Would you recognize a legislative push for Creationism if you saw one? After decades of failed legal strategies to overtly ban evolution or make equal time for Creationism in public schools, the latest tack used by the opponents of evolution is to have 'academic freedom' bills that encourage school teachers to include supposed evidence against evolution, or the presentation of 'both sides' of a controversial issue in science class. If you support the integrity of science education, you should oppose bills like this, both because they are redundant when it comes to good science (teachers already can teach both scientific sides of a legitimate scientific debate), and because the Creationist legislators pushing them are up to no good. But are we reaching a point where Creationism is defining itself out of existence? Are they creating a legal loophole too small for their anti-evolutionary propaganda to fit through?
Religiously motivated strategies to oppose evolution in schools started out with efforts to ban the teaching of evolution. When that approach was struck down by the Supreme Court, Creationists took to arguing that 'Creation Science' was as scientifically legitimate as evolutionary biology, and therefore the two subjects should get equal space in the school curriculum. The Supreme Court didn't buy that either, nor did a federal judge when 'Creation Science' was relabeled as Intelligent Design. With these options seemingly exhausted, opponents of evolution are attempting a new approach, although in substance it is not very different from the old one.
While essentially all of evolutionary biology's opponents are motivated by religion or ideology, they pin their legal hopes on portraying evolution as scientifically controversial. They have to limit their claims to scientific controversy, because this is how they avoid running up against the U.S. Constitutional barrier prohibiting religious advocacy in the public school curriculum - this is the barrier, upheld in every evolution case so far, which Creationists have unsuccessfully tried to burrow under. Since it appears unlikely that Intelligent Design will ever be viewed by a federal court as a real scientific competitor of evolution, Creationists are now pushing legislation that specifically encourages schools to teach 'evidence against evolution'.
Let's take a look at some excerpts from one recent bill, introduced in Missouri, HB 2554 (emphasis added):
1. ...[Educators] shall endeavor to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues, including such subjects as the teaching of biological and chemical evolution. Such educational authorities in this state shall also endeavor to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies. Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of theories of biological and chemical evolution.
2. Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, superintendent of schools, or school system administrator, nor any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of theories of biological or chemical evolution.
What could sound more fair and rational than that? As a scientist, I think it's critical for people to understand the strengths and weaknesses of any scientific theory. How could anyone object to this innocuous language? The problem is this: Creationists, who are the only people introducing these sorts of bills, intend to use this language as a loophole to get their own spurious 'evidence against evolution' into the science curriculum. There is no need for a bill like this for legitimate scientific controversies: teachers are already free to discuss these, and no interest group is trying to stop them.
The language in these bills may be different from the previous overt attempts to push Creationism, but the strategy is not new: much of the 'evidence' for Intelligent Design (and Creation Science before that) consisted of negative claims against evolution, and not positive evidence for a particular theory of Creation. Creationists famously think they can win by default; knock down evolution and Creation is the only option left standing, or so we're told. The same is true of Intelligent Design, whose advocates primarily argue that evolution could not have produced the bacterial flagellum, specified information, or the Cambrian 'explosion', leaving an incredibly powerful designer as the only explanation.
So the 'evidence against evolution' which some state legislators want taught in public schools is not a debate taken from professional scientific journals, nor is it sound educational material developed by actual working scientists and science teachers. It is just the same old spurious knocks against evolution made by Intelligent Design advocates and other Creationists in their mass market pop science books and public lecture tours.
But here is where Creationists are going to run into a problem: this recycled Creationist material, their 'evidence against evolution', has already been rejected in multiple courts as non-scientific. They have had several opportunities to present their claims of of a real scientific controversy in court, most obviously in the recent Kitzmiller case. Each time they have failed to persuade the judge that they have any scientific substance, and there is no reason to believe that these 'evidence against evolution' bills will change that. Creationists can't stop tinkering with the law, but this time, they may be trying to create a loophole too small to squeeze through.
Nevertheless, the legislative looniness goes on, and those who care about good science education should be on the alert for these bills, which crop up frequently, and not just in the Southern US. So here are some tips for spotting these 'evidence against evolution bills:
1. They are often called bills for 'academic freedom' or 'freedom to teach' "objective" evidence both for and against a particular scientific subject.
2. They single out evolution over all other potentially controversial topics. Notice that in the Missouri bill, the only topic mentioned is biological and 'chemical' evolution. (The bill's author got wise to the fact that theories of the 'origins of life' are not the same thing as the more well-established evolutionary biology - hence language including biological and chemical evolution).
3. They explicitly state that they are not opening a loophole for religion - all in the hopes of avoiding a First Amendment challenge. For example, the Missouri bill states: "This section only protects the teaching of scientific information and this section shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine..." (In their attempts to make the bill First Amendment-challenge-proof, Creationists are shutting the door to any material so far produced by Creation Science or Intelligent Design.)
4. The sponsor of the bill usually introduced a more explicit form of Creationism in an earlier bill, giving the game away. In the case of this Missouri bill, the sponsor is Rep. Robert Wayne Cooper, who in 2004 sponsored HB 911, which "Requires the equal treatment of science instruction regarding evolution and intelligent design", and includes such classic anti-evolutionary gems as
"The lack of significant transitional forms between diverse species existing today and in the fossil record implies all original species were completed at inception rather than by a step-by-step development from other species..."
(You want transitional forms? I've recently reviewed evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin's great book that deals with many transitional forms.)
Bills like this will never go away, but they are now, after decades of legal decisions against creationism, useless vestiges of what Creationists once hoped would be a very functional strategy.