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Two antiscience bills in Oklahoma

Two antiscience bills, Senate Bill 758 and House Bill 1674, have been prefiled in the Oklahoma legislature.

First, Senate Bill 758 (document), styled the Oklahoma Science Education Act, would, if enacted, require state and local educational authorities to "assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies" and permit teachers to "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught." Unusually but not uniquely, no scientific topics are specifically identified as controversial, but the fact that the sole sponsor of SB 758 is Josh Brecheen (R-District 6), who introduced specifically antievolution legislation in the two previous legislative sessions, is telling.

In late 2010, Brecheen announced his intention to file antievolution legislation in a column in the Durant Daily Democrat (December 19, 2010): "Renowned scientists now asserting that evolution is laden with errors are being ignored. ... Using your tax dollars to teach the unknown, without disclosing the entire scientific findings[,] is incomplete and unacceptable." In a subsequent column in the newspaper (December 24, 2010), he indicated that his intention was to have creationism presented as scientifically credible, writing, "I have introduced legislation requiring every publically funded Oklahoma school to teach the debate of creation vs. evolution using the known science, even that which conflicts with Darwin's religion."

What Brecheen in fact introduced in 2011, Senate Bill 554, combined a version of the now familiar "academic freedom" language — referring to "the scientific strengths [and] scientific weaknesses of controversial topics ... [which] include but are not limited to biological origins of life and biological evolution" — with a directive for the state board of education to adopt "standards and curricula" that echo the flawed portions of the state science standards adopted in Texas in 2009 with respect to the nature of science and evolution. SB 554 died in committee. In 2012, Brecheen took a new tack with Senate Bill 1742, modeled in part on the so-called Louisiana Science Education Act; SB 1742 likewise died in committee.

With SB 758, Brecheen seems now to be following the lead of Tennessee's "monkey law" (as it was nicknamed by House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh), enacted (as Tenn. Code Ann. 49-6-1030) over the protests of the state's scientific and educational communities in 2012. The major difference is that SB 758 omits the monkey law's statement of legislative findings, which cites "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning" as among the topics that "can cause controversy" when taught in the science classroom of the public schools. The history of Brecheen's legislative efforts clearly demonstrates that it is evolution which is primarily the target of the new bill, however.

Second, House Bill 1674 (document), styled the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act, would, if enacted, similarly require state and local educational authorities to "assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies" and permit teachers to "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught." Unlike SB 768, however, HB 1674 specifically mentions "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning" as subjects which "some teachers may be unsure" about how to teach.

The sole sponsor of HB 1674 is Gus Blackwell (R-District 61). In 2012, Blackwell revived House Bill 1551, which was originally introduced in the Oklahoma House of Representatives by Sally Kern (R-District 84) in 2011. HB 1551 was rejected in the House Common Education Committee in 2011, but Blackwell resurrected the bill in 2012, adding a reference to controversial "premises in the areas of biology, chemistry, meteorology, bioethics and physics." The revised bill quickly passed the House Common Education Committee, which amended it slightly to provide "Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to exempt students from learning, understanding, and being tested on curriculum as prescribed by state and local education standards."

HB 1551 passed the House of Representatives on March 15, 2012, by which time it managed to attract condemnation from national scientific and educational organizations. The American Association for the Advancement of Science's chief executive officer Alan I. Leshner expressed his concerns with the bill, for example, writing (PDF) in a March 21, 2012, letter, "There is virtually no scientific controversy among the overwhelming majority of researchers on the core facts of global warming and evolution," and adding, "asserting that there are significant scientific controversies about the overall nature of these concepts when there are none will only confuse students, not enlighten them." HB 1551 died in the Senate Education Committee in April 2012.

The new bill, HB 1674, is apparently identical to the final version of HB 1551 as passed by the House of Representatives and unconsidered by the Senate, and only slightly different from Oklahoma's Senate Bill 320 from 2009, which a member of the Senate Education Committee memorably described to the Tulsa World (February 17, 2009) as one of the worst bills that he had ever seen. In its detailed critique (PDF) of SB 320, Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education argued, "Promoting the notion that there is some scientific controversy is just plain dishonest." With respect to the supposed "weaknesses" of evolution, OESE added, "they are phony fabrications, invented and promoted by people who don't like evolution."

Concerned Oklahomans are urged to get in touch with Eric Meikle at NCSE and Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education.