Allow Tennessee Teachers to Embrace Scientific Controversies

Published May 31, 2016

Tennesseans have been subject to scads of misleading rhetoric about the state’s new academic freedom law for science teachers, largely from outside organizations hoping to construct a national warning sign so other states will beware. Detractors have continually compared the new law to the infamous 1925 Scopes “monkey trial,” hoping to convict the law of guilt by association in the court of public opinion. Much of the rhetoric has been hysterical and simply false.

A Time magazine article called the law an “attack on science.” The New York Times editorialized the law allows “pseudoscience” to enter the classroom and represents “pandering to a vocal, conservative fringe.” It “seems designed to encourage teachers who would introduce pseudo-scientific criticisms inspired by religion or ideology,” wrote The Washington Post.

That’s a hefty amount of verbal battering. But history shows it is entirely false.

Call to mind a few moments in science history. Galileo Galilei’s name evokes an entire story: In his day, the scientific establishment believed the Earth was the center of the universe. His investigations gave evidence to the contrary, and for them he was forced to live the rest of his life under house arrest. But he was right.

Ignaz Semmelweis’s most important scientific contribution is better known under the name of the man who proved Semmelweis correct, Louis Pasteur. This is because Semmelweis’s observation that washing hands in the hospital cut mortality dramatically was highly controversial among the scientific establishment, who roundly criticized and ignored him. It took Pasteur’s experiments to prove Semmelweis correct and lead to a whole series of lifesaving discoveries about germs.

Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, immortalized in the famous E=MC2 equation, was for years madly controversial. Scientists still quibble about it. Even the exalted Einstein had to face repeated and vigorous scientific debate.

That’s the point. Scientific progress depends on free and open inquiry, because what we think is true or logically follows from what we know at the moment is often turned topsy-turvy by our great, mysterious, intricate world. That is the history of science.

Openly discussing our messy reality is what Tennessee’s new academic freedom law actually encourages. Read the bill. It’s two pages. Its kernel says, “Teachers shall be permitted to 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.” Shortly thereafter, it states the law “only protects the teaching of scientific information” and does not promote or legally protect religion or religious discrimination.

Just over a hundred years ago, few people believed humans could fly. Now, we casually discuss commercial flights into space. This happened only because some individuals dared to question, and to keep questioning under barrages from the gilded establishment.

In peer-reviewed research, scientists are now discussing evidence for weaknesses in accepted theories such as evolution and global warming. This should not be hidden from budding scientists because the truth could call some people’s political or ideological assumptions into question.

This law does the opposite of what its detractors charge, and it condemns them for hypocrisy. The law’s opponents are the gilded establishment blazing cannons at today’s Galileos, Semmelweises, and Einsteins, those who have the courage and eccentricity to question accepted scientific theories and thus offer civilization its best hope at further scientific discovery.

If we want to cultivate students of real, living science, we must teach them how to postulate and test the cutting-edge theories (like those now electrifying quantum physics) that may lead to surprising discoveries that benefit humankind. That’s what the Tennessee law is all about.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.