Good news: South Dakota’s “teach the controversy” bill fails

February 23, 2017 • 1:45 pm

On January 28 I reported that the South Dakota state Senate had approved one of those “teach all sides” bills used by creationists to sneak divinity into the science classroom, and to oppose evolution and global warming. The bill read like this:

FOR AN ACT ENTITLED, An Act to protect the teaching of certain scientific information.
Section 1. That chapter 13-1 be amended by adding a NEW SECTION to read:
No teacher may be prohibited from helping students understand, analyze, critique, or review in an objective scientific manner the strengths and weaknesses of scientific information presented in courses being taught which are aligned with the content standards established pursuant to § 13-3-48.
It’s clear what is intended here: an attack on the scientific facts of evolution and anthropogenic global warming. If that’s not obvious, the sponsor of the bill,  Republican Jeff Monroe, reportedly said this:

“. . . . providing additional latitude for teachers to explain potential flaws in theories and allowing them to provide alternate scientific theories without fear of retribution would benefit students’ critical thinking skills.

[Monroe] said current state science standards on evolution and climate change are “one-directional directives” that don’t allow for analysis.

The original bill was passed by a vote of 23-12 over the advice of a consortium of teachers, scientists, school administrators, and even the State Board of Education. It looked as though the bill, which would then go to the House, would be passed, since the House had a substantial Republican majority. But, as the Argus Leader reported, the House killed the bill in committee:

PIERRE — South Dakota lawmakers on Wednesday defeated a bill that would have allowed teachers to address strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories like evolution and climate change.

The House Education Committee voted to send the bill to the 41st day, effectively killing the proposal, on an 11-4 vote.

The decision came after almost an hour and a half of testimony. Supporters including Republican lawmakers, anti-Common Core groups, conservative advocacy groups and concerned parents said the measure would give teachers to explain potential flaws in theories like evolution and climate change.

. . . Ultimately lawmakers on the committee disagreed and felt that passing the bill could create problems for local school boards and could send a message that teachers could bring theories like Creationism in discussing evolution.

National and state science education groups celebrated the bill’s defeat Wednesday, while conservative groups and others lamented its demise.

As, Hugh Britten, a biology professor at the University of South Dakota, wrote me while sending the link:

This is a huge relief and shows the power of personal involvement in politics.  In addition to the NCSE [National Center for Science Education] and national Teachers’ organization speaking out against this bill, science professors from around the state signed a letter denouncing the bill.  Since I was a signatory, I like to think the letter was influential. As I mentioned in a comment on your earlier piece, there was also vocal opposition to this bill at our town hall-style meeting with our local legislators.  Anyway, all this and it’s National Cherry Pie Day to boot!

32 thoughts on “Good news: South Dakota’s “teach the controversy” bill fails

  1. Sorry, but I fail to see how a bill that allows teachers to “understand, analyze, critique, or review” scientific information “in an objective scientific manner” is objectionable. Prohibiting them from doing this in a subjective and unscientific manner, fine. But isn’t skepticism and further inquiry, as long as it’s within the bounds of acceptable scientific methods, one of the hallmarks of good science and therefore something to be encouraged–even, or perhaps especially, in South Dakota? I don’t get it.

    1. You should review Kitzmiller v Dover to help you understand why this is a problem.

      In short – “understand, analyze, critique, or review” scientific information “in an objective scientific manner” wasn’t the goal of that legislation.

    2. This is just how they camouflage their true intentions. It’s a way to sneak teaching YEC (young earth creationism) into the classroom under the guise of “examining flaws in evolution”.

    3. “[S]kepticism and further inquiry” should certainly be taught in any course covering the scientific method per se. But school teachers have no more business engaging in them as to well-settled science in a particular field than they would in conducting cutting-edge medical experiments in the classroom.

      1. I agree. Neither students nor most high school/grade school teachers have the expertise to debate strengths or weaknesses to any degree of usefulness.

        “Today class, we are going to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of quantum field theory vs Newtonian physics.”… um, sure.

      2. This line of argument makes me very nervous. Essentially what your saying is that “settled science” should be accepted and propagated on the authority of bona fide scientists and not questioned by mere “school teachers.” Isn’t the whole thrust of science to establish methods that eliminate the need to accept things on authority?

        The schema your proposing smacks of being told that certain religious questions have been “settled” by theologians or Revelation and therefore shouldn’t be subject to “skepticism and further inquiry” by mere laypersons. Scientists are not priests, and even “settled science” is not dogma. At least I hope not.

        1. I think the point is that “settled science” has been tested and retested so often that questioning it, or even testing its validity, while possible is very unlikely to overturn the settled science. The only “authority” being invoked in this case is the scientific method itself. Any “mere school teacher” is welcome to attempt to refute the Watson-Crick (or Crick-Watson, depending on your side of the Atlantic)model of DNA, for example, but that structure is settled not because Watson and Crick said so, but because their model has stood the test of time. As a University Biology professor, I want my students to have a baseline understanding of settled biology like Mendelian genetics, DNA structure and function, and evolution by natural selection. Once students have this baseline, we can start pushing the envelope with concepts like epigenetics, genetic drift, mutation, etc.

          1. Many skeptical objections were raised at the time the now accepted theories appeared. I hope those can be presented as part of the classroom lessons, as historical background. The process whereby ‘settled science’ becomes the consensus is interesting in itself, & would answer many of the disingenuous rote objections put forth by crypto-creationists.

        2. The course work taught by primary and secondary school teachers doesn’t cover topics on which scientific skepticism in the classroom would be fruitful — anymore than it would be fruitful in teaching heliocentrism or the germ theory of disease. Skepticism should be stressed in courses addressed to teaching the scientific method itself.

          Skepticism is valuable in the teaching of history, too, particularly regarding topics on which there is both a majority and a revisionist positions. But it would not be fruitful for a high-school history teacher in a course on World War 2 to waste valuable classroom time discussing holocaust denialism.

          The promoters of bills like South Dakota’s, who are trying to smuggle religious doctrine into the classroom, purposefully couch their proposals in scientific-sounding language in the hopes of fooling people like you. Do not fall for it.

          1. I fully agree. I’d just like to add, that the notion that science should be a practice involving skepticism and doubt should not be ignored at any level of education. Elementary school children can be taught how to think critically and skeptically without dragging in political controversies like creationism. As students move up the ladder and arrive at a level where their ability to think permits it, discussions of pros and cons of any idea should be permitted and encouraged. Students at least at the college level should feel free to conduct research on their own to test an hypothesis skeptically.
            The level at which a given student is “ready” for full on debate over an issue is largely a function of the students ability, not just the class level achieved. I knew a few high school seniors who conducted actual research projects far beyond what the rest of their cohort were capable of.

          2. OK, I accept your point about “in the classroom.” From a practical point of view, you’re probably right.

            But surely legislative bills must be applied and interpreted on the basis of what they say, not on the intention of whoever proposed them. This is why the wording of such bills is so important and also so contentious.

            For example, many bills that propose even reasonable restrictions on access to abortions may well be proposed by people who want to make abortions illegal, but that doesn’t negate the bill’s reasonableness. Similarly, bills that propose reasonable restrictions on access to guns may well be proposed by people who would eliminate the Second Amendment altogether if they could, but that’s neither here nor there.

            By rejecting the actual wording of this bill, I’d have to accept its converse—namely, “Any teacher may be prohibited from helping students understand, analyze, critique, or review in an objective scientific manner the strengths and weaknesses of scientific information presented in courses.” I’d have more trouble going along with that than I do with the bill as proposed.

    4. They passed an almost identical measure in Tennessee a few years ago. It allows teachers to promote creationism and intelligent design as “objective, scientific alternatives” to evolution. That was its intent.

      The critiques of evolution are the usual list of discredited counterclaims for which there is no scientific basis. But now they can teach them.

  2. JAC, I believe you mean
    “anthropogenic global warming” not “anthropomorphic”.

    (One often speaks of ‘anthropomorphic gods’. An atheist believes these too are anthropogenic. 🙂 )

  3. If one ever needed a definition of rural – this is it. Pierre, South Dakota, the capital of the state – population, about 14,000 give or take. Good Luck for the kids at the one High School in Pierre and the rest of the state.

  4. Chock on up for reason. We could say this bill promotes ‘fake science’. But, maybe we don’t want such broad terms floating around. They can be employed by the other side.

  5. It is very useful to understand why so many people circle their wagons and deny the scientific facts behind climate change, evolution, vaccines, etc. The reasons stem from having a strong group identity, and where spokespersons for that group announce to all that this person from that other group is lyin’ to ‘ya. Here for example is an article on how this process works, with all sorts of buzzwords on the matter:

    From the HuffPo, I know, but even blind pigs find acorns…

    1. Never.

      Just today my mom went to see the film Is Genesis History?

      The obvious answer is “LOL! No.”

      It’s a horrible piece of young earth creationism showing in actual theaters around the country. In any reasonable world people would have walked out in disgust that their intelligence would be insulted so, but my mom was very impressed by it and wishes that more kids would get a chance to see it.

      That her son is a scientist who has made it clear over the years that these things are garbage has had zero effect on her. Instead of thinking, “Hey, my son is smart and known to be truthful, has studied these things for decades (!) and wouldn’t lie to me”, she prefers to believe that I have somehow been brainwashed and that she, never having set foot inside a college, has arrived at the real truth.

      If I sound bitter it’s because I am.

      If I sound like I don’t love my mom, that’s an illusion created by the fact that I’m bitter about how religion has isolated her from me across this unbridgeable gap.

      1. Sorry to hear of the isolation. Have you tried thinking of her as if she’s a 5 year old who loves fantasy? That might make it easier to bear.

        1. I find that very hard to do with her. She’s actually quite smart and is already touchy about her lack of college. I mostly ignore all the garbage she sends my way, but it wears on me.

          I have another relative who has serious learning problems and with him it’s much easier for me to just take the stance of “Well, it’s nice he has something to occupy his time”.

        1. True.

          This is something for all rationalists to take solace in. Religious indoctrination often seems impenetrable. It seems like explaining things to religious people is a total waste. And, true, it’s vanishingly rare to discuss something like evolution with someone who doesn’t believe it and for them to say, “You know, that makes a lot of sense to me. You may be right.” That just never happens in the context of a single discussion. But, also obviously, the acceptance of evolution is growing so people are not as impervious to real knowledge as they may seem. Lots of people like me exist, raised in the most cult-like fundamentalism imaginable and yet manage to see past it by listening to people like Azimov, Sagan, etc. So trying to reach people is not a wasted effort.

          So I’m not quite as pessimistic as I may have sounded in my moment of frustration above.

  6. This is AMAZING! Legislators, especially Republican ones, actually LISTENING to their constituents? Are they CRAZY? Were only it all so easy…..

  7. Surely this bill would permit teachers to examine some popular criticisms of evolutionary theory and explain, thoroughly, convincingly and in depth, why each of those objections is entirely without merit. We have been trying to educate repetitive trolls for decades, but here the teacher has a captive audience with grades to achieve.

    1. Science by its very nature is sceptical, Evolution is accepted because it hasn’t been found wanting, the minute it is ,it’s binned, this Bill is nothing more nor less than an attempt to introduce Creationism and Intelligent Design as some sort of other reason why we exist, we might as well introduce the Mr Men Books as the reason Mr Men exist, its just religious bullshit.

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