A new law that protects teachers who want to spread climate denialism only pretends to be about academic freedom.
As of yesterday, teachers in Tennessee can tell their students that the science of climate change is in question. They can spread climate denialism alongside scientific facts about which there is little doubt—that the earth is warming up, that humans are to blame. They can also teach creationism alongside science that describes how life emerged from a chemical slush. They don’t have to teach these theories, but if they want to, no one higher up in the school system can keep them from it.
The law that made this possible—the “monkey bill” that recalls Tennessee’s ban on the teaching of evolution that led to the Scopes trial in the 1920s—passed the Tennessee Senate last month. The state’s Republican governor, Bill Haslam, could have vetoed it, but instead he let it float into law without his signature, indicating his disapproval. He’s signed every other bill the legislature has sent him.
One of the bill’s chief sponsors, Sen. Bo Watson, has argued that the bill will enable teachers to address questions from students that might have come from “their own knowledge” or “knowledge that they have gained in their community.” But Watson has also made it clear that the bill is not actually intended to open up space for students to ask questions and for teachers to provide them with the answers based on scientific consensus. “The idea behind this bill is that students should be encouraged to challenge current scientific thought and theory,” he told The Tennessean.
There’s a difference between asking a question with an open mind—the process science class is supposed to teach—and posing a challenge with the assumption that the information you’re challenging is wrong. Science is a process for considering ideas, finding evidence, and using that evidence to evaluate the truth. If an idea doesn’t stand up to this process—and climate denialism doesn’t—students should not be encouraged to consider it a “challenge” to a legitimate scientific theory.
Groups that advocate creationism and intelligent design have been promoting the use of “academic freedom” laws like the monkey bill to further the teaching of these beliefs, so there’s little reason to believe that Watson or Rep. Bill Dunn, the Assembly sponsor, have any interest in protecting teachers’ ability to discuss controversial subjects. In fact, Dunn has shown he doesn’t care about it all. This same session, he sponsored a piece of legislation dubbed the “Don’t say gay” bill. It's since been shelved, but it would have kept teachers from talking about homosexuality to students between kindergarten to eighth grade. This bill and the monkey law have similar aims. They’re not about helping kids ask questions and teachers answer them. They’re about opening up schools to certain set of beliefs and values and working to make sure teachers stick to the scripts some legislators prefer.