DOES a bill that does nothing actually do something? This is not a Zen koan, but a legislative one, being tested this month in Tennessee. The bill in question required the state’s education system to encourage students to “explore scientific questions” and “respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific subjects”. It also protected teachers against punishment for “helping students understand, analyse, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.” It passed with big majorities in both chambers, and became law on April 10th when Bill Haslam, Tennessee’s governor, declined to veto it.
At issue is whether this innocuous-sounding measure is actually a back door that would allow teachers to introduce creationism and intelligent design into science classrooms. Many are sure it is. The measure drew opposition from scientists and teachers both nationally and in Tennessee. Several Tennessee-based members of the National Academy of Sciences worry that the bill would weaken science education in the state. Around 3,200 Tennesseans signed a petition urging Mr Haslam to veto the bill. And the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) believes the measure “undermines science education in Tennessee public schools”.
Supporters of the measure, such as state Senator Bo Watson, a co-sponsor, say this is alarmist poppycock. Evolution is part of Tennessee’s science curriculum, which the bill does not change. Many state and federal court cases have not only prohibited the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in public-school classrooms, but have also restrained teachers from introducing arguments against evolution in contravention of a school district’s curriculum. The original version of the bill warned that “the teaching of some scientific subjects” including “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning, can cause controversy”; Mr Watson cut that language out. He insists the bill is simply meant to ensure that pupils learn “critical thinking” in science classrooms.
Josh Rosenau, of the National Centre for Science Education (NCSE), asks why the bill singles out science classrooms as a place where pupils should be urged to think critically. After all, some people believe the 1969 moon landing was faked or that the Holocaust is a hoax; why not require history teachers to inform pupils of both sides of those issues, too?
Tennessee’s bill is not unusual: since 2004 similar measures have been offered in no fewer than 13 state legislatures. Only in one other state has one become law. Many such bills, including Tennessee’s, share a common parent: a “Model Academic Freedom Statute on Evolution” written and posted by the Discovery Institute, a conservative think-tank that has long advocated intelligent design. This measure protects teachers’ and students’ rights to present and hear “the full range of scientific views regarding biological and chemical evolution,” but it does little in practice. It changes no curriculum and does not expressly lobby for creationism or intelligent design. Louisiana’s measure, which has been law for nearly four years, seems to have had no discernible effects. Instead, these bills seem a particularly successful bit of signalling. They let evolution sceptics express themselves in the right place: within the law and outside the classroom.