State Sen. Chester Crandell (R-Heber) is a prime co-sponsor of a bill to require science teachers to explore all sides of scientific controversies, a measure some science educators say could prompt teachers to teach creationism or distort the presentation of controversial subjects like climate change.
National Center for Science Education Executive Director Eugenie Scott has branded the bill a “backdoor” attempt to force science teachers to teach the religiously-based theory of creationism in science classes.
SB1213 is apparently modeled on an approach pursued so far in 40 states, although 38 of those bills died in committee. Only Tennessee and Louisiana adopted roughly similar measures.
However, Crandell, who represents Rim Country, has said that teachers need help in handling scientific controversies. In published interviews, Crandell has said that teachers may be afraid to answer students questions about creationism for fear that another child’s parent or a school board member might complain.
The language of the bill calls on districts and teachers to “create an environment in schools that encourages pupils to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.”
It calls on teachers to explore the scientific strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories and prohibits schools from preventing any teachers from “helping pupils understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner” the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories.
The legislation notes that, “this section protects only the scientific teaching of scientific information and does not promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.”
Payson science teachers who asked not to be quoted by name said the measure would likely have a chilling effect on teaching topics like evolution —and require some science teachers to spend class time comparing scientific theories with religious explanations.
For instance, evolution remains the organizing principal for the biological sciences. Scientists call it a “theory” because it offers a framework to make sense of a massive amount of information. However, it forms the basis of almost all biological sciences. Almost no biologists or other life scientists question the evidence that mutations that increase the reproductive success of an organism will spread through the population — giving rise to new species better adapted to their environment.
Evolutionary biologists continue to debate various aspects of evolution. For instance, some argue that changes accumulate at a relative steady rate. Others argue for “punctuated equilibrium,” which holds that species remain virtually unchanged for long periods of time — but evolve rapidly into new forms during period of environmental change or in response to a surge in competition from other species.
However, creationists argue that God created all creatures in their existing forms and often that the universe — or at least the Earth — is only 6,000 years old, based on passages in the Bible. Creationists have questioned key elements of the evidence underlying evolution. For instance, they have questioned the many different lines of evidence showing the Earth is at least 4.5 billion years old. However, creationism isn’t a scientific theory subject to evidence like any legitimate scientific theory.
The debate about climate change and the human role in global changes offers another example of a scientific controversy, the teaching of which could be affected by the legislation. Surveys show that about 97 percent of scientists accept the evidence showing that the planet is in the midst of a significant climate shift that has already increased average temperatures. Of course, the evidence shows the Earth has gone through such climate shifts repeatedly when human beings had no impact at all. However, the documented increase in carbon dioxide concentrations related to pollution has convinced the vast majority of scientists that human activities this time are playing a significant role.
Again, climate scientists continue to vigorously debate the details of that shift. Many point to uncertainties about whether things like the formation of clouds, the ability of the ocean to absorb the excess carbon dioxide and other factors will change the speed and pace of the shift. However, the scientific debate about whether such shift is taking place at least partially as a result of human activities has long been settled.
Scott has said that once such bills make it to the floor, many lawmakers are afraid to vote against them — for fear of facing a backlash from religious voters.
One Payson science teacher said, “it’s hard enough to teach science in this district without getting grief from the creationists and the conspiracy theorists. This won’t help.”