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Monday, January 2, 2012

Bills seek to dilute the teaching of evolution in public schools

David Brooks

Opponents of the science of evolution usually take one of two approaches: using word games to dismiss it as “just a theory,” or claiming there’s some sort of controversy that must be taught, allowing non-scientific ideas to sneak into class.

This year, however, the Legislature will ponder a third option: Creating a law so vague that it means nothing or maybe everything, so creationists can reinterpret it at will.

The bill (HB 1457) is a modification of a proposal I wrote about in July.

That proposal urged “requiring instruction in intelligent design in the public schools.” Pretty straightforward, even if (in my humble opinion) a very, very bad idea.

The sponsor, Rep. Gary Hopper, R-Weare, told me at the time he thought “Darwin’s theory is basically antiquated” because it can’t explain how life began. Science classes, he said, need to be taught creationism or intelligent design, which argues that life is so complicated it simply must have been created at some point, somewhere, by some unknown (and unknowable), all-powerful, intelligent being or beings. Very scientific.

Hopper also admitted to philosophical concerns with evolutionary science, which he feels has led to an empty, nihilist feeling in society because “the conclusion is that we’re a bunch of accidents … you really have no purpose for existence.”

When it came time to file his bill, however, Hopper altered the wording – not unusual, since proposed bills often morph as time goes on.

His bill says this: “Require science teachers to instruct pupils that proper scientific inquire (sic) results from not committing to any one theory or hypothesis, no matter how firmly it appears to be established, and that scientific and technological innovations based on new evidence can challenge accepted scientific theories or modes.”

I’m not sure what that means, frankly.

At best, it seems to say “instruct pupils that proper scientific inquiry results from proper scientific inquiry” – which is true, if not exactly useful.

At worst, though, it seems to say something like “you can disregard any scientific theory if it is challenged.”

If a parent shows up at a school board meeting and mentions some Web site that claims the fossil record is flawed and can be ignored, I guess that is a challenge based on “new evidence,” which means biology class must “not commit” to evolution. Creationists, take the podium.

Let’s not stop there. Mention of astrology, claiming evidence about an instantaneous universal force unknown to science, means physics class should “not commit” to Newton’s ideas about gravity. Homeopathy means classes should “not commit” to basic chemistry. The Hollow Earth Theory means earth science should “not commit” to plate tectonics. Brouwer’s Intituitionism (to dredge up memories from college days) means math class should “not commit” to irrational numbers. And so on.

Ridiculous, of course. But if a law that vague got on the books, it’s not out of the question.

The other anti-evolution bill is much less circuitous but produces just as much head-scratching.

House Bill 1148, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Bergevin, R-Manchester, wants to “require evolution to be taught in the public schools of this state as a theory, including the theorists’ political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism.”

The first half of that bill is standard creationist fare. It commits the usual error of thinking that the term “theory” in science – which refers to findings built up by years of evidence and study, accepted by hundreds or thousands of researchers – is the same as the term “theory” in everyday usage, where it refers to a guess or hunch.

“Hypothesis” is the term science uses for what most of us mean by “theory.”

Gravity, for example, is a scientific theory – a shaky one, really, since we don’t know the underlying cause – although nobody ever seems to get upset about lack of gravity alternatives in science class.

To me, the second half of Bergevin’s bill seems downright ludicrous.

Who are “the theorists” that Bergevin wants polled about politics, ideology and atheism? Every scientist in the world whose work touches on evolution – all several million of them? Every biology teacher in New Hampshire? Anybody who has read “The Double Helix”?

It really makes no sense.

In a July e-mail to me, Bergevin said he “is not anti-evolution, I am anti-indoctrination.”

Me, too – which is why I don’t want lawmakers to force science classes to indoctrinate students with non-science, merely out of political correctness.

Both of these bills should die a quick and deserving death. Science education has enough difficulties as it is.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at www.granitegeek.org. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.