Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Battle rejoined: the Oklahoma "Academic Freedom" bill

One of the frustrating things about being a skeptic is that I feel like I fight the same battles over and over.  I know that there's a point to continuing the battle; new generations of kids keep coming, and they need people who are committed to teaching them to think rationally.  And there are hopeful signs, such as a recent poll that indicated that the number of people who identify themselves as atheists has increased to its highest level ever (1 in 5).

But nowhere do I get that "oh, hell, here we go again" feeling like I do with the ongoing efforts by fundamentalist Christians to insinuate religion into public school science curricula.  This time it's the state of Oklahoma, where state bill HB1674 -- the so-called "Academic Freedom Bill" -- will allow students to submit work without penalty, even if it contradicts the understanding of evidence-based science.  [Source]

"I proposed this bill because there are teachers and students who may be afraid of going against what they see in their textbooks," said Gus Blackwell, a state representative and evangelical Christian who spent twenty years on the Baptist General Convention.  "A student has the freedom to write a paper that points out that highly complex life may not be explained by chance mutations."

They're getting craftier, I have to say.  Being that intelligent design and "irreducible complexity" didn't work (given that they are no more scientific than a theory that Christmas presents must be made by Santa Claus, given that there's no way that presents just show up by themselves on Christmas), they've had to turn to a different tactic -- branding disbelief in evolution as "critical thinking."  And if it wasn't obvious that they were talking about evolution, and not, for example, the periodic table, the bill itself explicitly states that its purpose is to encourage teachers to point out "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of topics that "cause controversy," including "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."

Yeah.  And that has no political and religious agenda.  Right.

A heartening point, though, is that of the eight "academic freedom" bills proposed since 2004, none have passed.  So one can only hope that even in a relatively conservative, religious state like Oklahoma, wiser heads will prevail.

Isn't it interesting, too, that they call these bills "Academic Freedom" bills?  They follow a long succession of pieces of legislation that are given names that are far more positive than their content -- No Child Left Behind, the Clear Skies Initiative, the Patriot Act.  You have to wonder if legislators actually read the content of the bills they're voting on, or if they just look at the title, and think, "Whoa, I can't have it go on record that I voted against that."  I suspect that some of them would probably vote for the Happy Bunnies and Rainbows Act even if the act itself legalized using tasers on kittens.

So, just to set things straight: "academic freedom" and "critical thinking" do not mean some brainwashed 9th grader writing a paper in biology class claiming that Adam and Eve rode triceratopses, and that his teacher then has to give him an A.  Doubting mountains of evidence-based, peer-reviewed science because your pastor says different is not "thinking independently."  And there are enough vocal rationalists in this country that every time you ultra-religious try this, we will fight you.  No matter how tired of the battle we get.

Every damn time.

Update, 22 February 2013:  House Bill 1674 passed in committee, 9-8.  [Source I can only hope this generates a challenge in the courts.


  1. Crazy beliefs aside, since when is it ok to be graded on things NOT taught in class? Even if you believe that all of science is a bunch of hocus pocus, you're being tested on your understanding of what is presented to you. Can you have discussions about whether ideas presented are valid? That's part of learning. Can you believe what you want? Of course you can! However, you're still being tested on what you've learned, not what you believe. Or am i talking crazy? Wil the next SAT exam have 'D - all of the above & E - I believe in God, so im right'?

  2. I'm commenting again because this is troubling me. What this act is trying to do is put a band-aid on the 'problem' and not creating freedom at all. Most people will agree that education and teachers are not perfect. They do the best they can to explain the world as we understand it and do a damn good job of it. They can't teach everything about everything and some things are subjective, so it falls to parents and families to explain this and supplement while making it clear that teachers are to be respected and while you can question things, you are being graded on what you are taught.

    The problem with these wingnuts is that they don't think the basic fundamentals of what is being taught is valid. Two solutions to this as i see it. 1) Explain to your children that you don't believe in what they are learning, but to be contributing members of society, they need to learn it as a concept. OR 2) Start your own damn school. End of story, people.

    Assume I'm a grade school student who is visited by God and he tells me that 2+2=5. Assuming i'm not hallucinating and God is real and speaking to me, there are 2 possibilities. God wants me to fail math, or everyone else is wrong and i need to make them understand the truth. I could fail math for the remainder of my schooling trying to convince everyone else that they are wrong, as someone who has no understanding of math, OR I can learn math they way it's being taught, assuming, for sake of argument that 2+2=4 until i can can come up to a realistic theory of why it's 5. I hope the students in Oklahoma are able to think critically and come to their own conclusions.

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    1. I just found your post and felt I had to respond. I am a native Oklahoman, but I have managed to retain my critical thinking abilities. They try these bills every couple of years. Luckily, they did allow the bill to die before the third hearing. I was attempting to gather support here in Oklahoma to fight the bill when it lapsed. While researching this bill to develop arguments against the passage of such an atrocity to science education, I noticed that the language used is exactly the same, word for word, in 6 other bills in other states that have been submitted in 2013 alone. It's also the same language used by The Discovery Institute think tank. The main issue around here is people either believe the world is 6000 years old (and trying to prove other wise has ended in a couple of fist fights. People here will defend their beliefs physically if they can't logically) or they cry "Teach the controversy". I've repeatedly pointed out that there is no controversy in the scientific community. The only controversy is that the facts refute the mythology. Unfortunately, the Christian Right (or is it Reich?) has their claws deep in the culture here. Even the kids that start out able to think critically end up being overwhelmed by the influences all around them at all hours of the day. There are logical, rational people here. We just tend to be shouted out by the more vocal conservative groups, who are able to use the emotion card in their arguments more effectively than we can. We need a Hitchens in this state that can go toe to toe with the likes of Sally Kern, who was one of the co-authors.

    2. Thanks for the update, and believe me, I am extremely thankful for people like you. I am from the Deep South (Louisiana, to be specific) and I know how hard it can be to speak up when you're outnumbered. Keep up the good work!