I support the passage of the Louisiana Science Education Act, which Governor Jindal recently signed. I recognize that this is not popular with fellow secularists. There’s a lot I could say about these issues (and I do say a lot in my forthcoming book). But for now here are a few blog-worthy thoughts.
In my opinion, what the act says is relatively innocuous:
The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, upon request of a city, parish, or other local public school board, shall allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.
I am all for promoting critical thinking skills and logical analysis — this is what philosophers do, and I’ve encountered too many college students who are shockingly bad at it. As for open and objective discussion of scientific theories, I’m all for that too. Too often, science education consists of learning disconnected facts about the content of recieved scientific theories, facts which the students will forget soon enough anyways. Evidence suggests that students learn more when they are also taught how scientists reason, and how scientific inquiry happens. Having discussion about controversies in science will help students to see how scientists reason.
What about focus on evolution, the origins of life, global warning, and human cloning — isn’t it clear that there’s some sort of political agenda there? First, I have to point out that that list actually doesn’t change the material content of the act; it just provides examples of the sorts of theories that could be talked about. But it’s clear that those theories are picked because they’re ones that are controversial in the public sphere in Louisiana. The fact that they’re controversial in the public sphere means that students are likely to have heard about them, and moreover, they’re likely to have heard some uninformed opinions about them. Without an act like the Science Education Act, teachers might feel compelled to side-step these controversial issues, and to avoid addressing the confused beliefs some students have, but with an act like this one, teachers can feel more emboldened to address the issues head-on.
It’s clear that the worry from many secularists is that creationism or intelligent design will be taught as true in science class as a result of this act. Well, if that were to happen, teachers would be violating what the act says — they wouldn’t be having an open and objective discussion. But if that’s the worry, then the situation is no different than if the act hadn’t passed — we’d still have to worry about teachers violating the rules and teaching in a way that they’re not supposed to. But as long as teachers teach as they’re supposed to, then science students in Louisiana are better off as a result of this act being passed.