21 January 2014

Virginia House Bill 207: encouraging pseudoscience is a bad idea

Posted by Callan Bentley

I was first alerted to the proposal of a new bill in the Virginia House of Delegates last Wednesday by a colleague at James Madison University, Eric Pyle. Eric and I serve as state Councilors for the state of Virginia in the National Association of Geoscience Teachers. As such, we are sincerely concerned about any policy that would weaken science education in the Old Dominion, in particular when it comes to geoscience literacy. The proposed bill, HB 207, would allow creationist teachers to pass creationism off as science. It would undermine the state’s solid record of science education and imperil the utility and employ-ability of Virginia’s science graduates in the economy of the future. We agree that this bill is pernicious at worst, and unnecessary at best. It should not pass the House, nor be ratified into law.

This morning, I got an email from the National Center for Science Education on the subject of the pending legislation. I repeat it in its entirety below by way of spreading the word to a wider audience. I trust NCSE won’t take issue with this “signal boost.” Here it is, and more discussion follows:

We just heard: House Bill 207, the antiscience bill before Virginia’s legislature, may have its first hearing as early as Wednesday, January 22. We need your help to stop this bill.Contact the committee now to stop this bill, and sign up with NCSE to track the bill. Delegate Richard “Dickie” Bell is the sponsor of HB 207, Virginia’s antiscience bill. Under the guise of “academic freedom,” Bell’s bill would open the door to creationism, climate change denial, and other pseudoscience in public school science classrooms. Please contact members of the Virginia House Subcommittee on Elementary and Secondary Education and ask them to oppose this dangerous legislation:
Richard P. “Dickie” Bell, chair, (804) 698-1020
Robert H. Brink, (804) 698-1048
Mark L. Cole, (804) 698-1088
Peter F. Farrell, (804) 698-1056
Daun Sessoms Hester, (804) 698-1089
James LeMunyon, (804) 698-1067
Scott Lingamfelter, (804) 698-1031
Joseph Morrisey, (804) 698-1074
Brenda L. Pogge, (804) 698-1096


HB 207 is modeled on dangerous antiscience laws passed in Tennessee in 2012 and Louisiana in 2008, and on similar bills rejected in almost a dozen other states over the last decade. Its sponsor, Richard P. “Dickie” Bell, chairs the House Subcommittee on Elementary and Secondary Education, and can be expected to fast-track the bill there, although it is not on the docket yet.Many lawmakers will make up their minds how to vote before they attend the hearing. It will be easier to reach them and sway them beforehand, through phone calls, e-mails, and personal conversations.Please take a moment to educate and inform the members of the subcommittee and your own representative in the House of Delegates about why HB 207 is dangerous and unnecessary. Their contact information is in the box at the right.

HB 207 is unnecessary because:

  • Virginia’s science standards are already excellent, having earned a grade of A- in the Fordham Foundation’s last study of state standards
  • helping students to be critical thinkers is already one of the fundamental goals of Virginia’s state science standards
  • neither the state department of education nor the Virginia Association of Science Teachers have endorsed the bill
  • nobody has presented any argument that this bill would provide more protection to teachers than existing law and policy already do

HB 207 is dangerous because:

  • it undermines science instruction by allowing science teachers with fringe ideas to introduce their own “scientific controversies,” while barring administrators from intervening
  • it’s no reassurance that a section of the bill states that religious beliefs can’t be promoted, because creationists insist that their views are scientific, and the bill doesn’t specify otherwise
  • similarly, it also undermines science instruction by allowing science teachers with fringe ideas to undermine their presentation of the scientific material they are expected to present
  • by limiting school administrators’ power to stop teachers from teaching bad science, it opens local school districts and the state to the possibility of costly lawsuits

In communicating with the delegates, remember to be concise, polite, and professional. Emphasize that you are their constituent, or that you are a concerned Virginian contacting them as a member of the subcommittee. If you are a teacher, a scientist, or a parent of school-age children, explain and emphasize your particular reason for concern. There are more tips on writing such letters, and preparing testimony for public meetings, at NCSE’s website. Please send along whatever replies you receive in response. This will help us gauge the support or opposition for the bill among the subcommittee members.

If you have not done so already, please also sign up at NCSE’s website to get action alerts and news about this effort. Please also share this information with your friends, and urge them to sign up as well. Together we can stop these antiscience bills.

Many thanks,
Glenn Branch, Deputy Director

P.S. NCSE’s work is only possible because of the generous support of people like you. Your donation of $10, $35, or even $100 will make us stronger and better prepared for the coming fight.

Here is the language of the bill in its entirety:

Offered January 8, 2014
Prefiled December 27, 2013
A BILL to amend the Code of Virginia by adding a section numbered 22.1-207.6, relating to instruction in science.
Patron– Bell, Richard P.
Referred to Committee on Education

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Virginia:

1. That the Code of Virginia is amended by adding a section numbered 22.1-207.6 as follows:

§ 22.1-207.6. Instruction in science.

A. The Board and each local school board, division superintendent, and school board employee shall create an environment in public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific controversies in science classes.

B. The Board and each local school board, division superintendent, and school board employee shall assist teachers to find effective ways to present scientific controversies in science classes.

C. Neither the Board nor any local school board, division superintendent, or school board employee shall prohibit any public elementary or secondary school teacher from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in science classes.

D. Nothing in this section shall be construed to promote or discriminate against any religious or nonreligious doctrine, promote or discriminate against a particular set of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, or promote or discriminate against religion or nonreligion.

2. That no later than August 1, 2014, the Board of Education shall notify each division superintendent of the provisions of this act. Each division superintendent shall notify all employees of the local school board of the provisions of this act by the first day of the 2014-2015 school year.

Encourage students to explore scientific questions? Learn about evidence? Develop critical thinking skills? Delegate Bell, we already do exactly that! That’s exactly what my colleagues and I strive to do every day to produce graduates who will be ready to take their place on the cutting edge of scientific jobs. So clearly, that’s not what this is all about.

The intention of this bill is to allow unscientific beliefs into science classrooms. It’s the sort of anti-science initiative that makes me cringe for the reputation of my home state.

Delegate Bell’s website insists that he wants to:

  • Be a leader for education reform and affordable college education.
  • Push for expanded career and technical education training.
  • Work to reduce the size of government.

The problem is that HB 207 violates all three of these aims.

  • House Bill 207 would hamper the quality of education in the Commonwealth of Virginia by infusing a class dedicated to empirical reason with the idiosyncratic politics of individual instructors. When my colleagues and I at the college level then get students from Virginia public schools in our science classrooms, we’re going to have a tougher time counteracting their confusion, and this will make college education less effective and therefore more expensive to achieve the same level of mastery.
  • If we want Virginia’s graduates to be contributors and leaders in the global economy, they need to emerge from school unblinkered by superstition and unbrainwashed by the politics of their elders. For them to succeed in science and technology careers, we need them to be data-driven, and capable of logical coherence that transcends individual mythologies and ideologies with verifiable facts. We do not want them confusing their familial belief system or some politically-inspired gobbledygook with peer-reviewed assessments of reality. HB 207 will hamstring Virginia’s science students, ensuring that the Commonwealth will fall behind in science and contributions to the nation’s economy. This bill’s passage would mean that some other state will be producing tomorrow’s leaders in science and technology.
  • Because this bill is unnecessary, passing the legislation would needlessly increase the bulk of Virginia statute law. Additionally, because the bill calls for “each local school board, division superintendent, and school board employee” to assist the anti-science teachers in their efforts, it directly adds responsibilities to the jobs of thousands of state employees, making them less efficient and less worth the state’s investment of tax dollars.

When I hear the language of HB 207, here’s what I hear Delegate Bell saying:


I work for the Commonwealth of Virginia as a science educator. I think HB 207 is a very, very bad idea for the science education of our students. I encourage my fellow Virginians to contact the members of the Subcommittee on Elementary and Secondary Education today and urge them to quash it.

Again, the names, emails, and phone numbers of the relevant legislators are:

Richard P. “Dickie” Bell, chair, (804) 698-1020
Robert H. Brink, (804) 698-1048
Mark L. Cole, (804) 698-1088
Peter F. Farrell, (804) 698-1056
Daun Sessoms Hester, (804) 698-1089
James LeMunyon, (804) 698-1067
Scott Lingamfelter, (804) 698-1031
Joseph Morrisey, (804) 698-1074
Brenda L. Pogge, (804) 698-1096

Thank you.