Friday, April 13, 2012

From Monkey to Man

The title of this post is taken from an amusing song of Elvis Costello which deals whimsically with the topic to be addressed, and that is the law recently adopted in the state of Tennessee by virtue of its governor's failure to veto it.  That law has been called the "Monkey Bill" by some, one supposes to honor in an ironic way Tennessee's claim to fame, or infamy, as the site of the Scopes Monkey Trial.  I've also seen it referred to in the media as the "Anti-Science Law."  Some of us have, apparently, an irresistible inclination to create derogatory names for legislation with which we disagree.  A state of our glorious union recently failed to adopt environmental legislation dubbed by its opponents the "Polluters Against the People Law."  Wit and subtlety play very little part in our politics.

If one takes the trouble to read the law in question, however, on its face it's rather difficult to describe it as "anti-science."  Instead, it's drafted in such a fashion that its supporters may maintain, as they evidently have, that it is pro-science and is intended to promote "critical thinking" regarding science topics as taught in primary and secondary schools.  The sponsors of this law are not, politically at least, fools, nor are the lawyers involved in preparing the law, nor are the legislators who supported and voted for it.  There is no mention of creationism, nor is there any language which indicates the law is intended to promote religion or the teaching of religion in any sense.  In fact, it contains language stating that it is the intent of the legislature not to do so.  Rather, the law provides it is intended to promote the objective teaching of science and as I noted "critical thinking" regarding it.

The law doesn't require the teaching of anything, in fact.  Instead, it provides that teachers who allow the discussion and criticism of  defects or weaknesses in scientific positions may not be subject to discipline of any kind for doing so, and also provides essentially the state educational system at its many levels should encourage the consideration of strength and weakness in topics taught in science classes and, of course, "critical thinking" regarding them.

So, I think the media has in some cases at least mischaracterized the law, as have certain of the law's opponents.  This is not uncommon when it comes to controversial laws.  The language of the law itself is relatively innocuous.  However, concerns arise when one gives thought to the consequences of the law in light of what is likely to take place in classrooms, especially given the tendency of many of today's parents to micro-manage the lives of their children.  Also, how is a teacher to determine what should appropriately be considered legitimate objections or criticisms regarding a scientific position being taught?

For example--a class is addressing evolution in general or perhaps specific instances of the transformation of species over time.  It's unlikely any student will raise anything resembling a scientific critique of the theory of evolution (if there is any), but not quite as unlikely that other questions may be raised, and those questions if they involve criticism would likely be to the effect that evolution either does not take place in some or if not all cases or, if it does so, it does so pursuant to a certain purpose.  How does the teacher determine whether the possibility of a "purpose" should be discussed?  Are all criticisms equally appropriate for discussion?  What kind of evidence is a teacher to present in support of any such criticism?  What would be the nature of any purpose?  As least as to this topic, it would seem inevitable that the notion of creationism and a creator would end up being addressed in some manner, in a classroom at a public school. 

If it does end up being addressed, is a teacher presumptively immune from discipline if the class ends up coming to the conclusion that the world and all in it was created in 7 days?  I suspect teachers will, rather understandably, be looking for some guidance regarding just what is "protected discussion" in this respect in a classroom, and unless the intent is to leave this completely in a teacher's discretion then the state educational system will be eventually obliged to come up with regulations addressing what is or is not discussion/debate subject to protection under the law.

One would think that it would be the desire of any government and any teacher or parent that a school teach the best science available, and as the general consensus seems to be that the best science available indicates creationism as commonly understood is not defensible, the consideration of its possibility would seem out of place in a classroom regardless of one's religious beliefs.  If one's religious beliefs encompass it, however, the question then becomes whether its consideration is appropriate due to that fact. 

The state of Tennessee has not only adopted a law which will inevitably be challenged, but will also I think render the lives of students and teachers in that fair state much more complicated and unrewarding.

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