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.
Virginia State Delegate Richard “Dickie” Bell (R) pre-filed House Bill 207 over the holidays for consideration by the House of Delegates when it reconvenes this week. His proposal would require Virginia elementary and secondary schools to teach about “scientific controversies” in science classes. It would require:
The Board [of Education] 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.
More significantly, it creates a right for teachers to teach kids to be skeptical of “scientific theories” — even when overwhelming scientific consensus exists:
Neither the Board nor any local school board, division superintendent, or school board employee shall prohibit any public elementary or secondary school teacher from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in science classes
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.” In his 2011 re-election campaign, he boasted of the endorsement of noted climate-change-denier Ken Cuccinelli II (R).
Groups like the Discovery Institute and Heartland Institute have pushed schools nationally to adopt curricula that embraces skepticism of science. The former’s “Teach the Controversy” campaign has encouraged educators to include in their lectures the “non-scientific problems” creationists and intelligent-design proponents claim to have identified in the theory of evolution. A federal court held in 2005 that teaching intelligent-design in public schools is unconstitutional.
Whether Bell and educators acknowledge it or not, scientists have identified climate change as a major threat to the the Hampton Roads area in southeast Virginia. The populous area, along the Atlantic coast, is already experiencing growing problems from rising sea levels. The National Journal reported last February that, “the economic impact of these forces will be profound; some estimates run as high as $25 billion.”
But the General Assembly has done little to address climate change in recent years. In 2012, Bell’s colleague, Del. Chris Stolle (R) called “sea level rise” a “left-wing term” and excised any mention of it from a state report on coastal flooding.