Tennessee House Passes Bill Questioning Evolution

After one of the liveliest debates this year, the Tennessee House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday that would open up science classrooms to debates on the theories of evolution and global warming.

The bill is touted as a “critical thinking” measure, to encourage students to question the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories. Specifically, theories about evolution and global warming.

For an hour and a half, House Republicans criticized science, scientists and science teachers. Representative Jeremy Faison of Newport says those who accept the theory of evolution as fact are mistaken.

“I’d just like to submit to the crowd today, that evolution from one species to another species has never been proven, so how could we teach as a fact, and deny any other thought of what could be possible to a child, or to anybody who wants to be a critical thinker.”

Most opponents were Democrats. Nashville’s Mike Turner says the bill creates more problems than it solves.

“What we’ve said here today, is that you can teach something else, but we haven’t actually defined what they can teach. And I think that’s dangerous. I think it’s dangerous if you had a teacher that believes in Wicca, for instance, up there, injecting what they may think is an alternative form of creationism.”

The bill specifically bars teaching religion under the guise of science.

But opponents say the wording comes from the Discovery Institute of Seattle, a long-time backer of teaching of creationism and of Intelligent Design.

The House vote was 70 to 23. The Senate version of the bill is scheduled for discussion in two weeks. Tennessee could be the second state to pass such a measure questioning evolution. Louisiana passed a similar bill in 2007.

The bill is HB 368 Dunn/SB 893 Watson.

This is the link to the House vote tally.

Representative Bob Ramsey of Maryville was the only Republican to vote against the bill. He is a dentist.

Eight Democrats – Joe Armstrong, Eddie Bass, John DeBerry, Mike Kernell, John Charles Tidwell, Harry Tindell, Joe Towns, and John Mark Windle – voted for the bill.

The Senate version is scheduled for the Senate Education Committee on April 20.

Anti-science rhetoric was common as the House debated the bill. Williamson County Representative Glen Casada says science proponents are intolerant of dissent.

“But there’s now the new religion of evolution. And they in turn are now trying to suppress questioning and free thought.”

One of the controversies cited in testimony before committees is the difference between “microevolution,” defined as changes within a species, and “macroevolution,” changes from one species to another species.

Proponents of the bill claim that “macroevolution” is unproven.
But scientists say there is no such controversy among biologists, that the use of “micro” and “macro” in this context simply identifies a philosophical and political position.

Representative Sheila Butt, Republican from Columbia, says things she was taught in high school turned out to be untrue.

“I remember so many of us, when we were seniors in high school, we gave up Aquanet hairspray. Do you remember why we did that? Because it was causing global warming. That that aerosol in those cans was causing global warming.
Since then scientists have said that maybe we shouldn’t have given up that aerosol can, because that aerosol was actually absorbing the earth’s rays, and was keeping us from global warming.”

Representative Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, called the bill a return to common sense.

“And ever since the late ’50s and early ’60s, when we let the intellectual bullies hijack our education system, we’ve been on a slippery slope.”

Dr. Joey Hensley, a Republican from Hohenwald, says a scientific theory is…well, more theory than science.

“Every theory is… just that, it’s a theory. And many scientific theories that we’ve heard from, that people claim, every scientist believes a certain theory, that’s certainly not true.”

Science teachers testifying to the legislature on the bill had tried to make the point that a scientific “theory” is better described as an “explanation” that fits all the known facts.

Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, claims that neither a religious, creationist theory nor the theory of evolution can be proven.

“If I was a teacher I would teach ’em both as theories and let the child as he grows up make up his own mind, and I’d spend my time teaching cold hard facts like 2 and 2 is 4, and pi R squared.”

Representative Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, says that as a teacher he worried that he would be criticized for some of the things he taught.

“One of the things that really bothered me, I was told I couldn’t pray with my football players. So I did it anyway. Not only did I do it, I did it in the middle of the football field, on the 50 yard line. So sometimes, it’s important to just do it.”

Shipley questioned sponsor Bill Dunn on exactly how far he could go in teaching an alternative theory.

“As long as I’m within reason, and I’m within the scientific context of the subject I’m teaching, I cannot be aggravated by the school board or whomever – that’s what you’re saying, you’re protecting me doing my job as a teacher.”

After the session, Speaker Beth Harwell said she thought the bill wouldn’t be a mark against the state when companies decide whether to locate new jobs here.

“I don’t think it will have a negative impact on our ability to recruit business to this state. And I think Representative Dunn was quite clear that his goal here was to increase critical thinking in our classrooms.”

To view the debate on the “critical thinking” bill in the Tennessee House Representatives, click on this link.

Below the view-screen is a menu of the items taken up on that day. Scroll down to HB 0368 and click on it.

You may have to download the Microsoft program “Silverlight” to view the session. Here’s that link.

ADDED NOTE 4/9/11:
Anika Smith of the Discovery Institute called WPLN to clarify the position of the Institute. She says the Institute doesn’t back the teaching of Intelligent Design

“It politicizes Intelligent Design, and that’s not what we want,” she said.
“We want our scientists to work on research.”

The Institute publishes a textbook on “Exploring Evolution” which she says doesn’t push Intelligent Design but addresses “the strengths and weaknesses” of the Theory of Evolution.

The Tennessee bill (HB 368) is indeed based on the Institute’s model legislation, she says.

A link to the Institute’s policy statement on education is here.

Here’s their home page.

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