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Missouri's "intelligent design" bill under scrutiny

Missouri's House Bill 291, which would, if enacted, require "the equal treatment of science instruction regarding evolution and intelligent design," is receiving renewed attention. The alternative weekly Riverfront Times (February 7, 2013) interviewed HB 291's chief sponsor, Rick Brattin (R-District 55), who described himself as "a science enthusiast" and "a huge science buff." Brattin said that the bill would require teachers and instructional materials to "distinguish what is, in fact, theory and what is, in fact, empirical data. ... There's so much of the theory of evolution that is being taught as fact ... things like the primordial ooze." He added, "With theories, they need to have equal treatment, objective treatment, not one brushed aside."

In particular, Brattin claimed that "intelligent design" is unjustly excluded from the science classroom, telling the Riverfront Times, "I've had numerous college professors within biology, school science teachers ... who say they are not allowed to teach any type of theory [like intelligent design]. ... They are banned from the science community." He denied that his motivation for advancing the bill or that "intelligent design" itself is religious in nature, explaining, "This isn't preaching that God designed this ... This is saying, it had to come from some sort of intelligence." In 2012, however, Brattin referred to belief "in a higher power" when defending House Bill 1227, a bill identical to HB 291 that he introduced in the 2012 legislative session.

Mother Jones then took note of HB 291 on its blog (February 8, 2013). NCSE's Eric Meikle told the magazine that the bill — which contains a defectively alphabetized glossary providing bizarre definitions of "analogous naturalistic processes," "biological evolution," "biological intelligent design," "destiny," "empirical data," "equal treatment," "hypothesis," "origin," "scientific theory," "scientific law," and "standard science" — "is very idiosyncratic and strange," adding, "And there is simply not scientific evidence for intelligen[t] design." With respect to a provision that would require textbooks to grant equal time to "intelligent design," Meikle commented, "I can't imagine any mainstream textbook publisher would comply with this."

And John Timmer, intrigued because "[i]nstead of being quiet about its intent, it redefines science, provides a clearer definition of intelligent design than any of the idea's advocates ever have, and it mandates equal treatment of ["intelligent design" and evolution]," examined the bill in detail on his blog at Ars Technica (February 12, 2013). Among the other problems with HB 291, Timmer observed, "The bill demands anything taught as scientific law to have 'no known exceptions.' That would rule out teaching Mendel's law, which has a huge variety of exceptions, such as when two genes are linked together on the same chromosome." He predicted, "Given this confused mess, the bill probably has very little chance of passing."

KOLR television (February 12, 2013) in Springfield, Missouri, interviewed John Heywood, a professor of biology at Missouri State University, about HB 291. "It's bad science and that makes it bad education," Heywood explained. He added that teaching "intelligent design" in the state's public schools would be unconstitutional and would confuse students "as to what science is." A further concern was expressed by Jared Webster, assistant principal at a local high school: the cost of complying with the bill's requirements for textbooks. Webster commented, "To buy new biology textbooks, you're talking over 400 textbooks that tend to run $70 for each book[,] so that's definitely not a small cost to the district to have to eat."

For its next story, the Riverfront Times (February 13, 2013) called NCSE, whose executive director Eugenie C. Scott remarked, "This is the last thing Missouri teachers need ... Particularly since his definition and understanding of allegedly scientific defin[i]tions are simply wrong." Noting that the bill is clearly rooted in creationism, Scott explained that the "equal time" provision was unworkable: "There's plenty of information on evolution ... The trouble is intelligent design has shown no ability whatsoever to explain nature. So there's really nothing to present for the intelligent design position as science.... And a careful reading of the intelligent design position would quickly reveal that the message is...evolution doesn't work."

Neither HB 291 nor 2012's HB 1227 was the first instance of the Missouri Standard Science Act (as the bill is officially known). Robert Wayne Cooper (R-District 155) introduced the first version, House Bill 911, in 2004. The bill was drafted by a group calling itself Missourians for Excellence in Science Education, headed by Joe White, a member of the Missouri Association for Creation, according to the St. Louis Dispatch (March 4, 2004). Similar to the later bills, HB 911 went further, requiring the text of the bill to be posted in high school science classrooms and enabling the firing of teachers and administrators who failed to comply with the law. Both HB 911 and the similar but milder HB 1722 died in 2004.

HB 291 is one of two antievolution bills presently active in the Missouri legislature. The other, House Bill 179, is a typical instance of the "academic freedom" strategy for undermining the integrity of science education, which would allow teachers "to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution." Significantly, there is a substantial overlap between the sponsors of HB 291 and HB 179; Brattin in particular is among the sponsors of both. Both bills have been referred to the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee; neither has yet been scheduled for a hearing.