Evolution, Climate Focus of Diane Rehm Program on Tennessee Law

A newly passed Tennessee law seen as opening the way for high school science students to learn ‘both sides’ of evolution and climate science gets an in-depth airing on public radio program.

Science education in secondary schools — in particular dealing with evolution and climate change — was the topic of a long-form Diane Rehm public radio broadcast on April 9.

With Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Rehm, the nearly one-hour-long broadcast featured as guests: David Fowler, president, the Family Action Council of Tennessee and former Republican state senator; Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education; David Masci, senior researcher, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; and Robert Destro, professor of law, and director, Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion Columbus School of Law, The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C.

In the broadcast, defenders of a new Tennessee science education statute defended it on the basis of academic freedom concerns and said the large number of opposition scientists throughout the state and nationally have largely failed to read the actual language or have misinterpreted it. Fowler, for instance, maintained that scientists voicing opposition had “failed to read the bill, overblown what the bill said and are pursuing their own political agenda rather than a scientific agenda.”

Fowler, of NCSE, sees things much differently. “I worry that more states will take this bill up, and then we really will have a very bad situation for science education where a lot of misinformation is going to be taught,” she said, referring to teaching of both evolution and of climate change.

Referring specifically to public understanding of evolution, Pew’s Masci pointed to contrasts between scientists’ and the general public’s understanding. He then pointed to climate change and said he sees “a real, again, dichotomy between what experts are saying and what the American people believe.” Masci said politics and ideology often drive the different levels of acceptance on climate change, with religious considerations more likely to drive attitudes toward evolution. (See related story.)

Saying there in fact are no science-based arguments against evolution, Scott argued that “only the topics in the curriculum that are distressing to certain religious conservatives — like evolution, the origin of life, global warming, et cetera — are the ones being challenged. Nobody is saying teach the strengths and weaknesses of thermodynamics.”

Destro in turn argued that teachers sometimes feel constrained in addressing students’ skeptical questions about causes of climate change. “Any teacher who raised those kinds of questions, if you have an ardent environmentalist principal, that teacher is going to be in trouble,” he said, arguing against what he characterized as political correctness.

Countering that perspective, Scott said that “if the anti-global warming people want to have their views taught in high school, let them take their arguments to the scientists and the climatologists, and let them fight it out up there. We shouldn’t be fighting these cultural wars on the back of high school students and high school teachers.”

The audio broadcast and a written transcript of the discussion are available here.

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