Time to end Louisiana’s shameful pandering to the Discovery Institute and Louisiana Family Forum

When I think about how our current governor, an Ivy League graduate in biology, is willing to stoop to appeasing groups like the Louisiana Family Forum by gleefully signing the ironically-named Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008, it fills me with more than the usual level of shame and disgust as a Louisiana native. Fresh from their victory on Louisiana’s polluted soil, Discovery Institute carpetbaggers are hard at work trying to replicate their success in states like Florida and Tennessee this year. It’s time for people who care about science education to stand up to those who want to teach religion as science, and they can start by supporting Zack Kopplin’s efforts to get the LSEA repealed.

As Southeastern Louisiana University Professor Barbara Forrest has amply demonstrated, the LSEA is based on a Discovery Institute template, which the intelligent-design creationist organization is using to promote allowing science teachers to use “alternative” materials (such as the now-notorious Of Pandas and People) in biology classrooms when discussing evolutionary theory. The langauge in the Act itself shows its origins as a part of the social-conservative, anti-science agenda:

B.(1) The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, upon request of a city, parish, or other local public school board, shall allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

(2) Such assistance shall include support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied, including those enumerated in Paragraph (1) of this Subsection.

C. A teacher shall teach the material presented in the standard textbook supplied by the school system and thereafter may use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner, as permitted by the city, parish, or other local public school board unless otherwise prohibited by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

D. This Section shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.

I’ve highlighted in red the parts of particular interest. The Act singles out ideas that the fringe right has particular issues with, largely for religious reasons. Evolution and the origins of life, topics frequently conflated in discussions of anti-evolutionary movements, are areas of scientific research that are offensive to some religious groups on their face because of the same tired creationist objections that have been around for 150 years: if species are not fixed and life evolved through a variety of forms since its inception, this flies in the face of a literal interpretation of Judeo-Christian religious texts. If it can be demonstrated that life on Earth had a natural origin, there is no need for a god hypothesis. “Global warming” or, to be more accurate, anthropogenic climate change harms conservative efforts to claim that either a) God gave us dominion over everything on Earth, so everything will work itself out; or b) any observable climate change is the result of natural cycling and so everything will work itself out. Human cloning, of course, is science fiction.

The second section is the heart of the Act: teachers can bring in non-approved “supplementary” materials to “discuss” and “critique” scientific theories. Well, again, only two of these items could be construed as theories in the loosest possible scientific sense: evolution and anthropogenic climate change. Board-approved course materials would undoubtedly present an accurate synopsis of the state of knowledge on these matters, except that it’s actually not very likely that all but the most recent textbooks are addressing the latter topic. So that brings us full-circle back to what this is really all about: watering down the teaching of biological evolution by allowing teachers who are of a mind to do so to “teach the controversy.” Of course, there is no scientific controversy regarding the validity of biological evolution. The real battle of these ideas, which was never a scientific one even when fought by partisans who were the preeminent natural historians of their day, was won by evidence well over 100 years ago. It is clear and demonstrable to anyone who cares to see and learn that organisms change over time and that the accumulation of changes leads to speciation and the science of phylogenetic systematics allows us to reconstruct the history of life over timespans of billions of years. These are simple facts.

The manufactured controversy over evolutionary theory has a long history. The early post-Scopes creationists were happy to misquote scientists, deliberately misinterpret scientific reports (or in some cases simply fail to understand them–it can be hard to tell), and enumerate various areas where we lacked specific knowledge of evolutionary pathways in order to bolster their claims that only a literal interpretation of the Christian Bible can provide a guide to the history of life on Earth. The neo-creationist movement wants to claim the mantle of science for its invented concepts such as “irreducible complexity” (the idea that a structure can only be reduced to a certain number of parts before it is rendered useless–an idea shown to be incorrect for biological purposes when one realizes that structures can be used for a variety of different purposes [biologists call this “exaptation”]) and “complex specified information”. William Dembski, the creator of the latter notion, is the new prophet of intelligent design creationism–the idea that life must have had a designer (read capital-G god) because it is too “complex” to have originated without one.

And this brings us to the third section. Because the IDCers hide their religious aspirations behind neutral language like “designer” they believe they can fool people into accepting that these are actually scientific arguments. As the Kitzmiller trial revealed, intelligent design creationism is just regular old creationism in a fancier suit.

My old boss in Quincy was fond of saying that Floridians named developments after the wildlife or ecosystems that were slaughtered or destroyed in creating them. The Louisiana Science Education Act does nothing to promote science education in Louisiana and is thus a bit like naming a housing development Piney Woods or (perhaps a better example) claiming that you are saving Medicare and Medicaid  by converting them from fee-for-service to voucher programs. If you don’t want your kids taught religion in a bad science costume or let yourself be bamboozled by these cheap misdirection tactics, contact your representative or senator and tell them to vote YES on SB 70, the repeal of the LSEA of 2008. Appallingly, Governor Jindal’s office has already stated that he will veto SB 70 if it passes, so we will need a veto-proof majority to defeat this ridiculous law.

Below are some links to related stories and information:

Ursula Goodenough’s article critiquing the concept of promoting “critical thinking” in these DI bills

Dr. Barbara Forrest’s in-depth analysis of the language in the LSEA

Zack Kopplin’s weblog with myriad articles on this topic, including lists of nationally- and internationally-renowned science educators and professors who oppose the LSEA and support its repeal

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2 thoughts on “Time to end Louisiana’s shameful pandering to the Discovery Institute and Louisiana Family Forum

  1. Just like the flat Earthers you are scared that someone might know something you don’t. Science is about examining all theories, not just the one you want to support. I understand you want to limit the science education in America to support your beliefs, but you need to realize that educated people will always seek out the truth.

    • What theories are you talking about mcoville? Nobody’s trying to “suppress truth”. The fact is that intelligent design creationism is a religious doctrine not a scientific theory; it makes no testable predictions and no research programs have ever emerged based on its axioms. So you tell me what harm there is in ensuring that children are not indoctrinated with religion in their biology classes?

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