Tennessee’s New Monkey Bill

April 2, 2011

Right now there’s a bit of a storm in a teacup about a bill introduced in Tennessee–original home of the Scopes Monkey Trial–that putatively would protect teachers from being sanctioned if they refuse to teach evolution, or if they teach intelligent design, or if they don’t worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

On one hand, after reading the full text of the bill (it’s very short), I’m a little confused. The bill states that educators

“shall endeavor to create an environment … 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”

and that

“teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught,”

while explicitly clarifying that these protections do not apply to religious ideas (as if the number of times the word “scientific” is repeated does not make that clear).

So I’m having a hard time seeing what the fuss is about. Most stories seem to be downright misinterpreting it. One editorial concedes that the actual language of the bill refers to protecting science education and not religion–but then goes on to suggest that this is doublespeak that somehow contains a hidden loophole, and the intent is really “to replace scientific principle with religious ideology.” (Moreover, I’m not sure how a bill that encourages critical teaching and protects teachers from sanction for encouraging discussion–essentially, protecting their speech–is “an attack … on First Amendment guarantees of speech and religious freedoms.” I don’t know how this would be true even if this bill really DID explicitly allow/encourage teaching “alternative theories” to evolution, unless it required doing so.)

On the other hand, there is something really powerful about false controversy, and this bill explicitly uses evolution and global warming as examples of “controversial” science topics. Both happen to be excellent examples of false, intentionally manufactured scientific controversy where, in actuality, no scientific controversy and only political controversy exists.* This bill reifies these topics’ “controversial” label. In fact, what makes me skeptical about this bill is that (as many point out in these hand-wringing articles) if it is being honest about its intent, the bill is unnecessary. But if it is being disingenuous, I want to know what kind of voodoo turns

“This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion”

into something that promotes “an atmosphere in which myths and fairy tales would prevail over science.” I mean, I know I’m not a lawyer and all, but that is some truly amazing doublespeak.



* If you think I’m sounding like a paranoid conspiracy theorist here, read Frank Luntz’s leaked 2002 memo to G.W. Bush, especially pp. 137-143. Apparently Luntz has changed his tune, because he has started using his opinion-creation powers for good rather than evil.


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