published Monday, March 19th, 2012

Tennessee scientists oppose bill to limit evolution teaching

NASHVILLE — All eight Tennessee members of the National Academy of Sciences, including a Nobel laureate, are criticizing efforts by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, to revive his bill allowing science teachers to discuss with students the “weaknesses” of theories about evolution, the chemical origins of life and global warming.

Watson’s bill, which triggered a storm of criticism last year, passed the Senate Education Committee last week and is up for a Senate floor vote today.

The eight scientists include Vanderbilt University biochemist Dr. Stanley Cohen, who shared a 1986 Nobel Prize in medicine for his landmark research on cellular growth factors.

All eight signed a statement opposing the legislation.

“These bills misdescribe evolution as scientifically controversial,” the statement says. “ As scientists whose research involves and is based upon evolution, we affirm — along with the nation’s leading scientific organizations ... that evolution is a central, unifying, and accepted area of science.

“The evidence for evolution is overwhelming,” the statement continues. “There is no scientific evidence for its supposed rivals (‘creation science’ and ‘intelligent design’) and there is no scientific evidence against it.”

The scientists said that “by undermining the teaching of evolution in Tennessee’s public schools, [the House and Senate bills, HB 368 and SB 893] would miseducate students, harm the state’s national reputation, and weaken its efforts to compete in a science-driven global economy.”

The bill, which passed the House last year, was derided by scientists and other critics as the “monkey bill.” It was a reference to the 1925 Dayton, Tenn., “Monkey Trial” in which high school science teacher John Scopes was tried for violating a state law against teaching evolution in public schools.

Last week, Watson told the committee he felt “the intent of the bill was lost in the rhetoric” and that arguments made last year on both sides were “simply a series of red herrings.”

He said he has amended it to remove references to scientific “controversies” in favor of terms such as “‘debate’ or ‘disputation’ and ‘disputed.’”

The purpose of the bill,” he said, “is how does an instructor working under the state’s curriculum framework address questions in the classroom environment about scientific subjects that may cause debate or may cause disputation? That’s what the bill seeks to do. It doesn’t seek to disprove anything.”

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said he still doesn’t like the bill.

“I just haven’t heard from anybody that this is really a problem,” Berke said. “When we start saying that, ‘Hey, there are issues like human evolution that can cause debate and therefore the General Assembly needs to say something that can cause disputation and the General Assembly needs to intervene, I think we’re making a mistake.”

The scientists’ critique came before the amendment was attached. But National Center for Science Education spokesman Robert Luhn, who provided the scientists’ statement, said the group still objects to the bill.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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