Tuesday, January 07, 2014

New Proposed Virginia Bill is Redundant

Climate Progress, a branch of Think Progress has a story on a new "strengths and weaknesses" bill that is being proposed for the public school system in Virginia.  Two things are interesting about the story: how the bill actually reads and how Climate Progress thinks it reads.  First, the bill, itself actually does not mention either evolution or climate change anywhere.  Part A reads:
A. The Board and each local school board, division superintendent, and school board employee shall create an environment in public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific controversies in science classes.
That is as close as it gets to actually mentioning the hated sciences. Climate Progress, on the other hand, in its opening paragraph on the bill, writes:
A new bill, up for consideration this year in the Virginia General Assembly, would give Virginia’s public school teachers permission to teach about the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of “scientific theories” like evolution and global climate change. The bill is part of a national trend of legislative proposals, led by creationist organizations like the Discovery Institute and climate-change deniers such as the Heartland Institute.
The bill is being promoted by state representative Dickie Bell and a cursory reading of this story would make one think that Bell is going directly after evolution and climate change.  Further, the Climate Progress story goes on:
Bell told the Hampton Roads Daily Press that the bill was intended to protect teachers who might otherwise be disciplined for how they responded to questions from students about topics like evolution. He noted that since the state does not require teaching of alternatives to the theory of evolution, “introducing them into instructional discussion would not seem appropriate.”
If you go to the story in the Daily Press: it reads thus:
One of the handful of former teachers in the General Assembly, Del. Richard "Dickie" Bell, R-Staunton, has been thinking of an awkward spot teachers can find themselves in. Specifically, science teachers when a student asks about alternatives to scientific theories.

For instance, evolution.

Bell says his bill is intended to protect teachers from disciplinary action if people don't like the way they respond to questions about scientific theories.
Did Bell actually say "evolution," or is that the tacit assumption?  His statements about evolution are, in fact, very vague.  It only comes up when he is asked whether or not alternatives to evolution ought to be taught, to which he replies in the negative.  Since the bill, itself, is so scrupulously nondescript in its language,  one cannot help but wonder if he is working off the failed attempts at similar legislation that actually single out the hated sciences.

It seems reasonable to assume that Bell had climate change and, perhaps, evolution in mind when he drafted this legislation.  It is poor legislation and redundant in the sense that what is being proposed should already be a part of the curriculum. Additionally, the "strengths and weaknesses" wording has now become stigmatized as being anti-science in general and specifically anti-evolutionary where its instigation has been attempted.  Whether or not evolution and climate change are mentioned, based on this example of the Climate Progress story, that is clearly what people see.  Fueling this assumption is that, as the Climate Progress story notes, Bell has had the support of Ken Cuccinelli, who has been notable in denying the role of humans in climate change.  Cuccinelli has notably been absent in the evolution debate, however.

Consequently, before we castigate Bell for his anti-evolutionary views, perhaps we ought to make sure that he has them.  He might, but I don't think we can conclusively determine that from this set of stories. 

I have tended to separate the debate on evolution from the debate on climate change because I know a good deal more about the former than the latter and because, rightly or wrongly, I tend to encounter a disturbing number of atmospheric scientists and meteorologists who question the conclusions emanating from the studies being currently conducted and their extrapolations.  I know of no biologists who question evolutionary theory. 

Additionally, evolution, as a scientific discipline, is over 150 years old (older if you count the pre-Darwinian formulations), while climate science is in its infancy.  Therefore, I get uncomfortable when the two are lumped together and argued as a package.

The best thing for this bill is to have it die in committee, like many others of its kind.


  1. On the other hand, this is more than just a case of the term "strengths and weaknesses" carrying negative associations but that most of the text of this bill is lifted from the previous bills of that family - e.g. see http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Text_of_Missouri_House_Bill_1226

    It seems unlikely that Bell independantly came up with this wording for his own, reasonable ends. More likely he was given (or created) the next stage in the evolution of these bills, in which all mention of the target subjects has simply been removed.

  2. Anonymous2:32 PM

    I think the vagueness is likely to be an example of the convergence of climate change denial and evolution denial (vis a vis Discovery Institute's recent growing climate change denial). Jim, I"m not sure which atmospheric/meteorology people you're talking to, but it's worth noting two things: 1) 97% of active climatologists are on board with the IPCC conclusions; and 2) Surprisingly high percentages of meteorologists (as opposed to climatologists) are in denial of climate change.

  3. I, perhaps, have not done a good job of separating climatologists from meteorologists nor determining who thinks what. What is, additionally not clear to me is whether the climatologists are uniform in thinking that the warming is, in part, anthropogenic. I do think the discipline is in its infancy, however and is still having some growing pains.

    1. Anonymous11:11 AM


      I think that there is indeed a consensus….this does not mean that you won’t find a few outliers (e.g. Christy), but the huge majority of climate scientists say the basics are settled. Consider: 1. Statements by the national academies of science (or for the UK, the Royal Society) from 19 countries saying, “it’s happening and is largely anthropogenic.” 2. Statements from 27 different scientific organizations (e.g. American Geophysical Union, Geological Society of America, Royal Meteorological Society) that most of the warming in recent decades is due to human activities. 3. A tally of all peer-reviewed journal article abstracts on climate change published between 1993 – 2003 (Oreskes 2004, Science) found 75% explicitly endorsed the consensus position and 25% made no comment either way….essentially none disputed the consensus position. 4. Doran & Kendall-Zimmerman (2009, Eos) surveyed 3146 earth scientists, and asked if they thought human activity contributed to changing global temperatures. Participants were also grouped by educational level (PhD or not), whether they are actively publishing or not, and their field of specialization (climatologists, meteorologists, other earth scientists). Among actively publishing climatologists, 97% said that yes, humans were a major factor.