Teaching Science in Tennessee
Today's entry was written by Praveen Sethupathy. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what BioLogos believes here.
Last week, Tennessee legislators approved a bill on science education (the Teacher Protection Academic Freedom Act) that has stoked controversy around the country. As a deeply committed Christian, an educator, and an active member of the scientific research community, I am grateful to BioLogos for the opportunity to contribute my views about this legislation. I have several serious concerns about the content of this bill that I will endeavor to share with clarity and respect, hoping that doing so will play a small part in reinvigorating a productive national discussion on the topic of science and faith.
Within hours of the bill’s becoming law, numerous news stories, blog entries, and web sites issued warnings of the “anti-evolution law” that will “allow creationism back into the classroom.” Yet it is important to note that the bill itself does not use this language; rather, I believe that such terminology regarding this bill is derived in no small part from sentiments about Tennessee’s past. Specifically, the Butler Act of 1925 prohibited the teaching of biological evolution in all public schools of Tennessee, and the Scopes Trial brought this act—and Tennessee’s educational policies—into the national spotlight. The bitter aftertaste still lingers for many. While it may be tempting to look at the current law in light of Tennessee’s colorful history on science education, I will intentionally avoid doing so in this essay. This will allow us to focus entirely on the content of the bill, rather than the perceived motivations or purported agendas of the bill’s authors.
The bill begins by stating the importance of students receiving a rigorous science education, developing critical thinking skills, and becoming generally informed and knowledgeable citizens. This declaration is to be welcomed by all who believe that science is not only a noble pursuit, but accessible and relevant even to those who are not scientists. The text goes on to state that many educators are unclear about how to teach certain subjects, including biological evolution. Indeed, we must agree that there is substantive confusion amidst the nation’s public on the topic of biological evolution.
But what happens next is very troubling: the text refers to biological evolution (and a few other topics) as “scientific controversies”—that is, simply “theories” with both “strengths and weaknesses.” Having established this, the bill then states that teachers cannot be prohibited from “helping students understand” these strengths and weaknesses.
I have two major concerns about this section. First—without any substantiation—it erroneously proposes that biological evolution is controversial within the scientific community. Quite to the contrary, biological evolution is hardly contentious among scientists. Various polls over the years have consistently demonstrated that over 95% of scientists (and 99% of earth and life scientists) believe in biological evolution. This is underscored by the fact that some of these scientists are notable luminaries who are also committed Christians in the public sphere: Francis S. Collins (Director, National Institutes of Health); Jennifer Wiseman (Chief, Laboratory for Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics at NASA); and John Polkinghorne (Particle physicist and winner of the 2002 Templeton Prize).
In the past few years, BioLogos has performed the tremendously important work of gathering scientists, theologians, and evangelical pastors around the country to initiate a dialogue, grounded in mutual respect and honesty, on the topic of biological evolution and creation. While not all theological questions have been answered, and some certainly require more study, there is broad agreement on the following: (1) that there is little-to-no controversy about biological evolution within the scientific community, (2) that the preponderance of evidence—particularly from the field of genetics/genomics—is overwhelming, and most importantly, (3) that when biological evolution is rightly separated from ideological evolution (or Evolutionism), it is harmonious with the Christian’s faith in God as the magnificent Creator of the world.1 This bill clearly disregards all of these, and in so doing, represents a major step backward in the national dialogue. Specifically, the bill’s implication that biological evolution is scientifically controversial and just one among many equally-likely speculative hypotheses to explain today’s diversity of life represents a gross mischaracterization of the position of the scientific community and many in the faith community.
Second, as it is written, the primary purpose of this law seems to be providing educators with almost unmitigated latitude when “helping students…critique [biological evolution and other ‘controversial’ topics]…in an objective manner.” But objectivity can only be pursued in a context where a common standard of truth is upheld. In a science classroom, this standard should be set by the overwhelming scientific consensus; however, in this bill, it appears that teachers are given the right to set their own standards of truth as they see fit, even though the law does not formally alter the curriculum. While at first glance this appears to be a bill about empowering teachers, it is ultimately one that could confuse students, given that their scientific education will be tailored by their teachers’ varying personal opinions. It is true that science changes, and that questioning is always a critical component of the pursuit of learning and truth. But, in science, questioning must be motivated by (and result in) empirical data, not by how well the evidence fits into our personal comfort zones. As stated previously, there is overwhelming agreement on biological evolution within the scientific community, and it is not legitimate to teach students otherwise.
To be clear, I do believe it is important to “teach the controversy,” in the sense that students should be informed and knowledgeable about the current national dialogue on a variety of topics, including biological evolution. However, this is not best done in the science classroom, because doing so gives the impression that the controversy is based in the science, when in fact it is largely based on a number of other factors. Thankfully, the bill does not support the promotion of any specific religious doctrine, but it does appear to sacrifice the integrity of science education at the altar of the educators’ and students’ comfort.
Influential Christian leaders like Bruce Waltke2 and Tim Keller have modeled what it looks like to be intellectually honest students of both the Bible and the world around us; they do not necessarily agree on everything with regard to biological evolution, but they have exhibited a refreshing willingness to meaningfully engage the real science behind it. It is my sincere hope that those of us in the Christian community—particularly educators—who are unsure about how to navigate subjects such as biological evolution will take our cue from such models, resisting the temptation to pursue our own more comfortable versions of reality. Scientific and faith-based communities are often talking past each other, and I am eager to see us spend more time talking to each other. As is often the case, we might find we have more in common than we thought.
1. D.R. Alexander, Creation or evolution – do we have to choose? (Monarch, 2008).
2. B.K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Zondervan, 2007)
Praveen Sethupathy is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Genetics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he directs a research laboratory focused on the genetics/genomics of complex human diseases. Praveen received his B.A. in Computer Science, his Ph.D. in Genomics and Computational Biology, and he continued his training as a post-doctoral fellow with Dr. Francis S. Collins at the National Institutes of Health. Praveen was recently selected by Genome Technology as one of the nation’s top 25 rising young investigators in genomics.