Climate in Tennessee is Ripe for More Monkey Business

By Michael D. Lemonick

It’s time to break out the monkey jokes: the State of Tennessee, which earned a reputation for backwardness back in the 1925 with the celebrated Scopes Monkey Trial, appears to be doing it again — on first blush, anyway. The original trial tested a law that forbade the teaching of “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” A teacher named John Thomas Scopes accepted a casting call from the American Civil Liberties Union to test the law, was indicted, and was eventually convicted. You’ve probably seen the movie.

Now it appears to some that Tennessee is at it again. The state has enacted a law giving teachers free reign to talk about alternatives, not just to evolution, but also to the idea that human-generated greenhouse gases are altering the climate. The state’s Republican governor, Bill Haslam, had refused to sign the bill, “Good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion,’’ he told Reuters. “My concern is that this bill has not met this objective.’’ He also didn’t veto the bill, but any veto would easily have been overridden.

Spencer Tracy (left) and Frederic March play characters based on the real life Clarence Darrow and Williams Jennings Bryan, respectively, from the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in the 1960 film version of “Inherit the Wind”. 

So is this a problem? Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education seems to think so. “Creationist teachers,” she said Monday on public radio’s nationally syndicated Diane Rehm show, “. . . are going to say, ‘okey doke, I'm now protected by the state. I can bring in creationism.’ ” As for climate, Scott said, “[Teachers are] not out there deciding the weaknesses of thermodynamics or climate change or anything else. They need to teach the consensus view, which, right now, like it or not, happens to be that living things have common ancestors, evolution happened, and that the planet is getting warm and people have a lot to do with it.”

That’s true enough, and it’s easy to imagine that teachers skeptical about evolution or climate could use the new law as a wedge to advocate their personal beliefs, rather than generally accepted science, in the classroom. But the law doesn’t require teachers to bring up creationism or climate denial; it simply allows them to discuss critiques of mainstream science if students bring them up. “If a student asks a question about it,” Tennessee state senator Bo Watson, one of the bill’s co-sponsors told the Associated Press, “the teacher should feel comfortable in using that . . . to say ‘here's the difference between science and creationism, the difference between evolution and creationism. Here's why evolution is science's best explanation and creationism is not.’ ”

To which I say: damn you, Bo Watson. Whatever slippery slope Scott and the ACLU feel Tennessee has stepped onto (and it may well have), and whatever the legislature might secretly hope to accomplish, this is hard to argue with. Challenges to evolution are way off on the fringe these days, far beyond any legitimate scientific discourse (in 2005, a federal judge labeled a Pennsylvania school board’s policy of requiring the teaching of intelligent design “breathtaking inanity”). The number of serious scientists who doubt evolution is essentially zero.

It’s not quite that clear cut with climate change, however, and skeptics have been successful at raising objections that seem plausible to those who don't know better (“It’s the Sun.” “Global warming stopped in 1998.” “Carbon dioxide is necessary for plants, so it can’t be a pollutant”). Kids hear these assertions all the time, but they don’t necessarily hear what’s wrong with them. If the new law encourages teachers to address these popular misconceptions in the classroom, so much the better. 

Of course, there wasn’t anything keeping them from addressing climate-science misconceptions anyway, which is why Gov. Haslam rightly asserted that the law doesn’t change anything, or not explicitly, anyway. The number of climate scientists who doubt the mainstream view on climate change is vanishingly small, but the number of people who are actively hostile to that view — including some with a pretty high profile, albeit little expertise — is substantial. It wouldn’t be shocking to learn that a fair number of science teachers are in that category.

Which is why Scott and the others are right to suspect that there’s probably a fair amount of monkey business behind the new law after all.