Montana Public Radio brings us this small story of Republicans being Republicans in the Montana state legislature. Senate Bill 235, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Daniel Emrich of Great Falls, would ban the teaching of "scientific theory" in public schools.
Only "scientific fact" must be taught. The bill states that the state board of public education "may not include in content area standards any standard requiring curriculum or instruction in a topic that is not scientific fact."
You can see where this is going. At the bill's first public hearing, objectors pointed out that this was likely to be interpreted to ban introduction of any scientific concept commonly referred to with the word "theory." The theory of gravity and the theory of evolution are the two most commonly known examples. It would be extremely weird, to say the least, to scrub Newtonian physics from the curriculum because the equations represent a theory of how objects move that, as it turns out, is just a mostly-accurate-enough approximation of what's going on in the quantum realm.
And we still don't understand half of what's happening in the quantum realm, so that's right out too. The Bohr model of the atom is what everyone first learns in school, and likely the only thing about atoms they'll learn unless they go on to higher education, but it's not "scientific fact." It's a brazen simplification of more complex models which are in turn simplified approximations of much fuzzier stuff, and down in that fuzz there are still things the scientific community knows to be in conflict with other things and that's why we've been building big ol' honkin atomic murder donuts to figure out which details we got wrong.
The existence of black holes is theory. The notion that the universe has three spatial dimensions—height, width, depth—is a theory that's both seemingly unassailable and yet almost certain to be, in our lifetimes, proven upsettingly wrong. If we're banning all mentions of things we know in theory, our science classes could run out of material in a week.
The entire classification of animals into reptiles, birds, mammals, and the like is only theory, and the thinner branches of those family trees continue to be scientific war zones as DNA shows what we once thought to be closely related species are, sometimes, not even cousins.
The heart of the problem is the difference between how science uses the word "theory" and how it's used in all other speech. A scientific theory is an interpretation of observations and a prediction for future observations, one that may never be "proven" because we have no way to design a test that would disprove all other possibilities.
Newton's theory of gravity is commonly referred to as a law, but the math is wrong. It doesn't take quantum effects into account, and it doesn't take the "theory" of relativity into account, so it fails when predicting behaviors on very small or very large scales or with absolute precision. But should we ban teaching it, holding out for a future universal theory that might require preteens to account not just for friction, humidity, and barometric pressure, but also the current state of Jupiter's magnetic fields and local spacetime fluctuations caused by supernova detonation when calculating the speed at which an apple will fall from a tree? Let's, uh, not.
At the hearing, Emrich insisted that the bill would not have such catastrophic effects but admitted that an amendment might need to be written that still allows Advanced Placement science classes to be taught.
"It may need to be tailored down to actually address that fact for limiting it so it doesn’t go into the high schools and affect them as more of a transition to the college environment," Emrich granted.
It's a bit difficult to parse that one but we're going to presume he's saying that he wants to allow "theories" to be taught to Montana kids planning to go to college, so as to not wreck their careers before they start, while still making sure that the rest of Montana's children are not exposed to them.
You know, I think we were all prepared to give Emrich the benefit of the doubt until he opened his mouth with that one. Perhaps he was introducing the bill with a general ignorance of the terms and the effects. Perhaps he meant it only to bar teachers from bringing up "theories" like alien construction of the pyramids or flat earth theory, theories that would harm little Timmy and Debbie if they were allowed to lodge in their brains and turn them into YouTube weirdos.
But no, that's clearly not what he means. He's clearly of the opinion that education-seeking children will need to be taught these unnamed "scientific theories" in order to advance to "college environments" that rely on those theories as foundational scientific building blocks. He's also clearly of the opinion that those scientific foundations need to be "limited" to students looking to "transition" to college, so ... hmm.
As for the elephant in the room, the question of just what "scientific theory" the Montana Republican's bill is trying to block from being taught to children, NBC News reports that only one member of the public spoke in favor of the bill at its hearing, one who suggested the theory of evolution, in specific, was "fraud that goes against the bible."
"No one was there with Big Bang, no one was there with creation. No one was there when the first bird flew. No one was there with any of these events."
Getting a very old man yells at cloud vibe from that one, but he's on point. That appears to be precisely the distinction that the Republican bill is trying to wedge into state law.
In the end, it's not clear what's going to happen with this bill. A legal review by legislative staff suggests the bill might run afoul of the state constitution in its attempt to work around the Board of Public Education's own power to set curriculum standards.
More to the point, however, Montana Republicans are keeping themselves busy with other, more supposedly urgent bans on what the state's children can or can't do. The state Senate has been advancing a new bill banning gender-affirming care for minors and punishing doctors in the state who provide it. That one has been the train wreck one would expect it to be, with the bill's Republican sponsor insisting that "the idea that a child can be born into the wrong body, a boy born into a girl's body or a girl born into a boy's body, is a metaphysical or a spiritual dogma. There is nothing scientific about it."
Emrich is backing that bill, too, arguing that "a child has not had their natural rite of passage, and therefore they don't have the mental capacity, nor the knowledge of what that rite of passage entails, in order to make these decisions" and that parents themselves "should not be making these decisions" either.
Yes, things are going just great in Republican-held statehouses. It turns out Republican state senators are the nation's top experts in what does or doesn't count as "scientific," and they're going to rein in the world's actual scientists by writing their own versions into state law with some good, stiff punishments for those that don't go along with it.
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