If you listen to political pundits in Virginia and nationwide, House Bill 207 is a covert effort to hinder evolution education. (1) 

The bill never mentions evolution, it instead "encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific controversies in science classes" which sounds lovely. Who is against critical thinking and respect for diverse opinions?

The bill sponsored by Richard "Dickie" Bell got a lot of attention from science media, who believe it is aimed at evolution.

And I think they're right - but I travel in a world of science. As I will show in a bit, a whole bunch of people think this bill is not about religion at all.

I dislike the blanket term "creationist" that gets hurled at every religious person - colloquially it has been portrayed as 'stupid person who thinks the planet is 6,000 years old' and pretending that people who use it don't mean that is a silly rationalization, they absolutely want people to perceive it the same way race-baiters use codespeak when they talk about minorities. The recent 'debate' between Bill Nye and Young Earth Creationist Ken Ham gave those 'all religion believes the Earth is 6,000 years old' people new ammunition. At least TIME was funny when writing about it.

Credit: Dylan Lovan/AP. Image link: Daily Beast, who argues Bill Nye was a terrible choice to defend science on this issue.

Bell is a religious person, he does think evolution has flaws,  but he does not come across as someone who is trying to undermine education. He does too much for education.

He sponsored the bill but he does not think this bill is going anywhere and admits it. He also admits his critics have valid points, which most anti-science shills don't do. "It's hard to argue with them," he told The Recorder, when the concern that this might undermine evolution teaching was presented to him. Radicals just don't cave in like that. As we see with anti-science people regarding GMOs, vaccines and energy, they rationalize how they are against corporations or whatever, they never concede what impartial observers know to be true about their dislike of science.

So it may be just politics, where politicians put up a bill because they told someone they would, knowing it will die. When 52 Democrats in Congress tried to force warning labels on GMOs last year without a vote, they had to have known it would fail, but they can tell their constituents they listened to their concerns about how awful science is. Bell may have been doing the same thing for a religious group in his district.

There is no evidence that the problem this bill solves is actually a problem - there were no examples listed for why this was needed - so we can forget about it, from a practical point of view. It's currently homeless in the political bureaucracy and that won't change. Bell knows it solves a problem that does not exist and that most people are against it, including a lot of religious people.(2)

Since we know it can't happen, I want to engage in a "what if?" scenario about a benefit to other science issues if this could have gotten passed. Because badly written bills like this go both ways. While shoddy evolution education has never directly harmed anyone, other anti-science beliefs certainly have - and they would be included in the wording of the bill also.

Plenty of teachers have no problem foisting their personal beliefs about GMOs, raw milk or nuclear power off on students, all under the same umbrella of 'teaching the controversy' and they certainly do not respond "respectfully to differences of opinion" about them.  And those anti-science beliefs skew left the same way that evolution and global warming skews to the right.

I wrote above that some people think evolution is not the target. Some on Food Safety News think that evolution is a complete head-fake and that this bill is aimed squarely at them instead. Under this bill, teachers wouldn't be able to berate kids who dispute their opinions on nuclear power or GMOs any more.

Food Safety News knows their demographic. They made sure to use a picture of a hot girl doing chemistry. So I am linking to it also, because they must be smart.

In this 'what if?' scenario, if we care about all science, and not just one education issue, this might be better overall. Yes, evolution would take a hit but if we want to solve real problems that face us right now, the anti-science nonsense about GMOs and vaccines and energy really need to go. Teaching evolution has a lot of of educational upside, but no practical downside if it's undermined - no kid is going to get sick or die if a teacher argues that mankind has always looked like a Western European Renaissance-era Jesus portrait.(3)

Adult science literacy, and therefore acceptance by young people who are better educated overall than in the past, has gone way up in the last 30 years. In the past, evolution was taught much less and science was not killed by that - America leads the world in adult science literacy and Nobel prizes despite lower evolution acceptance than Europe. When we examine evolution acceptance today, it is older people that are the problem, young people get it more than ever in history. It will be no surprise that people raising money to fight religion or whose jobs are in evolutionary biology want to feel like the fate of humanity rests on their work, but if you poll the public on what impact evolution education has on their lives, it isn't going to look good.  

However, if kids don't get vaccinated or they drink raw milk, that is an epidemiological disaster waiting to happen. We've seen it in California, where some coastal schools have shockingly low vaccine rates (as low as 25 percent vaccinated) and that, coupled with 'weaker' vaccines to respond to concerns about autism, has caused Whooping Cough to come roaring back. 25 percent of Berkeley students are not vaccinated and, let's be honest, we know how people in Berkeley vote, and it is not for the party of Dickie Bell. Science acceptance is not politically one-sided but a bill that forced teachers to not bully opposing views would impact anti-science commentary across the spectrum.

Do we think teachers in California schools with low vaccination and high organic food rates are teaching the science of vaccines, GMOs and nuclear power? Absolutely not, and it's silly to believe that students are going to be able to stand up and ask questions that contradict the people grading them.

R.I.P. Virginia House Bill 207. But along with the bad, we can think about the good you might have done for science education.


(1) In a way, evolution itself hinders evolution education. Evolution is hard - so hard that most high school students from Virginia are not going to be left behind if they go to college not knowing it because, really, most of their peers in California or New York or Boston don't know it either. All we really teach students about evolution is (a) it happened and (b) accept it.

When it comes to genetics or Newtonian gravity, young people being pushed through a school system by government employees are going to be adequately served because those are a lot easier. Quantum mechanics and evolution are not easy. We teach basic anatomy but not brain surgery in high school, and students are not damaged by their lack of brain surgery before they go to medical school.

My friends in biology don't much like when I play Devil's Advocate and tell them, 'You do cool work, and it's important, but most of the people who say they accept evolution are just kidding themselves and Pew pollsters too, they don't get it at all' and so maybe it should be reserved for college where, let's be honest, teachers can simply do a better job with it. 

(2) The National Center for Science Education exists primarily to defend evolution from religious groups. Dr. Eugenie Scott has often told stories about its origins and highlighted that religious people are on the side of NCSE against letting religion into science classes for a good reason; they will have to spend their Saturdays and Sundays undoing a sectarian viewpoint that a majority of people on a School Board voted to teach Monday through Friday. And in their coverage they note that religious groups who have to feel an icy chill at the prospect of a government-endorsed religious effort to 'teach the controversy' about evolution feel it would be a very bad thing to have it become law. 

(3) Nathaniel Johnson at Grist likewise argues that, outside people getting paid to either research or advocate GMOs, the issue is not a priority. The stakes are low to most Americans and I have made that same argument - when surveyed and not prompted to be worried about GMO labels, almost no one mentions GMOs as a concern. Obviously I am speculating about whether trading one, or perhaps two, low stakes issues on one side for three on the other might be reasonable.