Tennessee Science Teachers’ Academic Freedom Guaranteed

Published April 23, 2012

By a three-quarters majority, Tennessee legislators passed a bill to allow public school teachers to explain the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories such as evolution and global warming.

Gov. Bill Haslam (R) allowed House Bill 368 to pass into law without his signature, to emphasize his opposition, he said, because the legislature could override a veto. It passed the House 72-23 and the Senate 25-8 as Senate Bill 893.

‘Newspaper of Record’ Displeased
The New York Times and Washington Post smacked legislators, saying the bill promotes “pseudoscience.” Nearly 3,200 people had signed a petition sent to Haslam requesting a veto.

“A lot of people used this bill as an opportunity to spew forth their venom and hate towards religion,” said bill sponsor and state Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville). “The bill doesn’t do anything but tell teachers, ‘As long as you stick with scientific, objective facts you’ll be okay.'”

Approximately 15 states have introduced academic freedom legislation recently, said Casey Luskin, a policy analyst for the Discovery Institute, which offers a model bill Tennessee legislators consulted.

“The Darwin lobby’s main goal is to censor anything that opposes their views of science,” he said. “As soon as they see a policy that would enable teachers to make scientific criticisms, they immediately launch campaigns to scare the public, often with false claims like that the bill would allow teaching religion.”

Allowing Scientific Debate
The two-page bill uses straightforward language to to clarify what teachers can teach and to convey its intent to allow scientific debates to enter classrooms. 

“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,” it reads, specifying evolution, global warming, cloning, and the origins of life as examples of such theories.

The bill also states it shall not be construed as either promoting or discriminating against religion.

“Teachers, when they have to deal with some of these subjects that can be controversial, are not sure how to handle it,” Dunn said. “Sticking with objective, scientific facts helps that. It also allows others to bring in ideas that are objective, scientific facts that the other side doesn’t want anyone to hear.”

Classroom ‘Climate of Fear’
People and organizations with political or ideological interests in hiding dissenting views often falsely claim the “science is settled” on controversial topics such as evolution and global warming, Luskin notes.

“They’re using any argument they can find to justify censorship,” he said. “And they’ve done this successfully for years by inculcating in the classroom a climate of fear and intimidation where teachers are afraid to raise challenges to evolution.”

Luskin, who has a graduate degree in evolutionary biology, said “hundreds” of peer-reviewed papers undermine dominant scientific theories such as Darwinian evolution.

“We may not want to think the scientific community gets political, but they are bluffing us when they say there is no controversy,” he said.

Providing Teachers Objective Information
Such organizations spend millions putting highly politicized and even false material such as the film An Inconvenient Truth into classrooms, said James Taylor, a Heartland Institute senior fellow for environmental studies.

“We’ve seen many examples where they’re injecting their own beliefs in the classroom under the guise of what they call science but is really propaganda,” Taylor said. “Oftentimes there are teachers who have simply not had access to an open and honest discussion of the science and don’t know any better.”

Dunn said hearing teachers concerned and confused about what they could teach prompted him to sponsor the bill. The Discovery Institute gives teachers objective materials on controversial science topics and explains what they can teach in class without losing their jobs. The Heartland Institute is developing a global warming curriculum based strictly on research, Taylor said.

“Academic freedom is integral to the scientific process,” Luskin noted. “If you don’t have the freedom to challenge prevailing dogmas, you can’t advance. Every scientific advance we’ve made [has come from] academic freedom and the right to think for yourself and see whether the evidence supports the consensus.” 


Image by Peter Morgan