The debate on whether evolution should be taught in America's classrooms is as old as the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Recently, a similar effort has come under fire by education leaders and legislators: how to teach global warming.
A flurry of bills that critics say would allow climate change denial to be taught in public schools have been moving through state legislatures throughout the United States, with some success.
The legislation is promoted and often directly supported by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit that promotes "intelligent design research" as part of its "Academic Freedom" campaign. The organization aims to prod educators to "teach the controversy" on a number of contentious issues, including climate change.
Kansas H.B. 2306 states that "certain scientific topics, such as climate science, may be controversial. The legislature encourages the teaching of such scientific controversies to be made in an objective manner in which both the strengths and weaknesses of such scientific theory or hypothesis are covered."
The Kansas bill was defeated Friday, and two similar bills in the Arizona and Colorado legislatures died in February. But H.B. 1674 in Oklahoma is still active, and a similar pair of bills became law in Louisiana and Tennessee last year.
"This has been a busy year for Academic Freedom," said Joshua Youngkin, the Discovery Institute's program officer of public policy and legal affairs, who appeared to testify in support of H.B. 13-1089 in Colorado on Feb. 4.
Youngkin said the Discovery Institute was instrumental in passing the Louisiana and Tennessee bills, and stressed that the legislation would not remove climate science from school curriculums. Rather, he said, it would "give teachers the right to teach both sides of a scientific controversy," providing legal protection for educators who might want to introduce "other sides of the topic" to students.
Critics say the legislation is a step back for climate science in the classroom.
"The bottom line is that these type of bills provide cover -- a Trojan horse, if you will -- for teachers to act as if there is controversy when there isn't, to present both sides in a way that makes them look equal," said Mark McCaffrey of the National Center for Science Education, a California nonprofit that has fought against the bills.
"In our minds, it points to the ongoing challenge of having an informed discussion about climate change," McCaffrey said.
Helping teachers 'step up to the plate'
Oklahoma's H.B. 1674, named the "Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act" by its author, Rep. Gus Blackwell (R), states that school boards and administrators "shall not prohibit any teacher in a school district in this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories."
Along with biological evolution, the chemical origins of life and human cloning, global warming is listed as one of the issues in question. The bill would also prevent students from being academically penalized for holding certain beliefs on these subjects.
"Let me be clear, this bill is not to introduce [creationism] or philosophical thought in science, but to stimulate students to explore, evaluate and understand different sides of peer-reviewed, scientific information," said Blackwell, adding that he believes this action will help "rejuvenate" students' interest in science.