More than 85 years after the Scopes trial in Tennessee, the state is again making headlines for its science education practices. Recently, a bill was passed by the state house and senate that will allow science teachers to insert their own curriculum into the fold, exposing students to whatever brand of “science education” their particular teachers feel is relevant. According to the explanation in The Tennessean, “it encourages students to question accepted scientific theories — listing as examples evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and cloning — and it protects teachers from punishment if they teach creationism.”
Ah, and there’s the issue. It’s true that evolution is a scientific theory, yes. However, scientific theory is not what most people believe it to be. There is a huge difference between the word “theory” in its common use and in its scientific use. In fact, scientific theory is defined by Biology Online as “a concept that has been well tested, and is accepted as an explanation to a wide range of observations.” In the scientific community, theory is about as close to proven fact as it gets. Unfortunately, this is often misinterpreted by those who like to say, “Evolution is just a theory,” because to the rest of us, “theory” means something along the lines of “an educated guess.”
It appears that the lawmakers in Tennessee have a similar view. With the passage of this bill, they are effectively telling teachers of the state that they may teach these scientific theories as opinions or items that are open for debate. In doing so, they are allowed to present alternate theories, such as creationism or intelligent design, which have absolutely no scientific merit or proof. Introducing such topics will undoubtedly be confusing for students at the high school level. But beyond that, acceptance of faith-based “science” by high school students can have a snowball effect, should those students move on to higher education and pursue a degree in a scientific field. These students will be at a tremendous disadvantage. Could you imagine a freshman geology major insisting to his professor that the earth is only 6,000 years old?
Not only does this bill violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause, it undermines science education in this country and can only hinder a student’s education. If teachers would like to insert faith-based curriculum, they should do so outside the public school system, and in courses that are themed as such, not courses like Biology and Geology that are based on proof and observation. Let’s leave the writing of science curriculum to scientists, not any teacher with a religious agenda.