they be when the shit hits the fan and these same school boards are being sued and need the legal and monetary support?

Defending creationist school boards isn't the DI's game, they like to a) sell creationist textbooks and b) keep creationism in the news so they can keep the lecture gigs and wealthy funders going. Just like in the Dover case, where the DI's own book was put on trial, once the books were sold the Institute left the school board and their taxpayers to fend for themselves.

Hoodwinked, being played, becoming the patsy, these are all good ways to describe what the DI did to Louisiana. The motivation behind this should be pretty transparent, the DI really really wants to start selling more books in the classroom and they'll encourage state legislators and clueless governors to enact laws that tempt local school boards to unconstitutional behavior. And when the sucker school boards are spending their own tax dollars on the defense of a hopeless bill the DI will say they had absolutely nothing to do with it, they just offered support to an academic freedom bill.

Now what exactly is academic freedom? The American Association of University Professors' definition refers to the ability to do research and publish outside of the influence of administrators. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) says that this bill has co-opted and misused the term to appeal to the public. Academic freedom is not a principle that applies to high school. Yes we want you to be able to question the evidence and understand the critical thinking process that led to the interpretation of data, but you are not doing research and publishing. High school is a place for students to learn the basics of science so that they may pursue and take full advantage of academic freedom in a university setting and beyond.

This time the DI's motivation was promoting the book, Explore Evolution, a text offering the standard intelligent design critiques of evolution. But unlike its predecessor, Of Pandas and People, which fared badly during the Dover trial, it does not use the term "intelligent design."

They're learning what it takes to pass laws that can stand the test of constitutionality while at the same time allowing individuals to perform unconstitutional acts through a false protection of the law. The DI will certainly benefit in two years when the Supreme Court hears a case that references their book many many times.

Another big problem I have with this law is the availability of students to attend a school that will teach religion. Louisiana has a multitude of catholic schools who will give your child a good religious background, but you may want to be careful because they study evolution in their sciences classes (with the support of the Vatican). Another option is to home school the kid and you can teach him whatever he wants, that's true academic freedom. Just don't expect him to be a doctor or a scientist when you send him to college and his "science" background fails miserably at preparing him for college science courses.

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