Armed with fantasy and lies, Tennessee legislators are attempting to dismantle science education in their state’s public schools. Last week, the Tennessee House voted by an overwhelming 70 to 23 margin in favor of a radical bill to teach the “controversy” about scientific subjects “including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” During the debate on HB 368, introduced by Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), anti-science conservative Rep. Sheila Butt (R-Columbia) explained that Aqua Net hairspray could have saved us from global warming, if it weren’t for those pesky scientists:
At the risk of drawing this out, which I hate to do, but I do know, as Rep. Dunn has mentioned, that I was taught things in science class in high school which have turned out not to be true. I remember so many of us when we were seniors in high school, we gave up Aqua Net hairspray. You remember why we did that? Because it was causing global warming! That aerosol in those cans was causing global warming. Since then, scientists have said maybe we shouldn’t have given up that aerosol can because that aerosol was actually absorbing the earth’s rays and keeping us from global warming. So, so many things we learned in science class have turned out not to be true.
Butt’s Aqua Net theory of global warming — an example of the “objective” examination of “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories” that HB 368 encourages — is an impressive concoction of confused science and malapropism. Aerosols are particles that are small enough to be suspended in air, and can refer to very different things like hair spray or soot. The world’s governments banned the chlorofluorocarbons that were used as propellants in aerosol spray cans like Aqua Net after scientists presented unequivocal evidence that CFCs were destroying the earth’s ozone layer. Again, the CFCs were the propellants, not the aerosolized hair product. This international response successfully cut ozone-destroying gases worldwide, forestalling one kind of global atmospheric catastrophe.
Meanwhile, unrelated efforts to reduce a completely different kind of “aerosol” pollution — pollutants from cars and power plants that causes acid rain and smog — have also been successful, saving millions of lives and restoring forests and streams to health. But that soot also can block the sun’s radiation (not the “earth’s rays”) from reaching the surface. In the 1970s, levels of that kind of aerosol pollution were bad enough that some scientists were concerned it could cause global cooling. Since then, that pollution has gone down as greenhouse pollution has skyrocketed, leading to the rapid global warming we are now experiencing.
It’s unfortunate that Butt’s high-school science teachers did not do a good enough job teaching her that the same word can have different meaning in different contexts, that stratospheric ozone depletion is not the same as anthropogenic global warming, and uncertainty and confusion are two different things.
In addition to Butt’s fantasy, Rep. Frank Nicely (R-Strawberry Plains) argued that the “critical thinker” Albert Einstein would have wanted public schools to teach creationism alongside the science of biological evolution:
I think that if there’s one thing that everyone in this room could agree on, that would be that Albert Einstein was a critical thinker. He was a scientist. I think that we probably could agree that Albert Einstein was smarter than any of our science teachers in our high schools or colleges. And Albert Einstein said that a little knowledge would turn your head toward atheism, while a broader knowledge would turn your head toward Christianity.
In fact, Nicely falsely attributed this quotation to Einstein, a Jewish humanist and professed agnostic, who never argued that scientific knowledge leads one to Jesus Christ. The statement is actually a mangled paraphrase of the 16th century philosopher Francis Bacon, who argued that “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”
These legislators are trying to reconcile their evangelical Christianity with science and democracy by perverting all three — trying to wrap the lessons of faith in pseudoscientific garb, reinterpreting lessons of the observed world to fit a preconceived fantasy, and then breaking down the walls between religion and the state that protect them both.
There is another pathway to reconcile religious faith and scientific knowledge. Religious leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams explore the moral implications of the polluted world scientific tools describe in stark terms. Climate scientists like MIT’s Kerry Emanuel and Barry Bickmore are guided by their faith to explain with clarity what choices man is making with the world we have inherited. As Albert Einstein actually said, “To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms — this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.”
By the way, Butt might be pleased to know that scientists and engineers have figured out how to return Aqua Net to store shelves, without CFC propellants.
(HT Dean’s Corner)
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