Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "All of life is constant education." A large part of this constant education involves science. Things are always changing and evolving in science. A widely accepted theory might be thrown out with the drop of a hat.
The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology contends that education is the only way for science to thrive. Recently, the Society boycotted Louisiana, which has a law that the Society says is detrimental to important scientific education in that state. The law in question is SB 561. It was signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal and is titled the "Louisiana Academic Freedom Act."
The law states: "The teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects."
The larger question should be, what's with the wording of this document? Why is it so ambiguous? It doesn't really specify what exactly is meant by "unsure of the expectations." Teachers teach controversial issues all the time. It's a part of teaching history to teach stories that might stir up controversy or make students uncomfortable. Although they are two separate categories, both could incite unknown responses. So why would teachers be fearful of presenting certain information because of the unknown response from students?
Possibly because when religion is brought into the picture, people either try to avoid discussing it or proclaim a strong opinion. So when teachers discuss evolution, someone is sure to raise a question about religion, which may lead a teacher to express his or her opinion. It's a slippery slope, and Louisiana seems to be saying it's ok to slip down that slope.
But, the law also doesn't explain whether or not teachers can choose to teach evolution or creationism. It says it gives them more freedom, but what exactly is this freedom? Can they teach their own ideas or are they bound to show all sides of the argument? According to the law, this doesn't only encompass evolution, but also global warming and cloning.
So when teachers discuss evolution, someone is sure to raise a question about religion, which may lead a teacher to express his or her opinion. It's a slippery slope. Louisiana seems to be saying it's ok to slip down that slope.Vague language like this allows for interpretation. Interpretation of the bill is where Louisiana and Jindal get into trouble. The SICB interprets this wording as an attack on evolution and claims it permits teachers to teach creationism. But nowhere does the law specifically say this. It can be read that way, but it can also be read explicitly.
The act says Louisiana's purpose is "to help students develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues." Again, in no way does it directly target evolution, but it's easy to see how a different interpretation would see it as weakening scientific fact.
Jindal isn't making a statement either way on the SICB's understanding of the act. His reaction, as told by his press secretary Kyle Plotkin, is only that he stands by his decision. Jindal has yet to respond to a letter SIBC president Richard Satterlie sent about choosing a new venue for its meeting and its boycotting of Louisiana.
In the letter, Satterlie says: "It is the firm opinion of SICB's leadership that this law undermines the integrity of science and science education in Louisiana." It also says that it is their responsibility "to oppose anti-science initiatives."
Jindal may not have a problem if the bill were more clearly drafted. With plain language, Louisiana could have avoided this unfavorable publicity and the extreme loss of tourism the convention would bring.
Likewise, Jindal needs to be careful about his response to the SICB because he is in the political eye. Because he was under consideration to be McCain's vice president, he needs to hang on to his already established voters. Because of a college experience, after which, he reaffirmed his faith, Jindal's own beliefs are making an impact on the legislation in Louisiana.
Satterlie says the society is choosing to hold its meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah.
"Utah, in contrast, passed a resolution that states that evolution is central to any science curriculum," Satterlie's letter says. Utah uses very obvious language and is awarded for it by the SICB.
If Louisiana used clearer language in its legislation, it could prevent many unnecessary problems about important issues.