Aftertaste the Democracy

Since Ryan asked, here’s the text of the letter.

And for the record, I refrained from dotting my i’s this way.

Dear Rep. Schoemehl:

I am writing to you in regards to the proposed “Missouri Science Education Act” (HB1266) currently sitting in the Elementary and Secondary Education Committee of the Missouri House of Representatives. Even though this bill is not yet up for a vote, I believe the consequences of it passing are so severe that I must exhort you to strenuously oppose it.

As you are no doubt aware, the teaching of the scientific fact of evolution is under a concerted attack nationwide. Supporters of a rebranded, watered-down variant of creationism called “Intelligent Design” have been pushing for its inclusion in science curricula as an allegedly scientific alternative to evolution. But with Judge Jones’s recent ruling in the Kitzmiller case in Dover, Pennsylvania, having rightly found ID to be scientifically vacuous and a disingenuous ploy to sneak religion into the science classroom, creationists are currently changing tactics yet again, this time advocating so-called “critical analysis” of evolution.

Alas, with HB1266, Missouri risks becoming yet another front on the ongoing war on evolution and, even more disturbingly, on science education in general. At first glance, the bill seems to be an attempt to improve the accuracy of science education in public schools. However, a closer reading reveals it to be a vicious attack on science education itself.

For example, the bill deliberately confuses the colloquial meaning of “theory” — a guess or conjecture — with its scientific definition: a
falsifiable statement that makes testable predictions and is supported by evidence. The theory of gravity, the germ theory of disease, the heliocentric solar system, and evolution are all theories, and all are supported so well by the vast preponderance of evidence that they are considered to be true. Without theories, science is reduced to a dry collection of facts without ever understanding how they fit together into a cohesive view of the natural world. Adopting such a gravely flawed meaning of “theory” in the science classroom, as this bill would do, would prevent students from understanding the very fundamentals of the scientific method, upon which all modern science is based.

HB1266 invents the term “verified empirical data” to refer to raw, uninterpreted experimental data in order to cast aspersions on “theories,” which it lumps together with terms like “conjecture” and “speculation.” Its intent is to suggest that theories are not verified, which is hardly the case for those being taught in the science classroom. Few would argue that gravity is merely a “conjecture,” yet according to HB1266 even it is not “verified” and thus deserves to be eyed with suspicion and distrust.

Yet HB1266 goes further still. It mandates, through a creative definition of the term “substantive amount,” that any scientific theories that make predictions about the future or the distant past — that is, all scientific theories — must be balanced with equal time for “critical analysis.” This goes far beyond attacking evolution, which is singled out in particular. Not only does the language of the bill implicitly target other well-supported scientific facts often criticized for non-scientific reasons, such as global warming, the age of the Earth, and the Big Bang, but it also impacts every other topic in science. If HB1266 passes, at least half the time spent in the science classroom must be spent attacking the science taught during the other half.

Lest I be misunderstood, I am not claiming that scientific theories are flawless. By their very nature, scientific theories are always tentative explanations subject to change or even falsification pending new evidence. However, evolution is hardly a flawed theory “on its last legs,” as creationists would have you believe; in fact, evolution is the foundation upon which all of modern biology rests. While scientists continue to refine the details of our understanding of evolution, there is no controversy over the validity of evolution itself within the scientific community. The “controversy” ID supporters continuously clamor about is nothing more than a public relations campaign.

The enemies of evolution attack it because of the social, ethical, and religious messages they erroneously read into it. They claim their
objections are based on science, but if that it true, the burden of proof falls upon them to collect and establish the scientific evidence to support their position. Intelligent Design is a total failure in this regard, offering only a handful of specious analogies and easily debunked arguments against evolution. The so-called “design hypothesis” advanced by ID advocates is not even a scientific hypothesis, let alone a theory, because it is unfalsifiable; any conceivable observation can be explained away by saying “that’s just the way the designer made it.” It is no wonder, then, that they have relied upon political pressure, not science, to force attacks on evolution into public schools.

If HB1266 comes to a vote, the debate surrounding it will almost certainly be highly contentious and even vicious, if similar efforts in Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere are any indication. Nevertheless, it is essential that you take a strong stand against this bill, and I encourage you to urge your colleagues to do likewise.

The future of science education in Missouri’s public schools is at stake.

Paul Kuliniewicz

P.S. Lest my return address mislead you, I am a fellow resident of Oakville. I am currently finishing studying for my master’s degree in
computer science at Purdue University, thus the West Lafayette, Indiana return address.