Monkey Trial redux

Monkey Trial redux February 10, 2017

Sioux Falls  (SD) Argus Leader, Op-Ed   

     Has it really been nearly a century since the curious 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” played out in a steamy courtroom in Dayton, TN, pitting science against old time Christian religion?

     Could’ve fooled me.

     Just last month, the South Dakota Senate voted 23-12 in favor of SB 55, a bill that would protect teachers from penalty if they were to corrupt science by teaching religiously derived nonscience theories in science classes, ostensibly to give students more expansive explanations of scientific concepts. The legislation now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration, starting with a Feb. 6 hearing.

     The bill is disingenuously phrased in a way that makes it sound harmless, even helpful in the quest for educational excellence and flexibility. But it’s clearly a poisonous document whose toxin is hidden in the opaque banality of its deceitful language. Only research and rational interpretation reveal it for what, at core, it is: a Trojan Horse that would allow anti-evolutionists, earth-warming deniers, young earthers and their ilk to secret out and spread their religious dogma as settled science among impressionable students. Shame. They know what they do but are too cowardly to acknowledge it directly.

The full bill reads: “No teacher may be prohibited from helping students understand, analyze, critique, or review in an objective scientific manner the strengths and weaknesses of scientific information presented in courses being taught which are aligned with the content standards established pursuant to § 13-3-48 [the section of the state code that governs the state education standards revision cycle].”

     The key words are “in an objective scientific manner,” when what it subliminally means is “in a subjective religious manner.” The bill’s language is similar to creationist educational legislation proffered in recent years in a variety of states. “The idea that teachers need to be protected from discipline when teaching is presumably because the bill’s backers recognize that teachers who attempt to undercut the teaching of mainstream science are at risk of sanction,” John Timmer, science editor of U.S. technology publication Ars Technica, wrote in the Feb. 1 edition. He added, “And if there were any doubt about the bill’s intentions, some of its sponsors had attempted to protect the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in a 2014 bill.”

Note that in 2006 a federal court ruled that teaching of so-called intelligent design in public-school curricula posed an unconstitutional imposition of religion. The Argus Leader reported that the bill advanced in the Senate “despite guidance from the State Department of Education, state school boards, school administrators, teachers and scientists” that the change was unnecessary, could promulgate unsubstantiated theories and might pose significant legal problems for school districts.

     Proponents of the bill propose that it would improve student “critical thinking,” protect against indoctrination by mainstream science, and allow students and teachers to “more freely express viewpoints that might differ from the scientific theories presented in the classroom.” This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the unbridgeable differences between testable, material science and phantasmic religion. Critical thinking, as it is used in education, is the use of material evidence to acquire knowledge; the term is largely irrelevant in religion, which is a wholly ethereal, non-material, discipline. And when the bill sponsors propose free expression of viewpoints differing from science, they’re talking about nonscience, i.e. religious ideology lacking material verifiability. Which is the opposite of science. And protection against indoctrination means trying to mitigate the natural effect of scientific awareness on the faith-based mindsets of students long indoctrinated in religion.

     How can this senseless debate still be going on in 21st-century legislatures? In the South Dakota House, SB 55 will enjoy an enormous Republic advantage, 59-10. Considering that the vast majority of Republican are committed, conservative Christians, this piece of medieval legislation presumably faces a swift passage and non-veto by our Republican governor.

Heaven help us if it succeeds.

     The Scopes trial was about whether high school biology teacher John Scopes taught evolution to his students in opposition to a Tennessee law forbidding it because its science conflicted with the Bible’s majesteria. So, by giving credence to legislation like SB 55, we’re heading way, way back to the future.

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