dana liebelson

Dana Liebelson

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Dana Liebelson is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. Her work also appears in Marie Claire and The Week. In her free time, she plays electric violin and bass in a punk band.

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Ding Dong (Some) Anti-Evolution Bills Are Dead

| Wed Feb. 27, 2013 9:55 AM PST

It looks like Charles Darwin can stop turning over in his grave, or at least, slow his roll: Three bills that take aim at widely accepted scientific theories like evolution and climate change died this week, in Indiana, the Oklahoma state Senate, and Arizona, following the earlier demise of similar legislation in Montana and Colorado, the National Center for Science Education reports. But two other anti-evolution bills—one in Missouri and another in Oklahoma's House of Representatives—are still kicking, and they have more explicit pro-creationist language than the bills that have already been scrapped.

As Mother Jones reported last week, the House bill in Oklahoma, introduced by Republican state representative Rep. Gus Blackwell in February, forbids teachers from penalizing kids for writing papers attempting to debunk the theory of evolution or global warming. That bill squeaked through the Oklahoma Common Education committee on February 19, and is still alive. So is a House bill in Missouri, introduced by Republican state representative Rick Brattin in January, that would require that teachers and textbooks devote equal space to the teaching of intelligent design, "destiny" and any other theories of origin. Brattin's bill has been referred to the Missouri Elementary and Secondary Education committee, but a hearing still hasn't been scheduled. Even the Discovery Institute, which supports intelligent design research, is opposing the Missouri bill, saying it goes too far in pushing intelligent design in schools.

In contrast, the dead bills in Indiana and Oklahoma don't even mention evolution. Instead the Indiana bill merely says "some subjects, including, but not limited to, science, history, and health, have produced differing conclusions," and both the Indiana and Oklahoma bills say teachers should be allowed to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of different theories. This is similar to language used in the now-dead Arizona bill—except that Arizona actually names those controversial theories: "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning." Kathy Trundle, president of the Association for Science Teacher Education, tells Mother Jones that "these types of legislation represent a thinly veiled attack on biological evolution.... Theories are not speculation."

In Indiana, a spokesman for Rep. Robert Behning, House Education Committee chairman, told The Indiana Star on February 3 that the bill wasn't going to get a hearing "due to the volume of bills and limited time." But that doesn't mean that the bill's sponsor is giving up. "It might be one of those things that I may file for several years," Republican state Representative Jeff Thompson told the paper. "My thought process hasn't changed."

Trundle says this kind of thinking is exactly the problem: "Legislation that conflates science, religion and politics is confusing and works against efforts to achieve scientific literacy."

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Insist That People Coexisted With Dinosaurs…and Get an A in Science Class!

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 4:02 AM PST

A T-Rex, Oklahoma, and the unfortunate fate of Charles Darwin.

UPDATE: On February 19, HB1674 passed through the Oklahoma Common Education committee on a 9-8 vote. On March 14, the bill died in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, according to the National Center for Science Education.

In biology class, public school students can't generally argue that dinosaurs and people ran around Earth at the same time, at least not without risking a big fat F. But that could soon change for kids in Oklahoma: On Tuesday, the Oklahoma Common Education committee is expected to consider a House bill that would forbid teachers from penalizing students who turn in papers attempting to debunk almost universally accepted scientific theories such as biological evolution and anthropogenic (human-driven) climate change.

Gus Blackwell, the Republican state representative who introduced the bill, insists that his legislation has nothing to do with religion; it simply encourages scientific exploration. "I proposed this bill because there are teachers and students who may be afraid of going against what they see in their textbooks," says Blackwell, who previously spent 20 years working for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. "A student has the freedom to write a paper that points out that highly complex life may not be explained by chance mutations."

These bills are "a kind of code for people who are opposed to teaching climate change and evolution."

Stated another way, students could make untestable, faith-based claims in science classes without fear of receiving a poor mark.

HB 1674 is the latest in an ongoing series of "academic freedom" bills aimed at watering down the teaching of science on highly charged topics. Instead of requiring that teachers and textbooks include creationism—see the bill proposed by Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin—HB 1674's crafters say it merely encourages teachers and students to question, as the bill puts it, the "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of topics that "cause controversy," including "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."

Obama Issues Cybersecurity Order, Does Not Seize Control of Internet

| Wed Feb. 13, 2013 9:57 AM PST

Largely overlooked among President Obama's State of the Union policy moves was a push to protect US infrastructure from cyberattacks. Earlier on Tuesday, the president signed an executive order that expands information-sharing between the government and private companies to, as he said in Tuesday night's address, develop "standards to protect our national security, our jobs, and our privacy." Conservatives and big business are warning of executive overreach—but in fact, the cybersecurity program gives companies more information than it requires from them, relies heavily on congressional support, and even makes civil liberties advocates happy

Under the order, companies that provide vital services like electricity and water—many of which are considered highly vulnerable to attacks—will be able to view classified government information on cyberthreats, but they aren't required to share information when they get hacked. The order doesn't require companies to participate, nor does it provide any financial incentives (yet), but that didn't stop House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. John McCaul, R-Texas, from warning that it could "open the door to increased regulations that would stifle innovation [and] burden businesses." The U.S. Chamber of Commerce called the program "unnecessary."

By contrast, civil libertarians such as the ACLU were relieved that the order emphasized privacy and civil liberties safeguards. Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Forbes that “We definitely like the executive order better than last year's Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act... The executive order can’t change any federal rules. It just changes the way the executive branch chooses to do things.”

In other words, Obama didn't take over the Internet (that's what Facebook is for.)

Anti-Evolution Missouri Bill Requires College Students to Learn About Destiny

| Fri Feb. 8, 2013 1:21 PM PST

Late last month, Rick Brattin, a Republican state representative in Missouri, introduced a bill that would require that intelligent design and "destiny" get the same educational treatment and textbook space in Missouri schools as the theory of evolution. Brattin insists that his bill has nothing to do with religion—it's all in the name of science.

"I'm a science enthusiast...I'm a huge science buff," Brattin tells The Riverfront Times. "This [bill] is about testable data in today's world." But Eric Meikle, education project director at the National Center for Science Education, disagrees. "This bill is very idiosyncratic and strange," he tells Mother Jones. "And there is simply not scientific evidence for intelligence design."

HB 291, the "Missouri Standard Science Act," redefines a few things you thought you already knew about science. For example, a "hypothesis" is redefined as something that reflects a "minority of scientific opinion and is "philosophically unpopular." A scientific theory is "an inferred explanation...whose components are data, logic and faith-based philosophy." And "destiny" is not something that $5 fortune tellers believe in; Instead, it's "the events and processes that define the future of the universe, galaxies, stars, our solar system, earth, plant life, animal life, and the human race."

The bill requires that Missouri elementary and secondary schools—and even introductory science classes in public universities—give equal textbook space to both evolution and intelligent design (any other "theories of origin" are allowed to be taught as well, so pick your favorite creation myth—I'm partial to the Russian raven spirit.) "I can't imagine any mainstream textbook publisher would comply with this," Meikle says. "The material doesn't exist."

The bill also establishes a nine-person committee (who must work for free) responsible for developing ad-hoc textbook material until appropriate textbook material is found.

Another bill introduced in the Missouri House, HB 179, has more in common with anti-evolution bills that have been proposed this year in states like Montana and Colorado. It asks teachers to "create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions"—but doesn't explicitly mention intelligent design. This is hardly the first time the Missouri House has tried to get evolution theory out of the classroom. Brattin and other cosponsors tried to get similar legislation passed last year, but the bill died in committee. In 2003, another bill with near-identical language to to HB 291 was sponsored by Rep. Robert Wayne Cooper (R-Mo.), but it also said that teachers who didn't comply would be fired. It was so controversial that more than 450 Missouri scientists and educators supported a statement that said "intelligent design...isn't science."

Brattin argues that there are "numerous college professors within biology, school science teachers" who are "banned from the science community" because they want to teach other theories of origin. The National Center for Science Education's Meikle agrees—the bill really could "open the door for teachers who are opposed to evolution to bring in creationist materials." That's why his group is "hoping it doesn't pass."

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