I almost started this by saying, “well, this is it—things can’t get any dumber,” but then I remembered how many times that statement has turned out to be wrong. What triggered it this time was learning about Montana Senate Bill 235, because if that bill became law, schools in that state would be forbidden to teach science.
Ah. I see that, even after all this time, some of you are still reluctant to believe me when I report things like this. “I’ve trusted you so far, Kevin, to the point that I was about to start writing you a series of large checks on a monthly basis. But now I’m not so sure, because this cannot be real.” But it is. Here’s the Montana state legislature admitting it, and here’s the text of the bill:
WHEREAS, the purpose of K-12 education is to educate children in the facts of our world to better prepare them for their future …, and to that end children must know the difference between scientific fact and scientific theory; and
WHEREAS, a scientific fact is observable and repeatable, and if it does not meet these criteria, it is a theory that is defined as speculation and is for higher education to explore, debate, and test to ultimately reach a scientific conclusion of fact or fiction.
BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF MONTANA:
NEW SECTION. Section 1. Requirements for science instruction in schools.
(1) Science instruction may not include subject matter that is not scientific fact.
(2) The board of public education may not include in content area standards any standard requiring curriculum or instruction in a scientific topic that is not scientific fact.
(3) The superintendent of public instruction shall ensure that any science curriculum guides developed by the office of public instruction include only scientific fact.
(4)(a) The trustees of a school district shall ensure that science curriculum and instructional materials, including textbooks, used in the district include only scientific fact.
(b) Beginning July 1, 2025, a parent may appeal the trustees’ lack of compliance … to the county superintendent and, subsequently, to the superintendent of public instruction….
(5) The legislature intends for this section to be strictly enforced and narrowly interpreted.
(6) As used in this section, “scientific fact” means an indisputable and repeatable observation of a natural phenomenon.
Emphasis added. So if this were to become law, kids in grades K-12 could be instructed only about “scientific facts,” and anything that isn’t a “scientific fact” would be purged from their textbooks. Just the facts—what could be wrong with that, the sponsor of this bill would probably say if you asked him? But of course the kicker is section six, which limits the definition of “scientific fact” to “an indisputable and repeatable observation of a natural phenomenon.” Indisputable. Under this bill, anything that can be disputed would fail to qualify as a “scientific fact,” and could not be taught to the children of Montana.
Taken literally, that would be pretty much everything short of a purely objective measurement. The sponsor probably doesn’t intend it to be taken that literally, and even if he did, stuff like basic chemistry and physics might survive. So kids would still learn to do more than, like, count things. But the word “indisputable” would dramatically limit what can be taught as “science.” (I realize I probably don’t need to explain this to you, but allow me to vent for a couple of paragraphs.) In fact, you could argue this would eliminate the scientific method itself, which is fundamentally about disputing things and trying to disprove hypotheses.
Well, it wouldn’t eliminate it, you just couldn’t teach kids in Montana about it.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Daniel Emrich, isn’t wrong to say that scientific facts should be “observable” and “repeatable,” but he’s plainly unclear on the concept of “theories,” as the preface to the bill shows. Theories are not “defined as speculation.” A particular “theory” might be speculative if it hasn’t been tested, but I think scientists would call that a “hypothesis.” A hypothesis that stands up to testing might get promoted to a “theory,” but that doesn’t mean it becomes “indisputable.” My understanding is that people are still disputing some of what Newton and Einstein thought about gravity, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell kids about it. Studies have repeatedly shown it works, even in Montana.
My guess would be that what Emrich is really after here is stuff like the “theory of evolution” or the “theory of climate change,” without actually saying so. He is free to dispute those, but he’s got First Amendment problems with trying to ban teaching them. And I agree that as the preface says, children “must know the difference between scientific fact and scientific theory,” but legislators should too.
To give credit where credit is due, Emrich has also sponsored a bill that would eliminate jail penalties for littering, and I’m completely on board with that one.