Antiscience Legislation chez NCSE

Honoré Daumier, Le Ventre Législatif  (1834)

I’m sometimes asked, even by my colleagues, what it takes for a bill to be counted as antiscience at NCSE. Precisely what is it about a piece of legislation that makes our flesh crawl, our brows furrow, and our hackles rise—and, less physiologically, impels us to summon defenders of the integrity of science education in the affected state to the ramparts? Over the years we have arrived at a rough consensus, involving three criteria, which I will present here, with examples. I’m going to concentrate on bills aimed at the teaching of evolution, because they have a longer history and exhibit a greater variety than bills aimed at the teaching of climate science; “antiscience” is the term that we’ve been using for bills aimed at the teaching of evolution and/or climate science, because “Antiscience bill in Iowa” (e.g.) makes a snappier, and less cumbersome, headline than “Bill aimed at undermining the teaching of evolution and/or climate science in Iowa.”

  1. A bill is antievolution if (a) it explicitly mentions evolution or a supposed alternative to evolution, such as “creation science” or “intelligent design,” and (b) is evidently intended to, and if enacted would, have a deleterious effect on the teaching of evolution.

So, for example, Mississippi’s Senate Bill 2286 from 2005, which called for “balanced treatment to the theory of scientific creationism and the theory of evolution,” and Indiana’s Senate Bill 89 from 2012, which would have allowed local school districts to require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including “creation science,” and South Dakota’s Senate Bill 112 from 2014, which would have prohibited local school districts from preventing teachers from teaching “intelligent design” in their classrooms, all qualify under criterion 1 as antievolution bills. Note that (a) alone is not sufficient: a bill that mentions evolution or a supposed alternative to it might be pro-evolution (such as Montana’s Senate Joint Resolution 8 from 2005). But what if a bill either fails to mention evolution or any supposed alternative to it, or isn’t evidently aimed at the teaching of evolution? Well, that’s why there are further criteria.

  1. A bill is antievolution if its legislative sponsors have acknowledged that it is intended to or is likely to affect the teaching of evolution in a deleterious way. (That is, in a way that NCSE deems deleterious, even if the sponsors wouldn’t concur.)

Indiana’s House Bill 1388 from 2006, for example, provided, “[i]n adopting textbooks for each subject...the state board shall not adopt a textbook if the state board knows the textbook contains information, descriptions, conclusions, or pictures that are false.” Well, that seemed innocuous enough. But its sponsor, Bruce A. Borders, told the Indianapolis Star (January 11, 2006) that “Many of the things that have been used to support macroevolution have been proven to be will take those out.” He previously told the Star (November 5, 2005) that he was “passionate” about “intelligent design” and intended to introduce a bill to require it to be taught in Indiana’s public schools. That, of course, was just before the verdict in Kitzmiller v. Dover, and Borders later acknowledged that while his strategy changed, his intention of undermining the teaching of evolution in the public schools remained the same. So HB 1388 was deemed antievolution.

  1. A bill is antievolution if it is relevantly connected (e.g., through similarities of language or continuities in sponsorship) to bills that satisfy criteria 1 or 2.

Take Kentucky’s House Bill 169 from 2011—please! If enacted, it would have allowed teachers to “use, as permitted by the local school board, other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner.” No particular scientific theories were mentioned. But its sponsor, Tim Moore, previously introduced House Bill 397 in 2010, which, by explicitly citing “the study of evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning” as examples of scientific theories for which supplementary instructional materials could be used, satisfied criterion 1. (The earlier bill was substantially similar to the so-called Louisiana Science Education Act, novel primarily in introducing “advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories,” a variation on the familiar “strengths and weaknesses” and “evidence for and evidence against” rhetoric.) So HB 169 was deemed antievolution.

Thus antievolution bills, as far as NCSE is concerned, are those that satisfy one (or more) of criteria 1 through 3; and if you substitute “evolution and/or climate science” for “evolution” in those criteria, you get a definition of antiscience bills chez NCSE. Now, not all possible bills that would have a deleterious effect on the teaching of evolution are covered by these criteria. For example, various bills around the country have been introduced over the last decade or so that would establish a so-called Academic Bill of Rights to rectify ideological imbalance in higher education, that would prevent the state from adopting the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), or that purport to protect the right of students in the public schools to free expression of their religious beliefs. And NCSE is often asked to express or help to rally opposition to these measures on the grounds that they would, if enacted, have a bad effect on evolution education.

Perhaps they would. But NCSE focuses—let us not say “myopically”; let us say “intently”—on evolution (and as of 2012 climate) education, and such measures, while they may present threats to the integrity of evolution education, generally fail to present distinctive threats to it. Only when such bills satisfy one (or more) of criteria 1 through 3 are they NCSE’s proper concern. Thus Florida’s House Bill 837 from 2005 is the only Academic Bill of Rights bill so far opposed by NCSE, since it satisfied criterion 2; Michigan’s House Bill 4972 from 2013 is the only anti-NGSS bill so far opposed by NCSE, since it satisfied criterion 2 (one of its sponsors, Tom McMillan, explained that the NGSS “does get into controversial issues such as man-made global warming as fact”); and no Religious Viewpoint Anti-Discrimination bills have so far been opposed by NCSE, although such measures in Missouri and Virginia have been of concern.

Why is NCSE focused on legislation that presents distinctive threats to evolution and climate education? Let me count the ways. First, NCSE’s resources are limited. With only a dozen or so staff, we are busy monitoring and rallying opposition to bills that satisfy one (or more) of criteria 1 through 3; broadening our scope is weakening our impact. Second, NCSE’s expertise is limited. As the “SE” suggests, our métier is science education. Third, there are organizations that already effectively oppose, as dangerous and/or unnecessary, the bills that evade NCSE’s criteria: the American Association of University Professors opposes the Academic Bill of Rights bills, for example, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State opposes the Religious Viewpoint Anti-Discrimination bills. By focusing on antiscience legislation as defined here, NCSE is able to concentrate on our primary mission: defending the teaching of evolution and climate science.

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.

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