Tennessee Votes To Teach Uncertainty In Science. Result?

What do you think of this? Tennessee has enacted a law (HB 0368-SB 0893) which states (emphasis mine):

This bill prohibits the state board of education and any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or principal or administrator from prohibiting any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught, such as evolution and global warming. This bill also requires such persons and entities to endeavor to:

(1) Create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues; and

(2) Assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies.

In short, Tennessee has forbidden politicians from interfering with teachers who point out that all is not certain in matters scientific. Regular readers of this blog will know that scientism and over-certainty is rampant, such that any program which encourages people to understand (let us call it) scientific cockiness is to be welcomed. This bill forbids Lysenkoism, which is the deciding of scientific “truth” by vote or popular acclaim.

It rewards teachers who imbue in students how to best “review in an objective manner” evidence, which is the stated purpose of science. So what are folks saying about this legislative breath-of-fresh-air?

At Think Progress, there is apoplexy, but as this is a permanent state of being for progressives it tells us nothing.

Now, before I tell you of other opinions, I must inform you that after the word “taught” in the first sentence, I cut out the phrase “such as evolution and global warming” so as not to prejudice your minds until after you considered the main argument, which is unchanged whichever particular branch of science you care to insert as an example.

But you won’t now be surprised that some are saying the bill forces teachers to say that “evolution and climate change are scientifically controversial.” The ACLU thinks the bill is going to “gut science education in public schools.”

Time magazine’s Adam Cohen is beside himself and says the “law encourages teachers to inject dubious ideas into their instruction.” He is certain sure that the “monkey” bill’s intent is “political.” Even though, of course, the language of the bill is to prohibit or limit the politicization of science.

Cohen agrees with the ACLU that “there is no dispute in the legitimate scientific community over the validity of evolution” or climate change This is false (even about the fundamentals). If there were no disputes over evolution or climatology, departments of each at universities worldwide would just shut down—what reasons would there be for their continuing research programs since “the science is settled”?

But we know what they really mean: they fear that “young Earther” and “denialist” teachers will poison a generation of young minds. Long live the “denialists”, but do we really want a horde of Tennesseans surging forth proclaiming the Earth is only a few thousand years old? Cohen points out that Tennessee already suffers, educationally speaking. That state does in fact score at the bottom in reading and math (see Fig. 3 in the full report).

But just how likely is it that students will hear and then actually believe that the Earth is six thousand years old and that dinosaurs were once pets of humans or whatever it is some “creationists”1 believe? Anyway, the language of the bill does not give license to teach any crackpot theory—like Gaiaism, catastrophism, or Marxism—which takes a teacher’s fancy. The bill specifically says emphasis should be placed upon “the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.” How is that objectionable?

Wouldn’t it be grand if students were taught that climate forecasting is an uncertain science? That the evidence for our environmental doom has been systematically exaggerated? Or do we want to turn out pupils like this little girl, a product of the California school system. She has been so indoctrinated—there is no other word—that she tells us that, “Sometimes I wish we didn’t exist.” She has been taught that human non-existence is a “solution” to pollution.

What would happen to a California teacher who lectured her students on the vast number of failed environmental predictions? What is she were to point out some of the wild exaggerations and abysmal methods being used in evolutionary psychology? She hasn’t the protection of the Tennessee bill.

You’ll also notice the hypocrisy in people like Cohen and organizations like the ACLU. To them, science is certain, filled with “truths” they would have the State decide. They would forbid teachers (and even civilians, if they could get away with it) to speak against their version of the truth. This, they feel, makes them better people.

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1Did you know that there were some versions of “creationism” which are perfectly compatible with evolution, geology, physics, etc.? The arguments for these are philosophical, of course. See cf. “The Sperm of Sea Urchins and the Directedness of Natural Processes“.

Comments

Tennessee Votes To Teach Uncertainty In Science. Result? — 30 Comments

  1. Pascal said “it is not certain that nothing is certain.”
    Heisenberg said “it is certain that nothing is certain.”
    I’m uncertain who to believe.

    The people who believe too many people are the problem should join the voluntary extinction society and lead by example. Have you noticed the environmental zealots sure don’t practice what they preach.

  2. There seems to be some important words missing after “This bill prohibits the state board of education” in your quote. As it stands the quote seems to mean the opposite of what you claim.

  3. Briggs,

    Bad editing! reread this:

    “This bill prohibits the state board of education…[or] any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand…”

    You have changed the meaning form the the orriginal intent, that the school board and adminstrators are prohbited from telling teachers how to teach science, to say that teachers are prohbited from teaching science.

  4. Yeah. Something wrong in that quote, or, does it really say teachers are prohibited from helping students? No, click through the link. It is a pretty poorly written passage, but it is prohibiting admin from prohibiting teachers from teaching the kids science controversies. So Briggs’s interpretation is correct, even if the quote is incorrect.

  5. I think it is pretty sad that somebody felt there should be a law about what should be taught in schools. But, I guess that is what a public education is all about, being taught what the public thinks is necessary. Where could that go wrong?

  6. Seriously? You are implying (though not specifically claiming – a favorite tactic of those who choose to mislead) that the intention of the promulgators of this legislation is not to pave the way for the introduction of creation “science” (scare quotes very much intentional) into the curriculum and lend cover to those administrators (who, by the way, often populate local school boards in Tennessee, Kansas, etc.) and teachers who would like to teach that evolution and creation science are on an equal footing (*wink*) and that a controversy exists and that there’s a balanced discussion and argument going on based among learned experts on the evidence. Of course, the existence of this controversy and balanced discussion based on evidence is false. And I mean this in the sense of “false.”

    If you believe this is not the primary goal of the legislation, regardless of how carefully and innocently it’s crafted, then you are much more naive than I’d have imagined. If you don’t believe it then you are engaging in what we refer to as “lying by telling the truth.”

  7. Rob,

    What’s especially curious to me, brother, is that you’ve spent any time at all wondering how naive I might be. I suppose I’m flattered.

    As for creation “science” much of it is, as you hint, wrong (but see the footnote). It is also mostly harmless. Let’s keep the slippery slope in mind when we try to estimate just how many teachers will actually begin teaching (say) a young earth. I say not many, and not effectively, and that we have far better things to worry about.

    It will also be a useful exercise for you to show how that kind of teaching is derviable for the language of the bill. Care to have a go?

    You, and Cohen, appear to hold that whatever is taught should also be approved by some higher power. Who shall that power be? I say it is better to let education of children be handled locally and by parents. Let parents teach their kids what they would. Keep the state out of it, or keep its influence minimal. Care to comment on this?

    Lastly, I await with eagerness your interpretation of that little girl’s interview (the linked video). I say it shows the danger of central education and the lack of teaching uncertainty.

    I make no comment on your personal state of mind other than to compliment you (sincerely) for wearing a hat in your comment picture.

  8. I’m afraid that you’ve made an overly broad interpretation of my position. I believe that the bill is specifically for the purpose I described and that that purpose is (protestations of “we’re not promoting our Judeo-Christian God and Biblical literalism to the contrary) to make it possible for the curriculum as promulgated by the Discovery Institute and the like to teach creation science as a mainstream, evidence-based theory competing on an equal footing with natural selection/evolution and to open the door to allowing the interpretation that this was done by God.

    I’m certainly in favor of parents passing their beliefs, their knowledge, and their wisdom to their children. In fact, I think parents have a duty to do so. But children also need to know what’s demonstrably true. used here not in the sense that you might use it in some of the epistemological posts you’ve made – and that I’ve enjoyed but rather what overwhelming evidence gathered over years or centuries shows to be likely with a vanishingly small likelihood of being fundamentally incorrect. Yes, there are many terms in that sentence that are open to interpretation but I hope you will agree that we both know what I mean. But to nail the point down, I would not want a teacher in a public school (or a private one, for the matter of that) teaching that, contrary to the accepted line promoted by elite ivory tower eggheads and academics, airplanes fly by being lifted on the wings of angels, not by aerodynamic lift created by an airfoil.

    So, do I think uncertainty, critical thinking, alternative theories, etc. should be prohibited in top-down fashion by administrators? I do not. Do I think that the view expressed in the previous sentence implies that I should be fine with the Tennessee law? I do not.

    With respect to the Sea Urchins article, I find it very unconvincing (and I’m not an atheist – in fact my belief is in the Christian God but for reasons not captured by that argument). As to the girl – I note she actually (despite the summary at the video site) doesn’t mention global warming or climate change at all. She does use the line you indicate and I find that shockingly sad. But, when asked what we’re doing, she states that we’re polluting the environment and thus harming birds and fish and causing harm to humans. Would you call that untrue?

  9. would not want a teacher in a public school (or a private one, for the matter of that) teaching that, contrary to the accepted line promoted by elite ivory tower eggheads and academics, airplanes fly by being lifted on the wings of angels ..

    Of course not. That’s obviously silly. Everybody knows it’s gremlins attracted to pleasing aerodynamic shapes.

    she states that we’re polluting the environment and thus harming birds and fish and causing harm to humans. Would you call that untrue?

    And the solution to preventing harm to humans is summed up in: “Sometimes I wish we didn’t exist.”
    I dunno. Seems harm to humans is rather low on the list.

  10. Everybody knows it’s gremlins attracted to pleasing aerodynamic shapes..

    Hope the html works *fingers crossed*

    It can’t be that – they’ve stayed away from my airplane (N9409Y – a Piper Saratoga).

  11. Sea urchins doing calculus? Like when I throw a ball way into the air and it follows a perfect parabola (oh how does it KNOW to do that?) and my dog runs 30 yards and leaps high and catches it, it is doing calculus as well I suppose?

  12. 44P looks like a very nice airplane, and certainly my Saratoga is in the family tree. I guess the PA24 evolved into the PA32. Maybe that’s a bad example – there’s clearly an element of design!

  13. Yes. Intelligent Design at that

    There are a number of similarities but I thought the PA32 is a modified Cherokee Six.

    44P has a service ceiling that’s in the Flight Levels but carrying and using O2 was a pain so I generally flew between 8000-12000 ft which still allowed using airways off the coast of Florida with MEAs above 10000. A bit slow though. Advertised cruise was 160 kts but the prop was shaved after it was dinged by a rock. I usually filed for and flew 150 kts. DCA to DAB or ATL (actually AHN) nonstop.

    Comfortable airplane. It was Piper’s top of the line in 1969. I miss flying it.

    .

  14. Rob said: “But children also need to know what’s demonstrably true. used here not in the sense that you might use it in some of the epistemological posts you’ve made – and that I’ve enjoyed but rather what overwhelming evidence gathered over years or centuries shows to be likely with a vanishingly small likelihood of being fundamentally incorrect.”

    A bit verbose, true, but I think it’s the position adopted by reasonable people when they’re not entertaining themselves in a debate with no serious consequences.

    A couple of questions: do you think a law to prevent school administrators prohibiting teachers from teaching logical thinking and an understanding of uncertainty in science is a good idea? How would you frame it?

    For my part the answers, “Yes” and “I don’t have a clue but this isn’t it” are entirely acceptable.

  15. Pingback: William M Briggs: Tennessee Votes To Teach Uncertainty In Science. Result? | JunkScience.com

  16. I am agnostic. I think the earth is very old. Evolution is a compelling hypothesis with some very convincing circumstantial evidence. I cannot say the same for climate crisis.
    I do not know how accepting or rejecting evolution as a personal philosophy has any life value whatsoever for the average person, but learning that scientists are not infallible demi-gods is certainly a worthy pursuit. A ‘one size fits all’ educational system is a sterile place ripe for abuse. Competetive ideas are the source of reason. I applaud Tennessee, not only because I grew up there but because they have the courage to say “wait a minute, let’s see!”

  17. Rob, where does the bill lead to a teaching of creation science (or, say, denial of the existence of greenhouse gases)? We know folks like the NCSE don’t want evolution or climate change taught “in an objective manner” where students can “understand, analyze and critique” the theories. The NCSE is a propaganda house that is dedicated to toeing the line on consensus views that must be questioned. Anyone who disagrees is labeled “anti-science.”

    I presume you don’t have a similar agenda, so it is unclear why the bill would be a concern. What language would you point to in the bill that is dangerous? Surely you don’t oppose letting teachers help “students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught”?

    Incidentally, all that is needed for people to become skeptical of the broad claims of evolution and climate change is an objective understanding of the underlying assumptions of the theories and a careful review of the facts. I do agree that the authors of the bill wanted to permit teachers to be able to lay these things out on the table without fear of reprisal. Good for them.

  18. The problem with this law and the other so-called “academic freedom” laws that have been proposed is not what they say they will do, but the actual reason for proposing them in the first place. There has never been a school board or legislation that has opposed the teaching of the theory of science and how it works; that science is never certain but always open to new evidence and re-evaluation of the existing theories. The only thing this bill does is immunize teachers from injecting their own personal prejudices into the scientific curriculum. We teach plenty of incorrect science already to our kids, do we need to teach even more?

  19. Brian U: “There has never been a school board or legislation that has opposed the teaching of the theory of science and how it works; ”

    Of course not. The question is whether a teacher can be formally reprimanded or even lose their position for the simple act of raising legitimate questions about consensus science in class. Unfortunately this has happened all too often.

    “The only thing this bill does is immunize teachers from injecting their own personal prejudices into the scientific curriculum.”

    Actually, this is already a rampant problem when it comes to materialistic assumptions of origins and the need to ‘save the environment.’ I don’t think it is the consensus that needs protecting. If anything, it is the few brave souls who are willing to raise legitimate questions about the consensus.

    “We teach plenty of incorrect science already to our kids, do we need to teach even more?”

    This statement is really the heart of your concern: you think the consensus view is the “correct science” and that bringing in questions about the consensus is “incorrect science.” The bill certainly does not encourage or even permit introducing incorrect science. What it is focused on is “helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.” Indeed, the bill isn’t even about introducing new theories. All it is saying is that we should honestly and openly discuss the weaknesses of the theories already being taught. You want to talk about abiogenesis? Great. But also be willing to acknowledge the weaknesses with the idea. You want to talk about greenhouse gases and sea level rise? Fine. But let’s give the kids the tools to actually analyze and understand the weaknesses as well, rather than just saying the ‘science is settled.’

    Unless there is some preferred, protected type of “science” that should not be subject to this scrutiny, it is hard to see what is objectionable in the bill.

    Unless, of course, one has a particular viewpoint or worldview that would be challenged by allowing objective scrutiny . . .

  20. The Tennessee state law follows the Conference Report of the No Child Left Behind (based on the Sense of the Senate Resolution (“Santorum Amendment) (emphasis added).

    “The Conferees recognize that a quality science education should prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science. Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.”

    2001-107th Congress-1st Session-House of Representatives Report-107 334 No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 Conference Report to accompany H.R. 1. (in Congressional Record H9773-10052). See further links.

    Objective science requires thorough evaluation to see what which theories’ predictions better withstand comparison against the evidence. Anthropogenic global warming models are increasingly being shown to predict too high warming trends.

  21. I enjoyed your post, Dr. Briggs (as I so often do, even though I comment rarely).

    The polarisation between evolution vs. creationism/intelligent design, in particular in the USA, and between alarmism and scepticism about global warming all over the developed world, is what makes it virtually impossible to address such issues rationally and calmly.

    I was brought up a Catholic, and was drilled in that religion by teachers who included nuns and priests. Despite that, by the age of 16 or so, I came to regard it as mostly poppycock, and promptly became an atheist. Later, I became a Christian again, though not of the church-going or even prayer-saying variety–my understanding is idiosyncratic and derives from thinking about Christianity and what it means for me.

    If people are going to be brought up as fundamentalist anything, then some will go to their graves fundamentalist; some will completely reject it; and some may arrive at their own understandings. That also applies in areas other than what we might readily recognise as religion. I’m thinking specifically about evolution here, which I was taught in the entirely conventional manner and accepted uncritically through school and university.

    However, I came to be sceptical of the conventional explanations of the indubitable fact that evolution has occurred over billions of years. I don’t find Darwinism provides convincing answers. I read and think about alternatives, because I can: and ever since I became an adult, no one has been able to stop me thinking my own thoughts or exercising my own critical faculties.

    Somehow, these faculties survived an education that was heavily laced with conditioning influences. I tend currently to favour some input of intelligence into the evolutionary system, but not necessarily of “God”. Intelligence may be an as-yet-unexplored property of nature that itself evolves, and in some way informs species development and change; you’d still have common descent and the fossil record would still be indicating, correctly, that over time, new species arise based on what has gone before. There would be no miraculous appearances. Just natural laws that we haven’t currently investigated or understood very well, and that we won’t be able to even contemplate as long as fundamentalists either side of the Darwin debate dig their heels in and make open discussion impossible.

    Could my education have been better? Could I have been explicitly taught critical thinking? Possibly. Anything that could achieve that for today’s students would be profoundly to be wished. That said, as it actually turned out for me, it was the odd educator I came across (sometimes a “teacher”, sometimes a fellow learner, sometimes a book, sometimes random encounters with people in life and work) that helped me improve my own skills without their explicitly or consciously seeking to do that. They simply walked the walk as I watched, admired, and sought to emulate.

    The end result, I like to think, is not that I know I am right in my opinions, but that I know I may well not be. I feel that the single biggest obstruction to learning is “knowing” one is right and that someone else is “wrong”. “Critical thinking”, for me, can’t happen in a completely closed mind.

    I have my doubts that the motives for this legislation are completely pure, or that even if they are, they will achieve much. In a way it’s quite sad that anyone would think of having to legislate for such a thing. But whatever, children don’t stay children. They grow up and learn, as often despite, and not because, of their education. However much we seek to keep them on the straight and narrow of an orthodoxy, some of them will rebel–and quite often, it is these who will become the real movers and shakers.

  22. Ray says:

    25 April 2012 at 10:56 am

    Dear Ray,

    Heisenberg was right, he provided scientific proof. Pascal was just guessing. Didn’t you know that? Perhaps it is the way you posed the question for yourself. I don’t think you quoted Heisenberg’s actual words…

    All the best, Albert

  23. Pingback: Weekly Climate and Energy News Roundup | Watts Up With That?

  24. Well, I’m all about academic freedom. My concern regarding atheists vs church over evolution vs creationism fight… Are the scientists being very honest about their work or are they selectively looking for evidences to fight against creationism rather than pure science? I ask this because I see the same thing over CO2 causing CAGW vs non-CAGW. Same for Archaeology… I just finished reading a book called The First American by Hardaker… they did digs in Mexico 1960s (or 1970s?)… took many pictures, collected samples, and so on. They sent samples somewhere to be tested for age… 200,000+ years old. That completely blew away 12,000 years old Clovis. To these archaeologists, this borders on the same level as homo sapiens being created by aliens (jokingly aka Homo alienists). Anyway, it was mostly swept under the rug for the past 30 years because nobody would believe it. I have wonder about the same thing about human evolution if they found something they could not believe their eyes and decided not to report it because out of fear for job loss. Is that what Tennessee is trying to do, protect their jobs? That goes for everything else..

    We should not be afraid to explore unknown things or also known as fringe to see what is out there without the fear of scathing from people at the top that are deeply entrenched in their old work… There’s a saying that science progresses when old scientists die.

    Look how long it took for Plate Tectonic Theory by Alfred Wegener who was only a meteorologist, to be finally accepted…