Not Smart, But Not ALEC Either

This is a guest post by Glenn Branch from the National Center for Science Education

When the Arizona Daily Star asked the president of the Arizona Education Association what he thought about Senate Bill 1213, a proposed law which would encourage teachers in the state’s public schools to misrepresent evolution and climate change as controversial, he rightly explained that it was unnecessary and misleading, saying, “The controversy is at the political level, not the scientific level.”

Where he may have erred, however, was in his attribution of the bill to the American Legislative Exchange Council. He’s not alone. A number of journalists and bloggers have charged that ALEC drafted the model bill that inspired Arizona’s SB 1213 and the similar bills to have been introduced in state legislatures around the country, including DeSmogBlog’s own Steve Horn.

But when they first appeared, these bills represented the latest development in the strategy of creationists. No longer was it possible to ban the teaching of evolution; no longer was it possible to require the teaching of Biblical creationism, creation science, or intelligent design. So creationists started, around 2004, to resort to a fallback strategy, undermining the teaching of evolution. Climate change is a postscript.

It’s not as though ALEC isn’t interested in undermining the teaching of climate science in the public schools, of course. Originally established as the Conservative Caucus of State Legislators, ALEC specializes in “creating model bills, drafted by lobbyists and lawmakers, that broadly advance a pro-business, socially conservative agenda,” as The New York Times explains.

Among those bills is the Environmental Literacy Improvement Act. It was drafted in 2000, but as Horn describes, its existence wasn’t generally known until 2011, when the Center for Media and Democracy’s ALEC Exposed project revealed a trove of ALEC’s bills. The ELIA purports to “enhance and improve the environmental literacy of students and citizens”—but how?

The most distinctive provision of the ELIA is the establishment of a state council to supervise environmental education, charged with the tasks of ensuring that “a range of perspectives is presented in a balanced manner,” identifying suitable educational materials for such a presentation, and hearing appeals from people concerned about the use of biased materials in environmental education classes.

Significantly, the ELIA carefully specifies the composition of the council: 40% members with expertise in the natural sciences (with environmental science specifically disallowed!), 40% with expertise in the economic sciences, and 20% with experts in education. The number of members and the process for appointing them, however, is left entirely to the discretion of the legislator.

The whole model bill abounds with catchphrases calculated to appeal to the fair-minded while disguising its intended effect: “critical thinking,” “fairly and objectively evaluate,” “appropriate for education rather than propagandizing,” “explore different perspectives,” and “respect for different opinions and open-mindedness to new ideas” in addition to “a balanced manner.”

Now, Arizona’s SB 1213 is rife with similar jargon: “critical thinking skills,” “respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion,” “understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner,” and so on. But the resemblance is only superficial: a case of convergent evolution, not of common ancestry. The bill’s sponsor said that she borrowed the language not from ALEC but from Tennessee.

In particular, she borrowed it from a law (Tenn. Code Ann. sec. 49-6-1030) enacted in Tennessee in 2012 without the signature of the governor and over the protests of state and national civil liberties, educational, and scientific groups. Tennessee’s law, along with a similar bill enacted in Louisiana in 2008, is just the tip of the iceberg. Over forty similar bills have been considered in the last decade.

Although the first such bill appeared in Alabama in 2004, the Discovery Institute—the de facto institutional home of “intelligent design” creationism—started to peddle a similar model bill in 2007, calling it the “model academic freedom statute on evolution.” (The American Association of University Professors, the main defenders of academic freedom, rejects such a misinterpretation of the concept.)

Importantly, most of these bills are specifically aimed at evolution. (A handful also mention global warming and human cloning as targets; a few avoid mentioning any specific topic at all; and Kansas’s new House Bill 2036 is, unusually, aimed primarily at climate change.) And none of these bills exhibits the distinctive feature of the ELIA, the establishment of a council to police environmental education.

So even though the sponsor of Arizona’s SB 1213 acknowledged that she introduced her bill to “balance” the treatment of climate change in the public schools, objecting, “It actually says in the textbooks that if you don’t believe in global change that you’re very misinformed,” the bill is, historically, a manifestation not of antienvironmentalism but of antievolutionism.

To be sure, when both the sponsor and the five cosponsors of SB 1213 in Arizona, and plenty of the backers of similar bills elsewhere, are affiliates of ALEC, it’s tempting to infer that ALEC was involved somehow with these bills. Perhaps so. And it’s curious that ALEC, usually eager to denounce any supposed misrepresentation of its positions and activities, so far has not disavowed its involvement.

But so far there is no clear evidence of it, while there is ample evidence that the Discovery Institute is actively encouraging their introduction and supporting their passage. Beyond providing a model bill, a representative of the Discovery Institute recently claimed to be working with sympathetic legislators in Colorado, Oklahoma, Montana, Arizona, South Carolina, and Missouri.

Why did global warming join evolution as the target of such creationist legislation? It’s difficult to know for sure, of course. Perhaps it was hoped that the addition would deflect accusations that the bills are religiously motivated, since climate change denial is not typically religiously based. Perhaps it was hoped that the addition would help to form a coalition of evolution deniers and climate change deniers.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that antievolution bills that also target global warming are here to stay. In 2013 alone, of the nine antiscience bills introduced in seven states, five of them mention global warming: Colorado’s House Bill 1213, Kansas’s House Bill 2306, Montana’s House Bill 1213, and Oklahoma’s House Bill 1674, in addition to Arizona’s SB 1213.

And it’s also clear that these bills, if enacted, would compromise the quality of science education. Every major scientific organization, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and every major science education organization, including the National Science Teachers Association, have registered their opposition to the provisions of these bills.

Why is it important to attribute bills like Arizona’s SB 1213 to their proper source? First, it’s always a good idea to get the facts right. Moreover, getting the facts straight enables those of us opposing the bills to focus our efforts correctly. And perhaps it provides a chance to undermine the antiscience coalition: after all, not all creationists reject climate change, and not all climate change deniers reject evolution.

The National Center for Science Education’s mission is to defend the teaching of evolution and climate science, and as part of that mission, NCSE monitors, and coordinates opposition to, legislation aimed at undermining the integrity of science education in the public schools. Visit or subscribe to NCSE’s free weekly e-newsletter to see what’s new and odious in statehouses around the country.