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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Oklahoma's "Academic Freedom Act"

Out of Oklahoma comes news of another "academic freedom" bill, which has been pre-filed in the Senate. Like the bills that have popped up in half a dozen other states (and died in all but Louisiana), the "Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act" labels "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning" as subjects that "can cause controversy" and would require that state educational authorities help teachers "find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies. Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught." (Keep in mind that evolution is not a point of controversy or debate in the scientific community.) The act would also prevent students from being penalized in any way because they "subscribe to a particular position on scientific theories." Last month, two representatives from Oklahoma City filed the "Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act," which they said was meant to protect students who express religious viewpoints in the classroom or assignments from such penalizations.
Obviously, many people see the new act for what it is: part of the latest strategy to undercut the teaching of evolution and sneak religious theories like creationism and "intelligent design" into the science classroom (even though the bill itself claims not to promote any religious doctrine). As Glenn Branch and Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education write in the December issue of Scientific American, "academic freedom"—which on the surface seems innocuous, desirable even—replaced "teach the controversy" and "critical analysis" as the "creationist catchphrase of choice in 2008."
The new bill is scheduled for a first reading on February 2. —Heather Wax