Opinions are valuable, in the classroom or on the op-ed page. In this newspaper or in a class on persuasive writing, the style of argument may be as valuable as the substance. In science, however, the method and the evidence are paramount. Opinions based in facts discovered through replicable analysis hold weight, those based on unquantifiable conjecture, or worse, error, are discarded. We, the graduate students of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department, read "Opinions hindered, speech not free" and were frustrated by the mischaracterizations and error. That Ms. Kittrell's editorial was based in parroted rhetoric and misinformation demonstrates the fundamental problem with Tennessee's infamous "Monkey Bill," HB 368. Through rhetoric and misinformation, both the new law and the editorial suggest scientific controversy where none exists.
In fact, what we are dealing with is a political, perhaps a spiritual, controversy. Both properly invite debate, but not in the science classroom.
If you get your information from the political talking points that come from tweets or Facebook posts but ignore HB 368 itself, you may believe that the law protects intellectual freedom in the classroom. Ms. Kittrell, apparently ignored the law itself in deference to simple rhetoric. Specifically, Ms. Kitrell heralded this bill for revoking the government's right to prohibit "students to question and criticize controversial scientific theories." In a single sentence, Ms. Kittrell highlights two oft-repeated factual errors.
First, the clearly-stated aim of the bill is to protect teachers in "helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review . . . the scientific strengths and weaknesses of (controversial) scientific theories." It does not protect a student's right to ask questions, only a teacher's right to provide information. As Ms. Kittrell states, a law that protects students right to ask questions is unnecessary, because there is no law, state or federal, that restricts student speech with respect to scientific theories.
Second, this bill is an intelligently designed political ploy (led by the Discovery Institute's 'Academic Freedom' campaign; see www.discoveryinstitute.org) to create the false impression of scientific controversy and inflame an evolving social one. The bill enumerates biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, climate change and human cloning as "controversial" scientific issues. The only controversy about these issues is their social or political implications, not their scientific basis. Take cloning for example. Is there any doubt that cloning is possible? Of course not. The controversy here is about the appropriateness of cloning, not whether it is scientifically achievable.
Evolution was controversial when introduced over 150 years ago. Since that time scientists have tested and verified innumerable aspects and have found further support, such as the discovery of DNA. (A controversial scientific subject?). Science is as certain about the basis of evolution — that characteristics are inherited from parents by offspring and change over time as a result of, for example, mutation — as it is certain that the Earth is round and revolves around the sun. HB 368 does Tennessee students, however, the disservice of allowing science teachers to introduce the idea that the sun revolves around our flat Earth. That's right, the bill allows the teaching of "scientific controversy" and there are websites (see www.theflatearthsociety.org) dedicated to the flat Earth idea just as there are some for Intelligent Design. In today's Internet-driven world, we can find information to support any point of view. The number of websites or the passion of advocates can change minds, but not facts. The volume of debate can create anger, but anger, no matter how deeply felt, is not the same as scientific controversy.
Anyone can question evolution or the shape of the Earth, including students enrolled in Tennessee's public schools. Even scientists have. Every time, however, the evidence favors a round earth and evolutionary theory. If the evidence ever stops favoring these conclusions then we will have to propose, test, and verify another idea and teach that.
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology