A Galapagos tortoise rests in a mud puddle in San Cristobal, Galápagos Islands. The islands are known for their endemic species and were studied by Charles Darwin and contributed to his theory of evolution by natural selection. (Dolores Ochoa/AP)

This is the text of S.B. 55 that just passed in the South Dakota Senate, which purports “to protect the teaching of certain scientific information.”

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA:
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 doesn’t mention any specific scientific subject, so what does it actually mean?

The Argus Leader quoted Deb Wolf, a high school science instructional coach in the Sioux Falls School District, as saying the bill says that teachers can essentially teach what they want in science class as long as they do it in a certain way: “This is horrible, but let’s say I believe in eugenics.” S.B. 55 “says that I couldn’t be prohibited, I couldn’t be stopped from teaching that, as long as I did it in an objective scientific manner, and it doesn’t specify what that means.”

The bill is one of four that have been introduced so far in 2017 in state legislatures — the others are in Indiana, Oklahoma and Texas  — that would allow science denial in the classroom. Since 2014, at least 60 “academic freedom” bills  — which permit teachers to paint established science as controversial — have been filed in state legislatures all over the country. Louisiana passed one in 2008, and Tennessee did, too, in 2012.

Some version of the South Dakota bill has been introduced into the state’s legislature for each of the past four years, but this is the first time it passed in the house in which it originated. The Senate approved it, 23 to 12.  The state House is dominated by Republicans, so critics of the legislation are hoping they can stop it in the House Education Committee before it reaches the floor.

Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that defends the teaching of evolution and climate change, agrees with Wolf’s reading of the bill and said he is concerned that President Trump’s denial/questioning of man-made climate change and Vice President Pence’s denial of the theory of evolution could encourage state legislators to push through new anti-science legislation.

“Also of concern is the influence that it might have at the level of the local school district or the local school,” he said in an email. “The prominence of science denial in the new administration may embolden creationists and climate change deniers to pressure their local teachers; even in the absence of such pressure, it may cause teachers to self-censor in order to avoid the possibility of conflict over these socially — but not scientifically — controversial topics.”

The bill has been blasted by scientific and education organizations, including the South Dakota Department of Education, the School Administrators of South Dakota, the National Science Teachers Association, the National Association of Biology Teachers, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the National Center for Science Education, the American Institute of Biological Sciences,  the National Council Against Censorship, the Associated School Boards of South Dakota and the South Dakota Education Association.

The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota says the primary aim of the bill is to allow teachers to teach evolution as if it were a controversial theory — not as the organizing principle of modern biology, as the scientific community views it. Climate Parents, a national movement of parents, grandparents and families mobilizing for clean energy and climate solutions, called S.B. 55 the “alternative facts” anti-science bill and urged members to contact state legislators to reject it. Lisa Hoyos, director of Climate Parents, said that the bill “subverts science education.”

The American Institute of Biological Sciences sent a letter on Jan. 26 to South Dakota’s legislative leaders that said in part:

It is important to note that there is no scientific controversy about the legitimacy of evolution or global climate change. These scientific concepts have repeatedly been tested and grown stronger with each evaluation. Any controversy around these concepts is political, not scientific. Indeed, evolution is a core principle that helps to explain biology and informs the development of biology-based products and services, including pharmaceuticals, food, and biotechnology.

If Senate Bill 55 is enacted, it is our understanding that it would allow science teachers to miseducate South Dakota’s students about any topics they deemed controversial, and would prevent state and local administrators from intervening.

Needless controversy, or even litigation, is sure to result.

As the nation endeavors to prepare our children for the jobs of the 21st century, we should be working to strengthen our science education system — not enabling the misrepresentation of science in the classroom.

The Texas bill is the first anti-science legislation introduced in the state legislature since 2012, when a House bill promised to protect university students and professors who accept “intelligence design,” or creationist theory. There are different varieties of creationist theory, or intelligent design, but they all refer to the religious belief that God intervenes, or did intervene, in the physical world. That 2012 bill died in committee.

The new Texas bill says:

(1) an important purpose of science education is to
inform students about scientific evidence and help students develop
critical thinking skills necessary to become intelligent,
productive, and scientifically informed citizens;
(2) the teaching of some scientific subjects required
to be taught under the curriculum framework developed by the State
Board of Education may cause controversy, including climate change,
biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, and human
cloning;
(3) some teachers may be unsure of expectations
concerning how to present information when controversy arises
concerning a scientific subject; and
(4) the protection of a teacher’s academic freedom is
necessary to enable the teacher to provide effective instruction
that serves the purpose stated in Subdivision (1) of this section.

What does that mean?

According to Branch’s nonprofit National Center for Science Education, the bill removes accountability from science education, making it impossible for administrators and school boards to restrain maverick teachers; is too vague and will spark conflict and litigation over curriculum;  and is opposed by scientific organizations. The center also notes that evolution and climate change are not scientifically controversial topics.