Florida Republican creationists, hot of their self-bamboolzement in the recent science standards debate, are now attempting to pass a bill that purports to defend academic freedom in public high schools. Lawmakers are even getting a special (closed to the public!) screening of Intelligent Design agitprop doc Expelled! to help them “consider the issues.”
But just what is the bill in question, and what does it do?
But Umatilla Republican Rep. Alan Hays says he’s not touting Stein’s documentary or his ”academic freedom” bill to destroy evolution. He said the bill is simply drafted to allow teachers and students to discuss, without fear of punishment, ”the full range” of problems and ideas surrounding Darwin’s theory.Neither Hays nor his co-sponsor, Brandon Republican Sen. Ronda Storms, could name any teachers in Florida who have been disciplined for being critical of evolution in the science classroom.
Better known for his ”Win Ben Stein’s Money” game show, Stein made the documentary to document how evolution critics have supposedly run afoul of mainstream science in higher academics.”I want a balanced policy.
I want students taught how to think, not what to think,” Hays says. “There are problems with evolution. Have you ever seen a half-monkey, half human?” (emphasis added)
So they claim there are problems with evolution. Fair enough: science always, always has to be open to hearing the possibility of error (though its highly questionable as to whether high school biology teachers have any expertise relevant to evaluating such things). But this hearing still has to have standards: the claimed problems have to be accurate and based on evidence. Does the bill have a decent set of standards? On the surface it appears to: it claims to be limit its protection to “objectively present[ed] scientific information.” Sounds perfect. I don’t have any problem with such a bill: it simply reinforces what good biology classes always do: the cutting edge of science is always one big contentious debate.
But now look at what Hays lists as an example of an evolutionary “problem” that presumably their bill would put, specially protected by law, in the curricula of public school classrooms: evolution’s supposed failure to deliver evidence of a “half-monkey, half-human.”
Now, anyone who’s taken high school biology should know that nowhere in evolutionary theory is such a creature proposed, predicted, or ever been found to exist. Were such a thing to actually exist, it would either be evidence of sex between a human and a marmoset, or cast doubt on evolution. The reason is that, first of all, “monkey” is a term for two different families of primates, neither of which counts humans as a descendant.
More importantly, evolution does not proceed by there ever being “half” anything. No ancestor of human beings was ever “half” ape: all hominids, including modern humans, are all 100% ape. That’s because ape is a category, and human beings, along with gorilla, chimps, gibbons, and orangutans, are all subgroups within that category. Evolution proceeds by taxonomic budding, not transformation: all new species are variations on a more basic ancestor form, but still more like that progenitor than they are like any other living thing.
So if her claimed “problem” with evolution is flat-out ignorant of what evolution even is, then it really seems like the law, in practice, has no scientific standards whatsoever. So what’s wrong with that then? Isn’t this all about freedom of speech?
If public schools were all just about letting kids and teachers speak freely, there wouldn’t be any distinct classes, subjects, textbooks, tests, or anything else. Everyone would just ramble on off the top of their head, without “fear of punishment” (i.e. grading). But of course, we don’t actually need schools for that sort of thing because citizens are already free to do that anytime they want, with anyone they want. THAT is the right of free speech, and nothing about public schools, aside from their inherent claim on the free time of the students, takes it away.
School, on the other hand, is inherently a place for learning, and as such inevitably a place where the material presented has to live up to some basic academic standards. Merit matters, or else there wouldn’t be any reason for school at all. Thus, if we are going to have science classes, then we’d darn well be enforcing scientific standards of evidence and argument, or else the whole exercise is pointless. People like Hays and Ben Stein are not pushing for free speech (public school teachers are not acting as private citizens in any case, but as agents of the state): they are pushing for the complete abandonment of merit as a guide to what is taught as science and what is not.