Picture this: you’re a science teacher in Tennessee in the year 1925. Being well-educated in modern scientific theories, you have what you would regard as a pretty firm understanding of the theory of evolution. Then you hear of a State Representative, one John W. Butler, who pushes for the passage of a law banning the teaching of evolution on the grounds that it “saves children from the poisonous influence of an unproven hypothesis,” (not his words, but William Jennings Bryan’s praise of Butler’s position). Butler even goes on record saying that he “[doesn’t] know anything about evolution.” Never mind evidence-based policy, then. To your shock, the bill passes through the Tennessee House and Senate by overwhelming majorities. The Butler Act now prohibits teaching any theory on the origins of humankind which goes against biblical origins in any state-funded place of learning. How could this happen? Was this just a fundamental misunderstanding of science and scientific methodology, or is there some more insidious corrupting influence at play here?
The American Civil Liberties Union approaches you and offers to finance a test case against the law so long as you agree to be tried for violating this new act. If you happened to be like John Scopes, you would accept this offer outright – never mind if you actually broke the law or not. Many of you reading this are probably aware of the matter of which I write – the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial (and if you’re not, I would highly recommend watching the 1960 film Inherit the Wind to learn more about it). Whilst the outcome of that trial was quashed on a technicality, the law itself wasn’t repealed until 1967. In other words, until 52 years ago, it was illegal to teach the evolutionary theory for the origins of humankind in any public school or publicly funded tertiary education institution in the state of Tennessee.
In our modern times, we probably think such a law, or anything similar to it, wouldn’t even be proposed let alone passed through a legislative chamber. Florida lawmaker Dennis Buxley would challenge that assumption. The State Senator recently introduced Senate Bill 330, which would require that “controversial theories and topics” be “taught in a factual, objective, and balanced manner” in science classes. Buxley goes on to clarify that the purpose of his bill is “to allow people to question and challenge certain ideas rather than saying ‘this is the way it is’.” Buxley then claims that we “‘don’t dare question anything that is set science,’ and the ‘’whole pursuit of science… is pursue everything. There was a time in science that the world was flat.” On the surface, this doesn’t sound too bad.
As someone studying a Bachelor of Science majoring in physics, I would like to think I know something about scientific methodology and the role that science education should play in our society. Based on my understanding, I think Buxley’s words, and the wording of SB 330, belie his understanding of science and his claimed intent. In doing so, it reveals why the modern “teach the controversy” movement doesn’t prepare students with the critical thinking skills an appropriate science education should provide them. Teaching the “controversy” would also upset the balance which maximises a student’s scientific literacy and understanding of the world around them.
Ask any scientist what the purpose of science is, and you won’t get any real consensus. It depends not only on their major, but their area of specialisation within that major. As a general answer, I think most would agree that a goal of science is to uncover the objective truth by explaining and understanding the world around us based on empirical observations. The scientific method demands these observations be repeatable – if I do the same thing over and over again, my results really shouldn’t change from the first time I did the experiment. Many of these statements are predicated on certain axioms, and I do not wish to bog myself down in the philosophy of science. But at some base level, there is truth to what Buxley says – we often challenge our accepted beliefs in science, because in a lab situation, our intuition has proven itself wrong far more often than it has proven itself correct.
But this is where Buxley’s understanding breaks down. There’s a reason only high school and undergraduate students typically perform tests like dropping two different weights to observe that gravitational acceleration does not depend on mass, or that shining a laser at two slits produces an interference pattern. We know these things are essentially true, insofar as science can arrive at an objective truth. For a scientist, there is no controversy in saying the world is round at an astrophysical conference because such an observation – and the theories predicated on that observation – are well established. Part of the point of science education at these levels is not to teach things that aren’t well understood, it’s to teach things that are well understood as an introduction to the framework within which science operates. That isn’t to say that science shouldn’t question fundamental established principles – without Einstein questioning the belief that time was an absolute quantity, he wouldn’t have arrived at his special and general theories of relativity – but that this isn’t really the purpose of high school and undergraduate science courses. We don’t teach the controversial stuff because scientific ideas are typically only controversial at the bleeding edges of our understanding.
High school science education is not just about moulding the critical thinking skills that guide our pursuit of knowledge, of course. It is also about explaining and understanding the world around us. But mixing “controversial” topics into that environment dilutes that pursuit also. There is only so much time in any given school day. We can only devote so many hours to teaching any individual theory. This is why we still teach Newtonian mechanics, even though it has been demonstrably shown to be inaccurate. No student can really understand special relativity without first being taught Newton’s laws of motion. With a finite amount of time, however, Einstein has to step aside. It is therefore acceptable that, at a high school level, we give Newton more precedence over Einstein. For all intents and purposes, it gives students an intuitional understanding of the nature of motion, energy and momentum, whilst also allowing other goals of science education to coexist. There are competing factors here, and “teaching the controversy” would upset the balance which best maximises learning outcomes. It is better to teach what is 99% correct than to waste time explaining that other 1%. At the undergraduate level, of course, we teach (what was) Einstein’s controversial theories, but only because we have more time to do so.
The final point I’d like to end on is Buxley’s notion of what is “controversial.” Buxley makes quite obvious that, to him, the theories of anthropogenic climate change and humanity’s origins through evolution are controversial. I cannot overstate how ludicrously rubbish this is. Evolution is a theory so well established that to challenge it is rightly met with scorn and condemnation from the scientific community. Is evolution wrong? There’s always the possibility, of course. But at this point, such a claim would be one of the most extraordinary upsets in modern science. Such claims, I think it is fair to say, would require some vast and extraordinary evidence to back up. Teaching that evolution is wrong is what’s controversial here, not evolution itself. As for anthropogenic climate change, there has been a near universal acceptance for at least the past few decades that, yes, humans are having a tangible impact upon our planet’s climate. Any misinformation on this point is either the promulgation of ignorance or the distribution of propaganda. The only people who really find this point controversial are those who don’t understand the science, or those for whom this understanding would negatively impact them. These beliefs are better thought of as Buxley’s delusions, and the delusions of his political donors, because there just isn’t any scientific evidence to back them up.
In summary, “teaching the controversy” may sound like a noble goal, but in reality it only betrays the purposes of a good scientific education and stunts scientific literacy. Buxley’s motivations may be genuine, but in frankness, they are misguided. I hope, for the sake of the Florida’s public school system, that SB 330 does not get promoted through the legislature. I have faith, but if the past has shown anything to be true, it is that such faith is sometimes misplaced.