You can’t have progress without science, and that seems to be the point.
This week, the Republican majority Ohio House of Representatives passed a bill that will allow students to tell their teachers “that’s not what my mom said” and not be penalized for it. The bill is called the Student Religious Liberties Act and it’s honestly not much different than other attempts to maintain religious control over the impressionable youths of America over the last several decades.
The bill, as is usually the case, is being described as a way to protect religious liberties in the state of Ohio, as the name would suggest. However, the subtext of the bill seems a little more nefarious than how it’s being described. For background, this type of thing is pretty common in many of the red southern states that pride themselves on all sorts of things like Jesus and whiteness and heritage, etc.. For example, in Alabama the state board of education thought it appropriate to require a sticker be placed inside all textbooks that teach evolution to note that “No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life’s origins should be considered as theory, not fact.” It then goes on to list a number of leading questions to make sure that the young impressionable minds of Alabama school children remain wide open to differing points of view. The questions read as follows:
-Why did the major groups of animals suddenly appear in the fossil record?
-Why have no new major groups of living things appeared in the fossil record for a long time?
-Why do major groups of plants and animals have no transitional forms in the fossil record?
-How did you and all living things come to possess such a complete and complex set of “Instructions” for building a living body?
The last one is my favorite- it feels like whoever wrote it probably sat back and was like “Haha checkmate, libs! How could life possibly exist unless it was explicitly designed by a smart guy like me?!”
Aside from the entire point of science being to form testable explanations and predictions about the universe, the placement of this sticker seems like kind of a last ditch effort to instill doubt into whichever theories these science students are about to learn. When I was a senior in high school my Presbyterian-aligned school did something that they called Apologetics Week in which they brought in scientists and historians who believed theories about intelligent life that aligned with what is in the Christian scriptures to try to prove to us that the earth can’t be more than 6000 years old due to moon dust or (some form of) dinosaurs being mentioned in the biblical book of Job. It turns out that Christian Apologetics was a big focus of the founder of the church with which my school was associated and he wrote several books about the topic. His goal was to make the case for Christianity through the lens of history, science and logic. To be very clear, I think that is the exact way by which all religious texts should be examined… but I’ll let you decide where that lands you in terms of the age of our planet or how life came to be what it is now.
A close friend of mine is a biologist who spent a year in the jungle living in a shack and studying animals. Her jungle stories are great and the occasional knowledge that she drops about different species and their evolutionary traits are fascinating. For instance, did you know that cave crickets are considered evolutionary duds? If you don’t live in the south you may not know what a cave cricket is, but it’s basically a giant furry cricket that lives in your basement or crawl space in quantities that are likely much larger than you’d like to assume. I will probably do this explanation an injustice and she’ll correct me later but the primary defense of the cave cricket when facing a predator is to eject one of their back legs as a distraction. Similar to how a lot of creatures like lizards or whatever will let you have their tail if you let them run away, except in this case it’s their primary mode of transportation that is offered as a sacrifice, leaving this poor idiot to be eaten by it’s predator anyway. Nice try, bud, it’s not your fault that you’ll be extinct soon, that’s just how things played out in the grand evolutionary scale of things. Or, if you live in Alabama, these animals were simply designed to fail.
So how does the subtext of the Ohio bill play out in the classroom? If you open your science textbook and it begins to describe the theories of evolution or natural selection, you can kind of skim over it because come testing day you can just be like “nah man, this is some devil shit” and A+ great job good luck in college! I am of course generalizing but I can do that because I’m the one writing and you’re the one reading.
When you go to school to learn about anything, you are actually there to learn how to learn. Not one time in my adult life has the Pythagorean Theorem come in handy but I bet something important happened in my brain while learning it that enabled me to better process critical thought which has allowed me to do ok at my job or correcting my own interactions with my kids based on the learnings I gather from observing their reactions to me. Just forming testable explanations about the universe is all. So in that regard, learning science is learning the most reproducible laws of existence and all of the possible theories that play into that. If your final exam says “what is natural selection” and you say “idc because Jesus”, that’s kind of missing the entire point. Again, I’m generalizing and again, I get to do that.
My favorite example of this problem writ large is our Republican leaders refusing to take any action on the climate. Having grown up in South Florida I always maintained a healthy respect for what it meant to live that close to the ocean. Hurricanes were part of the deal, beach erosion was a thing that I thought everybody knew about, and the fragile balance between all of the absolutely incredible ecosystems that support life on this planet were not a distant idea to me. I could sit on the beach in the morning and drive along the Everglades in the afternoon. An algae bloom due to too much of Lake Okeechobee being drained could decimate fish populations and local industries like fishing and boating, etc.. Science is kind of the only way that life is even possible in South Florida, and maybe that’s why the tri-county area that comprises a majority of the population of that area tends to vote blue. Miami Beach is currently, as we speak, being reclaimed by the sea and the porous coral on which much of the state is built makes pumping water into or out of flooded areas virtually impossible. It just…. comes back up through the ground. Even with this being the case, Florida is represented by state and national politicians who don’t seem very concerned with climate change or the science behind it. To be fair to the worst politician in the state’s history, former governor and current US Senator/Skeletor lookalike Rick Scott seems to be raising some alarms about rising sea levels and overall destruction of Florida due to climate change, even though under his leadership the state officially banned using the words “climate change” and “global warming” in 2015. All of this while it’s estimated that approximately 30% of the state’s beaches will completely disappear over the next 80 years. Also in addition to his horrific record of cutting $700 million from water management districts’ budgets and telling people “I’m not a scientist” which is the Republican way of saying “hell yeah shit’s bad but there’s an R next to my name so I’m just gonna play dumb.” Anyway, Rick Scott is the kind of guy that makes me wish hell existed, but instead he’ll probably retire to a nice big oceanside home in Tallahassee and reap no punishment for being an enormous lifelong piece of garbage. Looking at a map will help that Tallahassee joke make sense.
There are an additional 346 thousand examples of how ignoring science is making this country worse, like how our current government doesn’t want to acknowledge that in 2018 abortion rates reached an all time low due to sex education and better access to birth control. Instead, we’re back on the “just don’t have sex” band wagon and that won’t work this time like it hasn’t worked before because nobody has taken the time to see if the red meat they float out to their voters has any kind of sustainable science behind it. We should just defund Planned Parenthood and make sure to tell our daughters not to fuck up, that will work for sure.
Related side note: I was listening to a radio interview with someone who was very stressed out about how he’s going to talk to his daughter about sex and it was something that I couldn’t relate to at all. If you have kids, tell them about the world. Let them know that people are going to be shitty sometimes and it’s up to them to be smart and prepared. Your kids are going to do stuff that you’re uncomfortable with so it’s better to prepare them for a good and healthy life instead of just assuming they’ll listen to your advice about how maybe they shouldn’t drink beer or whatever. The other day my 8 year old asked me what rape was after they used the word on the Today Show and after a brief [oh shit] moment, I explained it to him and now he knows that it’s just about the worst thing there is and also that women deserve respect. Two birds, one weird stone.
We all have foundations on which we have built our understanding of the world. Some of us had good ones, others are working to rebuild from a number of confusing ideas that were delivered to us for various reasons. We can not continue to avoid observing a factual basis for what we believe, because we’re going to need good science to power our boiling-sea-resistant floating colonies of the future.