Why I can’t return to Tennessee

Versions of this letter were published in the University of Tennessee Daily Beacon and the Johnson City Press

I always thought I’d move back to Tennessee. I was born and raised there, and I’m proud of my chemistry degree from the University of Tennessee (class of ‘99). And even though I left Tennessee to get my PhD, I always assumed I’d return. To maybe be a professor at UT. To share my passion for science with the next generation of scientists. To collaborate with some of the world’s brightest minds at Oak Ridge. To start companies and create jobs for Tennesseans. To try to give something back to a state that’s done so much for me.

But on April 10, Governor Bill Haslam made it clear that folks like me aren’t welcome in Tennessee anymore. By letting House Bill 368 become law, Haslam sent a clear message: science education has no value in Tennessee. Science education is so worthless that the state is now encouraging teachers to intentionally confuse their students, to spread controversy and uncertainty about topics that have no such controversy or uncertainty. When the bill states that “the teaching of some subjects, including… biological evolution… can cause controversy,” the bill’s authors aren’t referring to any real, subtle controversy about the fine details of evolution, they’re referring to some controversy about the fundamental validity of all of evolution, a controversy that just doesn’t exist.

The bill’s authors claim that it is motivated by the need to “encourage critical thinking.” That’s a very worthwhile goal, and there are plenty of real debates in the scientific community that make excellent case studies for teaching critical thinking - there’s no need to invent fake debates.

For students, this is far worse than merely being ignorant of science. This is actually turning back the clock, willfully undoing centuries of scientific progress. And while the rest of America is racing to keep ahead of countries like China in science and technology, Tennessee is not merely standing still, it’s actually running backwards.

So I can’t return to Tennessee. How can I be a scientist in a state where the validity of my research could be defended by my fellow scientists but cast into doubt by politicians? How can I send my son to a school where teachers are free to say “the Earth is flat” because the state thinks that all theories are worth teaching, even ones with no evidence supporting them?

I know that Tennesseans really do value science. I’m sure that my teachers at Science Hill High School in Johnson City and my professors at UT are shaking their heads in disbelief at the legislature’s actions. But the rest of the world doesn’t know this. They’ll assume all Tennesseans are waging war on science, and they’ll think twice about moving to our communities, attending our universities, supporting our industries, or hiring our people. And like me, they’ll settle down in states that actually value science education instead. But I’ll still miss my home.


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