Louisiana Legislators and Science Literacy (or Lack Thereof)

Louisiana legislators have shown a considerable lack of understanding regarding science and scientific methods.  They seem especially lacking in understanding the basics that differentiate science from pseudoscience.  And as long as the state keeps the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) on its books, there’s a good chance the state will keep churning out a steady supply of scientifically illiterate candidates—and the voters to put them into office.

Think I’m overstating the issue?  Consider the following, then decide for yourself.

Governor Bobby Jindal

Bobby Jindal, Louisiana State Governor Gov. Jindal supports the LSEA:

“We have what’s called the Science Education Act, that says if a teacher wants to supplement those materials, if the school board’s OK with that, if the State school board’s OK with that, they can supplement those materials.”

Unfortunately, the LSEA allows teachers to “supplement” science classes with non-science materials, leaving students with the impression that they are learning science.

Gov. Jindal continues,

“I’ve got no problem if a school board, a local school board, says we want to teach our kids about creationism, that some people have these beliefs as well. Let’s teach them about intelligent design. I think teach them the best science. Let them, give them the tools where they can make up their own mind, not only in science but as they learn and teach about other controversial issues, whether it’s global warming or whether it’s… climate change or these other issues. What are we scared of? Let’s teach our kids the best facts and information that’s out there. Let’s teach them what people believe and let them debate and learn that. We shouldn’t be afraid of exposing our kids to more information, more knowledge. Give them critical thinking skills, and as adults they’ll be able to make their own and best decisions.”

I have no objection to teaching students about creationism or intelligent design—in a religion class, or history class, or social studies class.  But these subjects are not science.  They are not based on experimental observation and evidence.  They are not falsifiable.  They are not testable.

The problem with the LSEA is that it provides a loophole that allows these non-science subjects to be presented in the science classroom, misleading students to believe these are, in fact, sciences.

Sitting Louisiana Legislators

Elbert  Guillory, Louisiana State Senator State Senator Elbert Guillory feels that the “science” of witch doctors (you know, throwing bones in the dust to inform the rendering of medical advice) should not be excluded from science classes.

Why?  Because he personally visited a witch doctor and feels he gained some useful insight into his own conditions.  As a result, Senator Guillory would not want to “prematurely” exclude from the science classroom the “science” of a witch doctor who “used a lot of bones that he threw around.”

I’m not suggesting that Mr. Guillory could not have obtained what he perceived to be useful information from a witch doctor.  But I am suggesting that such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence.  When there have been well designed, properly blinded and controlled scientific experiments confirming the “science” of the witch doctor, and when those experiments have been independently replicated and peer reviewed, then—and only then—will it be suitable for inclusion in a science curriculum.

Mike Walsworth, Louisiana State Senator State Senator Mike Walsworth feels that evolution has not really been proven.  He asks (seriously) if we have experiments showing E. coli bacteria evolving into a person.  Apparently, he feels the lack of such experimental results is a nail in the coffin for evolution.

What Mr. Walsworth appears not to appreciate is the incredibly long time span available to evolution.  For life as complex as humans to evolve from single celled organisms would take millions, likely many millions, of years.  By that standard, even Richard Lenski’s seminal 21-years study of E. coli evolution is a blink of an eye.  Yet that experiment systematically observed 40,000 E. coli generations.  It carefully mapped the changes observed as the E. coli clearly evolved different characteristics.  To scientists, and to scientifically literate lay people, the fact of evolution is about as controversial as the fact the earth orbits the sun.

But don’t take my word for any of this.  Watch and listen to the Louisiana legislators speaking for themselves…

Recent Louisiana Legislators

Julie Quinn, Former Louisiana State SenatorLouisiana’s history of science denying legislators goes back further than the currently sitting senators.  From 2005 until 2012, creationist and evolution denier, Julie Quinn, was a Louisiana state senator.

Ms. Quinn famously belittled 78 Nobel Laureates who signed an open letter endorsing the Theory of Evolution and objecting to the teaching of Creationism as science in the science classroom.  Apparently, with no sense of irony, Ms. Quinn making it clear that she is an attorney, and that she was “asking questions as an attorney”, went on to dismiss the Nobel Laureates as just a group of people “with little letters after their names”, who, by implication, were not particularly qualified to weigh in on the veracity of the Theory of Evolution or what should be taught in science classes.

A Vicious Cycle

There is a growing and self-reinforcing epidemic of scientific ignorance underway in the United States.  Somehow, over recent decades, an ever growing divide has formed between the scientifically literate and the scientifically illiterate.  To a large degree, the divide correlates strongly with religious beliefs.

It’s no surprise to find that science deniers, like Gov. Jindal, Mr. Guillory, Mr. Walsworth, and Ms. Quinn, are often deeply religious.  As scientific knowledge and religious dogma become increasingly difficult to reconcile, those not wishing to abandon the dogma have instead taken to denying science.  Combine that with the fact that religious constituencies represent powerful political voting blocks—that right wing political machines are eager to cultivate, grow, and control—and we have the makings of a vicious cycle of increasing scientific illiteracy.

The Louisiana Science Education Act is exacerbating the problem.  By allowing teachers to introduce non-scientific material (e.g., creationism, intelligent design, divine intervention in climate change, etc.) as science, Louisiana legislators are making it easier to produce a new generation of scientifically illiterate legislators, and the electorate to support them.

While exploiting scientific illiteracy may be an effective strategy for gaining and holding political power, it ignores a real danger:  Reality—our natural, actual, world—does not care about human politics.  Unvaccinated populations will continue to get ill.  Unchecked carbon emissions will continue to change our climate.  Unconserved fossil fuel reserves will continue to diminish.  Overused antibiotics will continue to encourage (through evolution!) new drug resistant pathogens.  And there are many other examples.

We can choose to ignore, misrepresent, or deny the nature of reality—as the Louisiana legislators are currently demonstrating—but doing so is an act of sheer folly that will have actual, negative, and often avoidable consequences.

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