Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Teaching evolution in Massachusetts public schools

Opponents of the scientific theory of evolution have as their main aim the introduction of religious ideas, variously called "creationism" or "intelligent design", into the public school curricula throughout the country.  Their hope is to influence the next generation of Americans to doubt the mainstream scientific community's conclusions on this issue, and to maintain that there is a scientific "debate" between different and competing "theories" about evolution. In fact, to a scientist, there is no debate, and there is only one theory.  The word "theory" in the phrase "theory of evolution" means the same as it does in the phrase the "theory of gravitation".   (To a scientist, evolution is a fact, not a belief or a hunch.  The assumption of an intelligent designer or a creator constitutes a religious belief, not proveable or unproveable by science, and is therefore not in the realm of science.)

The famous Scopes "Monkey" Trial of Dayton, Tennessee in 1925 pitted the theory of evolution against Biblical authority.  A school teacher was convicted for violating a recently passed statute that prohibited the teaching of evolution in Tennesee because it contradicted the Bible.  In the process, however, that particular law was so disgraced that it was henceforth ignored, and not called into legal question for another thirty years.

Finally, in 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a 1928 law in Arkansas that made it illegal to teach evolution from a scientific perspective was unconstitutional.   (Epperson v. State of Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97)

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Louisiana law banning the teaching of evolution unless it was accompanied by instruction in creationism was unconstitutional because it violated the separation between church and state. (Edwards v. Aguillard, 428 U.S. 578)  The U.S. Supreme Court agreed that creationism was not science.

More recently, attempts to insert "intelligent design" into public education as an alternative to evolution have been successfully challenged in the lower courts, for example in Dover County, Pennsylvania in 2005 (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 Fed Supp. 2d 707), and Georgia in 2006 (see Selman v. Cobb County School District, 449 F.3d 1320).  However, some state legislatures continue to press for laws allowing the teaching of intelligent design as science; an example is the misleadingly named Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008.

The Union of Concerned Scientists have concluded that creationism and intelligent design do not constitute scientific theory, and furthermore that attempts to have them taught as science are a danger to our understanding of what constitutes science.  In their web page report "Science, Evolution, and Intelligent Design", they write: "Good science education is the key to the innovation and creativity needed for the U.S. to maintain its world leadership in science and technology. At a time when we are placing so much attention on improving math and science skills, it is particularly disturbing that science education is under attack. The success of the intelligent design movement in convincing the public and policy makers that it is has a legitimate place in the science classroom is causing increasing alarm."

The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly produced a Resolution in 2007, titled "The dangers of creationism in education", in which they state that this formerly "almost exclusively American phenomenon" was now threatening education in Europe. "Advances in medical research, aiming at combating infectious diseases such as AIDS, are impossible if every principle of evolution is denied. One cannot be fully aware of the risks involved in the significant decline in biodiversity and climate change if the mechanisms of evolution are not understood.... Evolution is present everywhere, from medical overprescription of antibiotics that encourages the emergence of resistant bacteria to agricultural overuse of pesticides that causes insect mutations on which pesticides no longer have any effect." 

In Massachusetts, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education oversees the local school boards that provide curriculum for public education.  Their curriculum frameworks include the teaching of evolution in life science and biology courses.

While some other states' legislatures have attempted or suceeded in passing laws allowing intelligent design to be taught in public schools, such practice is in essence in violation of the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.  Massachusetts, at present, remains free of such statutes.