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What the latest assaults on science education look like

Participants in the March for Science gather at the Washington Monument before marching to the Capitol on Saturday. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Each year, anti-science education legislation is introduced in state legislatures around the country — and, in a few cases, has been passed. So what is an anti-science education bill — and how many have been introduced in 2017?

There are essentially two different kinds of anti-science legislation, according to the nonprofit National Center for Science Education.

One involves efforts to repeal the adoption of state science standards or challenge science textbooks. There are also bills that attempt to allow science (and other) teachers to present unscientific criticism of scientific principles as legitimate — usually aimed at affecting classroom discussion on evolution and climate change.

Since 2014, more than 60 such bills have been filed in state legislatures all over the country; two have been enacted, in Louisiana in 2008 and in Tennessee in 2012.

These bills are worded as “academic freedom” bills, but they really are efforts to present foundational science as controversial. For example, evolution is the animating principle of modern biology, but these laws attempt to allow creationism and evolution to be debated in a science classroom as though they had equal scientific basis. There is no scientific basis to creationist thinking.

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So far this year, nine legislative efforts aimed at undermining the teaching of evolution and/or climate change have been introduced in state legislatures:

  • Texas House Bill 1485, introduced Feb. 2, supposedly offers science teachers the academic freedom to teach “the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories” covered in the state science standards,” including “climate change, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, and human cloning.” No vote has been scheduled yet.
  • Oklahoma Senate Bill 393, which was passed by the chamber, encourages teachers to teach “scientific controversies” and protects them if they do. Essentially, this would give teachers the freedom to teach nonscientific principles as equivalent to actual science.
  • South Dakota Senate Bill 55 died in a state House committee earlier this year after passing the Senate; it would have allowed teachers to essentially teach anything they want as science as long as they used certain language.
  • Indiana Senate Resolution 17, which targets the teaching of evolution in public schools, passed the state Senate in a 40-to-9 vote in February. It ostensibly urges the state Department of Education “to reinforce support of teachers who choose to teach a diverse curriculum.”
  • Alabama Senate Joint Resolution 78 passed in committee. Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center on Science Education, said if it becomes law that it would “send a strong signal that the state legislature approves of Alabama’s public school teachers presenting supposed alternatives to evolution, to climate change, and to any of the material covered in the newly revised state science standards.” He said it could possibly spark litigation over the science curriculum.
  • In Florida, two textbook challenges have been making progress in the legislature this year. House Bill 989 passed the Florida House on Friday by a 94-to-25 vote, while the companion Senate Bill 1210 passed the Senate Appropriations Committee, 16 to 0. Both bills give taxpayers the right to object to the use of instructional materials in the public schools, though climate change and evolution are obviously two of the key targets of the legislation.
  • In Iowa, House File 480, referred to the House Education Committee on March 1, seeks to require teachers in Iowa’s public schools to include “opposing points of view or beliefs” to accompany any instruction relating to evolution, the origins of life, global warming or human cloning.
  • In Idaho, the House of Representatives voted 56 to 9 on March 24 to adopt Senate Concurrent Resolution 121, which finalizes a decision by lawmakers to delete five standards — which discuss climate change and human impact on the environment — from a proposed new set of state science standards for Idaho. The House Education Committee had voted in February to nix the five standards because they supposed failed to present “both sides of the debate,” and the Senate Education Committee did the same thing shortly after.

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Back in Oklahoma, SB 393 will soon face a floor vote in the state House. While teaching “scientific controversies” may seem innocuous enough, there is a catch: There is no scientific controversy surrounding the issues this bill is targeting. “Teach the controversy” is actually code for undermining the scientifically sound theory of evolution with religious concepts such as intelligent design and creationism.

In an April 14 letter to Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall (R), Maggie Garrett, the legislative director for Americans United, voiced the group’s opposition to the bill, explaining that SB 393’s clear purpose is to discredit sound scientific theories in “another attempt by the legislature to introduce religion into public-school classrooms.” That, of course, violates a Supreme Court decision that prevents public school teachers and administrators from endorsing or appearing to endorse any religion within a classroom or school.

The good thing about science — in one tweet

Here are two letters urging Oklahoma legislators not to pass anti-science legislation, which offer arguments heard by opponents of anti-science legislation in other states as well:

And there was this letter: