Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Say no to 'Origins of Life' bill , SL Tribune

Article Last Updated: 01/21/2006 04:15:47 PM

Say no to 'Origins of Life' bill

Chris Rohrer

[SL Tribune, Opinions]

The Utah Legislature should reject SB96 (Public Education =D0
Instruction and Policy Relating to Origins of Life), sponsored by Sen.
Chris Buttars.
On its face, SB96 appears innocuous, even benign. Encouraging
critical thinking and critical analysis of competing scientific ideas
is undeniably a good thing. Not all scientists agree. That is a given
for any subject.
Where SB96 fails is singling out the topic of origins of life for
special treatment in education. Not only is there near-unanimous
agreement and support for the basic tenets of evolution within the
scientific community, this restriction raises significant
constitutional questions.
No one who knows science disputes that knowledge is tentative.
New ideas build upon and displace older ones. Debate is part of how
science works and students should be taught that. The idea of teaching
all sides of an issue appeals to the American sense of fair play, but
all sides do not have equal scientific merit.
The vast majority of working scientists accept the key ideas of
evolution: common ancestry of all species, natural selection as the
mechanism of speciation and an Earth billions of years old. Those
holding alternative views comprise a trivial minority.
There are many areas where substantial disagreement among
scientists exists, but the science of origins is not one of them. Of
all the many fields of scientific inquiry, Buttars ironically picks
one where there is extraordinary consensus among scientists in order
to highlight disagreement. For the state to brand evolution as the
only theory with dissenters misrepresents the truth and is bad
education as well.
The Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, in
its Legislative Review Note, found after limited legal review that the
bill did not have a high probability of being found unconstitutional.
The legal review must have been very limited, indeed.
I believe that, in addition to being poor education policy, SB96
has a good chance of being challenged legally and of being found
Last month a federal judge ruled in a Dover, Penn., case
regarding a policy mandate by the local school board that set forth
intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. Judge John E.
Jones, (a Republican Bush appointee, by the way) held that the Dover
policy was unconstitutional.
Judge Jones ruled that ID was not science but inherently
religious and that the school board's policy failed a previous U.S.
Supreme Court test by having no secular purpose, having the primary
effect of advancing religion, and excessively entangling government in
In the wake of the Dover decision, Buttars has been careful to
point out that his bill makes no mention of ID. However, stripped to
its essentials, SB96 is simply the Dover policy with ID removed. Both
single out the science of origins for

special treatment in public policy and take the "evolution is just a
theory" approach to defining curriculum.
Although Judge Jones' strongly worded denunciation of ID in the
Dover decision received most of the attention, he also addressed the
"just a theory" part. The absence of ID from SB96 does not alter the
constitutional issues.
Judge Jones made it clear in his decision that the larger context
- the legislative history, social and cultural history, etc. - must be
taken into account when assessing the constitutionality of a school
curriculum. A policy does not exist in a vacuum.
The history of religious fundamentalism and creationism (from
Biblical literalism to "scientific creationism" to ID) and statements
and actions of the Dover school board members all played a role in
shaping the decision that the Dover policy was religiously motivated.
In this light, Buttars' frequent commingling of the phrase "divine
design" as a synonym for ID might by itself be sufficient to initiate
a legal challenge to the bill.
Further, Judge Jones addressed the "evolution is just a theory"
teaching mandate and found that it, too, revealed a religious
motivation. Any policy that picks on origins alone for special
treatment thus flunks the Supreme Court test.
By identifying origins as the only subject area where the
government finds it necessary to inform students that there are
multiple viewpoints, the bill betrays a religious and cultural
political agenda that renders it unconstitutional. Despite language in
the bill that "the Legislature desires to avoid the perception that
all scientists agree on any one theory, or that the state endorses one
theory over another," the mere fact of the bill expresses a state
endorsement of a particular point of view.
Utah justifiably prides itself on our educated workforce. I have
been a judge at school science fairs and have been astounded by what
Utah students can do. Science and high technology bring jobs to the
state. A scientifically literate populace is Utah's competitive
advantage in the global marketplace.
Unfortunately, SB96 shortchanges our future. Many of us fear that
if Buttars has his way, Utah children may be condemned to careers as
domestic servants and gardeners for the engineers of Bangalore.
Chris Rohrer is an environmental scientist for the Utah Division
of Oil, Gas and Mining. The views expressed in this column are his

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