published Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Watson says bill not attack on evolution

  • photo
    In this file photo, Tennessee state representative Bo Watson, center, participates in a legislative roundtable at the Times Free Press with Dewayne Bunch, left, and Eric Stewart. Watson, R-Hixson, has introduced a bill that critics say will undercut the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools.
    Staff File Photo by Patrick Smith

NASHVILLE — Sen. Bo Watson said Wednesday his bill letting teachers discuss “weaknesses” in “controversial” scientific theories in the classroom is not an attack on evolution, but critics denounce as a backdoor effort to undercut teaching of it in Tennessee public schools.

“It’s not an evolution bill. That’s a red herring. It germinates an emotional response that [critics] want,” said Watson, R-Hixson, a day after former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, derisively referred to the measure in a House panel as the “monkey bill.”

That was an allusion to the law Tennessee lawmakers passed in the 1920s banning the teaching of evolution in public schools. It later led to the infamous 1925 “Monkey Trial” in Dayton of school teacher John Scopes.

Watson presented the bill, saying it seeks to “create an environment” in public 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 controversial issues.”

The bill also says “teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy.”

Hume-Fogg High School biology teacher Wesley Roberts testified against the bill. Noting he has studied the Scopes trial “extensively,” Roberts said “part of our rich cultural history in Tennessee is opposition to evolution education. This bill is part of that tradition. It is not inviting students to discuss the controversy of the Vietnam war. It’s not encouraging students to discuss the true value of pi. It’s aimed at science and evolution.”

Roberts questioned whether the bill is an effective “mandate to allow any idea, no matter how scientific or nonscientific into the classroom.” He cited examples including what he said was a Chinese creation myth “in which fleas become humans.”

He warned that “however attractive it may sound to have the discussions of nonscientific ideas in our science classroom, it’s not the souls of our students that are at stake here. What is at stake is how they will perform on standardized tests in which they will be compared to students across the state, the nation and the world.”

Dr. Robin Zimmer, of Knoxville, an environmental toxicologist, spoke on behalf of the bill. He said current instruction methods are no way to teach science and “our falling national aptitude reflects this. This bill offers an improvement in our approach to science education.”

He cited figures that the United States now ranks 31st in the world when it comes to science education. More “critical analysis” should be allowed in classrooms, he argued.

Zimmer is listed as director of the Center for Faith and Science International on the group’s website.

Also testifying on behalf of the bill was Harold Morrison, who said he was a Nashville biology teacher with more than 30 years experience teaching evolution.

“Now I would never try to proselytize any of my students into believing what I think,” he said. “But I do think students should be knowledgeable of scientists who go against conventional thought so students can draw their own conclusions.”

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, asked Zimmer if he thought there were “reasonable scientific controversies about the theory of evolution.”

Calling it a “great question,” Zimmer said there are “numerous ones.” He said when he was involved a decade or so in the human genome project, scientists talked about “junk DNA” that amounted to “useless remnants” of human evolution. But he said more recently, scientists say it appears much of it has a function such as “suppressing cancer or whatever.”

Speaking to reporters later, Watson, who was a biology major in college, said “evolution doesn’t explain everything. Currently evolution is the most legitimate scientific process that we have to explain how the world works around us. But there are competing ideas” such as creationism and intelligent design.

He said ideas don’t necessarily equate to scientific theory and may fall more into areas such as philosophy or religion.

“They may not meet the scientific standard, but if they come up in a science class ... and it’s not listed in the state’s curriculum, a teacher should not be off-putting and say that’s not in the curriculum — if you want to talk about intelligent design you should go down the hall to the religious studies class. Teachers should be able to say, look, there are people who view that as a competing idea.”

But teachers still would have to teach the science curriculum, Watson said.

There was no vote on the measure Wednesday.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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lkeithlu said...

If you learn anything about the decades-long efforts by fundamentalists to undermine sound science education and get religion taught as science in this country's public schools, you will know that this is the latest effort. Creation "science", teach both sides, Intelligent Design, strengths and weaknesses, now "academic freedom" are all attempts to bypass the Establishment Clause. There are no "competing" scientific theories to evolution, and the average high school teacher is not qualified to evaluate the science of climate change. This is a dishonest attempt to allow creation to be presented as science, which sadly already happens all over the state unchallenged.

If this passes, I hope the ACLU and national and state science groups test it. Have science teachers demonstrate to their classes that creation is wrong and unsupported by the evidence, and that Intelligent Design is a political movement headed by the Discovery Institute, which does no science at all. Show them that the earth is 4.6 billion years old, not 8000, that Noah's ark was physically impossible, and that dinosaurs did not live when humans did. Have them read Dawkin's Greatest Show on Earth, which is understandable to even high school students. Show them that the Bible is not factually correct. They would be protected by this law, and parents would have to just suck it up and try to explain to their kids why the churches are lying to them.

Most Christians have no trouble treating the bible as allegorical and symbolic. It is only literalists that have trouble with evolution. It does not make evolution any less true, and a teacher would be correct to point out that using the bible as a science book is ridiculous. The constitution does not allow this now, but when this bill passes all bets are off.

March 31, 2011 at 7:18 a.m.
LibDem said...

You've got to love Senator Watson. He seizes an opportunity to garner votes at no cost while doing nothing for his constituents. It's a win-win-win. Dr. Zimmer says we rank 31st in science education. Big surprise. Half of us can't wonder why dogs, cats and men each have four limbs. The basic premise of creationism is that you cannot ask questions.

March 31, 2011 at 9:24 a.m.

Senator Watson should have a laser focus on promoting job growth and leave the Fairy Tale of "Creationism" along. What a waste of time to put forth such a disingenious, thinly veiled attack on evolution. Fairy Tales are Fairy Tales; Science is Science.

March 31, 2011 at 12:37 p.m.
talkingsnake said...

It is deliciously ironic to watch "good xians" like Watson lie for jeebus as they claim that the bill is not an attack on evolution. I'm sure he has convinced himself of this so that he can pray with a clear conscience, but he's clearly following the Wedge document's strategy. Tsk, tsk Mr. Watson - your god knows what you are really thinking. ;-)

March 31, 2011 at 2:35 p.m.
rockman12 said...

Make sure they also teach the "weaknesses" of creation also. They can start with " If we came to be through a creator, then who created the creator, as all things must have been created by a supreme creator." Stop trying to force God and religion on impressionable children through the teachers that they look up. Religion is no more a proven fact than evolution so lets just forget both until proven. The teaching of religion is to be left up to the parents based on the families beliefs. Also religion in school is a violation of the Constitution.

March 31, 2011 at 3:42 p.m.
bpqd said...

This is the disgusting circus we have to watch so that Senator Watson can get his advertising money from bigoted and foolish people.

March 31, 2011 at 4:37 p.m.
lkeithlu said...

L4L: evolution is not liberal ideology. It's evidence-based science. Creationism is religion-in a science classroom it is simply false.

March 31, 2011 at 6:11 p.m.
Stewwie said...

Evolution is a theory...nothing more. It hasn't been and never will be proven as fact so it is important to incorporate another viable explanation for our universe in our public school science classrooms. That is simply what this bill from Mr. Watson is aiming to do.

So what that creationism or "Intelligent Design" is based on what is written in Scripture? If I have to choose between truth and merely a "scientific" alternative, I would choose the truth. You may not agree that this world was created into existence, but it would be unfair to not also teach this to our kids in the classroom.

On a personal note, it really is sad that some people actually believe that this world exists by accident. Just look around...go take a walk on our beautiful nature trails here in Chattanooga...or remember the birth of your first child. Now think...are those things really an accident that happened only because of random evolutions over billions of years? Nope. Can't be. Choose truth and common sense over scientific babble.

March 31, 2011 at 11:31 p.m.
librul said...

When nobody stirs the Stewwie, the scum rises to the top. That's your brain on scripture.

April 1, 2011 at 1:50 a.m.
lkeithlu said...

Stewwie Baby, your understanding of science, indeed the definition of science itself, is severely lacking. Go learn something and come back later when you can do something other than spout ignorance.

April 1, 2011 at 6:40 a.m.
rockman12 said...

Hey Stewwie, the Bible was written by man (by many different men). It has also been repeatedly edited almost as long as it has been in existance. If it is so true then how and who has the right to edit it? The answer is because it's just a book and nothing more. Most parts were written hundreds of years after the "fact". It is not proven.

April 1, 2011 at 8:31 a.m.
Wilder said...

Get one of the creationist to explain the fossils, which are tens of millions of years old, found in the rock at the I-75 cut through Ringgold Gap. Being ignorant is ok, if it doesn't have a negative social impact. Ignorance of a foreign language, for example. Religious based ignorance is in a different category. It has served our species well, in the area of population control.

April 2, 2011 at 3:21 p.m.
Facts said...

Science and creationism can be reconciled with each other. It's pretty obvious Sen. Watson's pandering since he can't articulate with substance.

Folks of faith should enjoy every opportunity to put their faith side by side with evolution. As I said, the fossil record and science is certainly compatible with Scripture. Science is just not compatible with folks who use their Bible like they do their handed-down talking points. No critical thinking. Just pandering.

Great opportunity to see that most policitians thump their Bibles and drag around their faith only in their words. Funny that Watson makes sure not to offend anyone. Yep. Pandering.

April 3, 2011 at 6:58 p.m.
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