Thursday, 8 March 2012

Attempt to repeal creationist education law in Louisana

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In the current issue of New Humanist, I report on the work of the National Centre for Science Education, which fights against attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution and climate change in US schools.

Having failed in their more direct attempts to have creationism taught in science classes, in recent years anti-evolutionists have adjusted their tactics, focusing on introducing "Academic Freedom Acts", which present the teaching of "dissenting views" in science as a necessary means of protect free speech in schools. To make creationism and Intelligent Design seem more palatable, and to mask the religious motivations behind the acts, evolution is included alongside subjects such as climate change and human cloning as an issue that is "controversial" and must therefore be challenged in schools. For example, there is currently a bill on the table in the Oklahoma state legislature based on the following premise:
"... that the teaching of some scientific concepts including but not limited to premises in the areas of biology, chemistry, meteorology, bioethics and physics can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on some subjects such as, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."
To date, only one such "Academic Freedom Law" has found its way on to the statute books. In Louisiana in 2008, the state legislature passed the "Science Education Act. This law states that "the teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy", and gave permission to teachers to "help students understand, analyse, critique, and review" those controversies.

This law was, of course, highly controversial at the time of its passage, and campaigners for good science education have opposed it ever since its inception. Now, an attempt to repeal the law, which previously stalled last year, has been revived, complete with the support of 74 Nobel laureates. The repeal bill has been introduced by State Senator Karen Carter Peterson, who also introduced the stalled repeal bill last year, and the campaign behind the repeal effort has been driven by Zack Kopplin, a recent high school graduate who began fighting the law in 2010.

The 74 Nobel laureates have signed a letter to the Louisiana legislature, which points out that the 2008 law creates the risk of the state's young people leaving school with a science education so flawed that it could be detrimental to their future prospects:
"Louisiana’s students deserve to be taught proper science rather than religion presented as science. Science offers testable, and therefore falsifiable, explanations for natural phenomena. Because it requires supernatural explanations of natural phenomena, creationism does not meet these standards. [...]

Scientific knowledge is crucial to twenty-first-century life. Biological evolution is foundational in many fields, including biomedical research and agriculture. It aids us in understanding, for example, how to fight diseases like HIV and how to grow plants that will survive in different environments. Because science plays such a large role in today’s world and because our country’s economic future is dependent upon the United States’ retaining its competitiveness in science, it is vital that students have a sound education about major scientific concepts and their applications." 
While the last attempt at a repeal was unsuccessful, the campaigners hope that the heavyweight backing behind the latest effort will help to persuade Louisiana's legislators to remove the Science Education Act from the statute books.
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