LETTER TO THE EDITOR: OU professor opposes controversial academic freedom bill
The editorial “Academic freedom shouldn’t mean academic disaster,” in the March 6 edition of the Oklahoma Daily, makes many excellent points about HB 1674. It is indeed a “Trojan horse” bill specifically crafted by an out-of-state, religious think tank to open the door for the teaching of religious or political views in school science classes. This is clearly understood by everyone familiar with the bill on both sides. HB 1674 would write false claims about science into state law, contradicting the wealth of scientific evidence, our own curriculum standards and the expertise of Oklahoma’s scientists and teachers.
HB 1674 promotes the notion that there is some scientific controversy about evolution, climate change, human cloning and other topics. This is just plain wrong. These topics are not controversial among scientists and to suggest otherwise reflects an abysmal understanding of science.
The bill encourages teachers to discuss so-called “strengths and weaknesses” of these topics, but no weaknesses have been identified. What are the scientific weaknesses of human cloning? What does that even mean? Is there any scientific evidence that conflicts with the fact that evolution has occurred? None has ever been presented. If one looks to the sources of these alleged weaknesses, we find they are phony fabrications, invented and promoted by people who just don’t like the implications of evolution, human cloning, climate change, etc. One may not like the implications of atomic weapons, but that does not mean that there is some controversy over the physics. Instead of teaching science, this bill would confuse students about how science works and teach them that it is acceptable to simply reject the parts of science they don’t happen to like.
What of academic freedom? Does academic freedom mean the right to teach that diseases are caused by evil spirits? Should teachers be free to present the controversy over whether or not the earth is flat? Should we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of astrology? Of course not, academic freedom is not the freedom to teach nonsense. The concept of academic freedom was developed in higher education to give faculty and students protection to study legitimate academic topics that were not socially or politically popular. Think studying communism during the McCarthy era. Ironically, this bill is anti-academic freedom, as it would promote false doubts about established scientific topics because of their unpopularity among a public with little understanding of science. With academic freedom comes academic responsibility; i.e., the responsibility to teach only valid science, supported by evidence. This bill makes the completely ungrounded association between academic freedom and freedom to teach pseudoscience.
HB 1674 represents the promotion of anti-science ideas by the scientifically illiterate through the blunt instrument of legislation. It is telling that no teacher group or scientific organization supports this bill; support is exclusively from fundamentalist religious groups. Forcing teachers to present “strengths and weaknesses” will force them to pretend that we know less than we really do about the natural world and to present ideas based in religion as if they were science. This is not about fairness, free inquiry or critical thinking; the issue is simply about teaching science vs. non-science. Passage of this bill will damage the education of our students, diminish the ability to attract scientifically-based industries to Oklahoma and will likely lead to costly lawsuits over constitutionality.
Richard E Broughton, Associate Professor of Biology.