Bobby Jindal’s Science Problem

Romney’s education surrogate promotes creationist nonsense in schools.

Bobby Jindal
Bobby Jindal

Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

It’s an election year, and plenty of things seem to matter to voters, including health care, the budget, unemployment, and women’s rights. But this year, as always, one of the things that doesn’t seem to matter is science. That’s particularly troubling because just about every challenge that America faces today has a scientific component, from revitalizing the economy to dealing with climate change to managing health care.

Science took a beating in the primary season this year. Leading candidates made it clear that they rejected climate science (Herman Cain and Rick Perry), thought that vaccines caused mental retardation (Michele Bachmann), and didn’t “believe” in evolution (a bunch of them, most prominently Rick Santorum). One candidate, John Huntsman, bravely tweeted, “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” To scientists, Huntsman’s candor was “right on!” To Republican primary voters, apparently he was crazy.

At least, for the second presidential election in a row, both major party candidates are on record as accepting the science of evolution, the cornerstone of the biological sciences. But let’s not celebrate just yet. One of those candidates still has to make a vice presidential pick, and one of the leading contenders for that job has a public record on science that’s crystal clear—and deeply troubling. It’s Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana.

Jindal has an elite résumé. He was a biology major at my school, Brown University, and a Rhodes scholar. He knows the science, or at least he ought to. But in his rise to prominence in Louisiana, he made a bargain with the religious right and compromised science and science education for the children of his state. In fact, Jindal’s actions at one point persuaded leading scientific organizations, including the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, to cross New Orleans off their list of future meeting sites (PDF).

What did Jindal do to produce a hornet’s nest of “mad scientists,” as Times-Picayune writer James Gill described them? He signed into law, in Gill’s words, the “Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), which is named for what it is designed to destroy.” The act allows “supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials” to be brought into classrooms to support the “open and objective discussion” of certain “scientific theories,” including, of course, evolution. As educators who have heard such coded language before quickly realized, the act was intended to promote creationism as science. In April, Kevin Carman, dean of the College of Science at Louisiana State University, testified before the Louisiana Senate’s Education Committee that two top scientists had rejected offers to come to LSU because of the LSEA, and the school may lose more scientists in the future.

And now Jindal is poised to spend millions of dollars of state money to support the teaching of creationism in private schools.

The state of Louisiana has had a problem with evolution for a long, long time. In 1981, it passed a “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act,” which required the teaching of creation science alongside “evolution-science” in public schools. The Supreme Court struck it down in 1987 (in Edwards v. Aguillard), finding that creationism is inherently religious, and that the law’s “preeminent religious purpose” placed it in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Case closed? Not really.

When Jindal stepped into Republican politics in Louisiana, he had a choice to make. He could defend mainstream science, which sees evolution as the powerful, strongly supported, and widely tested theory that it is today. Or he could have joined the doubters and deniers that populate the electorate in his party. Campaigning for the governorship in 2007, Jindal touted his Christian faith, shied away from specific statements about evolution, and emphasized his commitment to local control of education. Louisianans didn’t have to wait long to find out what this meant for science.

Jindal signed the LSEA into law in 2008, endorsing the thinly veiled attempt to allow creationism into the science classrooms of his state. The backers of the law made it clear that material on intelligent design would be high on the list of supplemental materials that local boards and teachers could present to their students. Intelligent design is the re-labeled form of creationism that a federal court in Pennsylvania threw out of classrooms in the 2005 Dover v. Kitzmiller decision. The National Academy of Sciences has identified intelligent design as “not science” because it is “not testable by the methods of science.” The National Academy of Science’s opinion carried little weight with the Ivy League bio major.

In a 2008 interview on CBS’s Face the Nation, Jindal said that he wanted students “to be presented with the best thinking, I want them to be able to make decisions for themselves, I want them to see the best data. … I’d certainly want my kids to be exposed to the very best science. I don’t want any facts or theories or explanations to be withheld from them because of political correctness.” The problem, of course, is that if the “best science,” in the view of a local school board, includes creationism, the students in that school system are being cheated. Presenting an idea that has no scientific support as if it were the equal of a thoroughly tested scientific theory is academic dishonesty of the rankest sort. Indeed, this is why Jindal’s own genetics professor at Brown University, National Academy member Arthur Landy, advised him to veto the LSEA, advice Jindal ignored.

Today, one might hope that Jindal, having established himself as a force in his party, might be willing to spend just a little of his political capital to take a stand on the side of science. No such luck. In fact, things are getting substantially worse. This year Louisiana established a scholarship program to allow students from underperforming public schools to receive state tuition aid in the form of vouchers to attend private schools. Whatever the merits of this program might be, observers in the state were stunned when they saw some of the schools on the list of those eligible to accept the vouchers. They include a school whose students will be taught to “discern and refute the lies commonly found in textbooks,” including, of course, evolution. Another school prepares students to “defend creationism through evidence presented by the Bible,” and yet another assures students that no instruction is included in its textbooks “that would conflict with young earth creationism.”

According to Zack Kopplin, a blogger and college student who is monitoring the implementation of the voucher program, at least 20 schools may qualify for as much as $11 million of taxpayer money to teach creationism to Louisiana students when school starts at the end of the summer. What this means, in plain language, is that Gov. Jindal has given wholehearted support to a program that will use public money to teach scientific nonsense to the young people of his state.

Jindal has recently appeared on television as the Romney campaign’s designated education surrogate. This means that Jindal’s approach to science miseducation may soon extend well past the borders of Louisiana.

Imagine, for a moment, that Jindal becomes the vice presidential nominee. Given his track record in Louisiana, can we expect a sudden shift in favor of scientific integrity and quality science education? I’d like to believe that Jindal’s courting of the creationist vote in his state has been nothing more than a matter of political expediency. Maybe once he faces a national audience, he’ll shake that Etch A Sketch and make his peace with science. We’ll see. But the times are critical, the record isn’t promising, and Jindal’s legacy in Louisiana schools has been shameful.