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  Geotimes - August 2008 - A backdoor approach to creationism in the classroom

A backdoor approach to creationism in the classroom

On June 16, the Louisiana legislature passed a bill that it says aims to “promote students’ critical thinking skills and open discussion of scientific theories” in public schools. Proponents say it will make students and teachers feel more comfortable discussing hot button issues, such as evolution and the origins of life, by giving them legal protection. But opponents say the bill is simply another way of bringing intelligent design and creationism into the classroom.

“It sounds very innocent and quite reasonable, but frankly it’s not,” says Albert Teich, director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). “There are a lot of believers in intelligent design in Louisiana who would see this as an opening to introduce their religious ideas.”

Josh Rosenau, a spokesperson for the National Center for Science Education, agrees. What concerns Rosenau about the Louisiana legislation is not the language — which he says is “so innocuous as to be useless” — it’s how the bill is likely to open the door to creationism.  The bill singles out evolution and the origins of life as controversial topics. These issues may be politically controversial, he says, but “within the scientific community, there’s no debate.” (The bill also singles out human cloning and global warming as topics for debate.)

Jason Stern, vice president of the Louisiana Family Forum, the group that originally drafted the legislation, says that the bill is simply a way to make Louisiana teachers feel comfortable discussing controversial topics. He emphasizes that the bill contains a clause preventing promotion of religion. But Teich and Rosenau say that they are skeptical. They point to the Family Forum’s mission — to “persuasively present biblical principles” — as evidence of the organization’s intentions.

Although the Louisiana legislation is rooted in a local school board policy adopted in 2006, similar legislation was introduced in at least five other states this year. Many of the proposed bills bear a striking resemblance to the Academic Freedom Act, model legislation drafted jointly by the producers of the intelligent design documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed and the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that promotes intelligent design. The bills argue that teachers must be free to present a full range of scientific views on evolution without fear of punishment or discrimination, and that students should not be penalized for their viewpoints.

The implications of such legislation, however, are not entirely clear. Rosenau wonders if the act would protect students with creationist beliefs from bad grades: “If test day comes and a student says Earth is 6,000 years old, do you take points off?”

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), an organization whose core mission is protecting academic freedom, passed a resolution in 2005 condemning the new trend. The organization writes that the purpose of these proposals is to “make it possible to have ‘intelligent design’ offered as an alternative to evolution.” AAUP adds, “Such efforts run counter to the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding evolution and are inconsistent with a proper understanding of the meaning of academic freedom. It is for scientists and not legislatures to say what is science.”

On CBS’s Face the Nation, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said that local school districts should decide their own curriculum without interference from the state. Yet Jindal signed the bill into law on June 27. Without a veto, the bill would have automatically become law after 20 days anyway.

Cassandra Willyard

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