Nebulous Nonsense

Image of Oklahoma State Capitol and church

A Republican lawmaker has introduced a bill in this year’s legislature that would force school districts to “respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues” in science classes.

Similar to a bill that died in a committee last year, Senate Bill 1765 is a backdoor and somewhat disingenuous effort to sanction the dissemination of creationism in science classrooms while allowing attacks against the scientific validity of global warming with conservative political rhetoric.

It appears the bill, introduced by state Sen. Josh Brecheen of Coalgate, is virtually identical to last year’s failed SB 758, except for one important component: It doesn’t list the so-called controversies, such as the theory of evolution. In fact, the bill is so short and nebulous it’s difficult to see how it could possibly pass, but stranger things have happened in the Oklahoma Legislature.

First, let me be clear about the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution, in its most simplistic definition, only makes the argument that life forms change over time. It makes no claim about the existence of a God, and, in fact, it’s not a contradiction to believe in God and also evolution. Even the Catholic Church has noted this. It’s not controversial.

The theory of evolution is also a bedrock of scientific research and thought and has led to medical breakthroughs through the decades. The theory has no set mission to propagate itself as a belief or faith system. There’s no presupposition it is the antithesis of religious ideas about creation and life.

Some right-wing religious folks, however, continue to view evolution theory as a threat to strict Biblical ideas about creation, and some have supported a faux science, called intelligent design, to mask their religious intent. This is basically a deception. Brecheen’s bill, while it doesn’t mention the theory of evolution or intelligent design, can also be viewed as a deception or subterfuge because it doesn’t openly acknowledge its intent.

Brecheen has written openly about his criticism of evolution theory. The Lost Ogle, a widely popular blog in Oklahoma City and across the nation, quoted from newspaper articles written by Brecheen a few years ago. This is some of what Brecheen wrote:

If Darwin is right then I am free to be the strongest by eating all in my way (forget “love thy neighbor”). Additionally, we put zero thought to the psychological consequences of low self-esteem as people are taught their existence is as purposeless as their “brother and sister animals.” This produces a value system where protecting beetles is prioritized but unborn children are not.”

That’s a lot of ideas to slog through, but it does show where Brecheen is coming from.

As I mentioned before, specifically SB 1765 seems so vague that it’s more of a blatant invitation for future lawsuits rather than actual legislation. Who decides what constitutes a scientific controversy and at what point in the educational process? Administrators? Teachers? Students? It seems too obvious that any school district could face a major lawsuit if a teacher taught creationism or intelligent design in a science class under this proposed bill. Brecheen might hope that by taking out the specific language he can get the bill passed, but it probably makes it weaker on just a basic legal level.

The bill’s vagueness also raises the issue of how much credence should be given to political and religious arguments across the curriculum. If the “controversy” approach is right for the science classroom, then why not apply it to history and English classrooms, too? Some high schools, of course, have media-related or current event courses to discuss topics that might be politically controversial. That’s fine. But this “teach the controversy” approach to science or any core subject politicizes and distracts.

Students would lose the most if this bill somehow got signed into law. Some school districts could conceivably withhold crucial scientific information from students to avoid the controversy mess the bill creates. That’s not good for the state’s future.

The bill has been assigned to the Senate Education Committee. Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education has been tracking the bill as well as the National Center for Science Education.