As Ed Brayton at Dispatches notes, we now have at least six US state legislatures that are either considering or have already passed so called “academic freedom” bills: Louisiana, Missouri, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama. In various forms, they all claim to protect teachers from any repercussions for teaching what they term “scientific weaknesses with evolution.” The insincerity of this sudden concern for “academic freedom” is obvious, given that the bills do not protect teachers from teaching children about, say, birth control or 9/11 conspiracy theories. Only the usual stalking horse of conservative creationists is fair game for fifth-grade science teachers.
With so many similar bills appearing in such a short time, all with such similar language and intent, it’s pretty clear that we’re seeing a new phase of in creationist efforts to attack evolution in public school science class. For those unfamiliar, the first three main phases have been Creationism proper, Scientific Creationism, and Intelligent Design, all as outlined in this Dispatches post. The phases have all overlapped to some extent (most obviously in the recycling of many of the same arguments), and advocates of prior phases all remain, though often strategically friendly to the newest effort. But this 4th phase doesn’t go under any sort of banner or title: and that, in fact, is the whole point.
Whenever any collection of creationist claims is gathered together in one place, and then titled just about anything, the agenda and motives become all too obvious: especially to the various courts that have struck down various “teach both sides/teach the controversy” efforts over the last century. Creationists had to have caught onto this weakness at some point, and it now seems that their efforts will be focused around addressing this problem by simply avoiding the promotion of any comprehensive alternative view to evolution entirely.
What we’re seeing instead are efforts to prepare the way for attacks on evolution by a thousand tiny cuts: instead of outright challenging mainstream biology directly under a unified banner, various individual bits of claimed “critical skepticism” of evolution will be worked into curricula, textbooks, and the plans of individual schools and teachers. The idea is to pepper the presentation of evolution with caveats and canards, but without explicitly linking them together into a larger case, at least not at first. This approach, which often carries the slogan “teach the scientific problems with evolution” if anything at all, is a sort of guerrilla warfare version of creationism. First they stripped away the religious theology. Then the sectarian religious identity. And now they’re trying to strip away any consolidated identity at all.
Selling the Controversy
This strategy also seems to have been well chosen for its tactical advantages in the creationism/evolution Public Relations struggle. Intelligent Design think-tank Discovery Institute and its allies have all been very on message: because the bills ostensibly protect free discussion of scientific debate, they can simply portray any and all opponents as being scared of critical analysis and “scientific” debate.
But the obvious loophole in these laws is that they very conspicuously never define what “scientific” entails, meaning that anyone can claim that just about any argument is scientific. This essentially does away with any standards of scientific merit in regards to teaching biology (in ways that these legislators are not willing to do for, say, history classes). Even devoted creationists who believe that the conclusion that evolution is false and that creationism is scientifically supported would probably agree that not all arguments for that conclusion are valid or have merit. And yet these bills, by careful design, effectively protects everything, with scientific merit or without.
Of course, this PR strategy only works insofar as it is presented in venues in which others aren’t able to point out the core misrepresentation: creationist press releases, which do not quote the actual arguments of critics; their own network of websites and blogs, which by an large do not allow, or have a history of disappearing, critical comments; right wing media sources like WorldNetDaily, which are just awful; and finally, of course, cinematic commercials like Expelled!
And, as with all the other phases of creationist insurgency in the classroom, there is a fatal weakness in this 4th wave strategy. That is: when it comes to weeding out and destroying individual ideas that can’t hold up to argument or evidence, science simply has no rival. Whenever there is room for a real debate, on the evidence, these criticisms will get crushed.
I think most of the people pushing this 4th wave already understand this. Which is why we are left with the bizarre situation in which “debate,” to creationists, simply means getting to make their claims, but doesn’t seem to involve defending their validity, or facing any sort of repercussions or correction if those claims prove to be invalid. We see them promoting these ideas primarily in the very places least capable of having the sort of informed debate that will out the evidentially unworthy (places that, unfortunately, include state legislatures, grade school classrooms, and movie theaters). Or, alternatively, we see challenges to evolution that never seem to get around to explaining in detail what all the powerful scientific critiques of evolution really are in the first place. Instead, meta-issues like the supposed persecution of Intelligent Design in academia, the moral horrors of an imagined “Darwinism,” and so on all just happen to crowd out the time for discussions right up until the point when we might have gotten down to the meat of the claims themselves.
How You Could Really Destroy Evolution, If You Cared
This brings me to what I think is one of the true ironies about this whole issue. Countless articles in mainstream biology journals revisit, refute, reject, and rebut specific ideas in evolutionary biology in nearly every edition. No one raises an eyebrow when this happens, because it’s a matter of course for scientific debate: the validity of arguments are different from conclusions, and destroying a particular argument isn’t the same thing as attacking a “sacred” conclusion.
Thus, If creationists, intelligent design theorists, and all their allies had any patience, and if they seriously believed that the scientific case for evolution was weak, then they could indeed chip away at evolution in just this fashion: publishing simple refutations of the weaknesses of this or that study, this or that conclusion. Scientific theories only hold up as long as all of the specific undergirding details do, and those details are all open to attack. If these insurgents truly believed the idea that their insights are being kept out of journals because of bias against their ultimate beliefs, this would still be easy to circumvent: just stick to the evidence, refuting the key supports of each little part of the evolutionary case, without drawing immediately larger conclusions in each instance. The thing would eventually fall apart on its own, without ever having to wave the banner of Intelligent Design or anything else.
It evolution was really on such weak evidential footing, such a strategy could, indeed would, work. If everything creationists asserted about bias towards evolution were true, and if they seriously believed it were true, then this strategy would have occurred to them a long time ago. Indeed, evolution might already be over and done with.
So what’s the holdup guys? As always, we’re still waiting…
Update: A friendly Lorax suggests that Minnesota has joined the “academic freedom” bandwagon. I’m not so sure. This bill actually looks like an actually reasonable academic freedom in an educational setting, and its use of the term “serious scholarly opinion” is a lot better of a definition than just whatever anyone claims is “science.”