Archive for the 'Analysis/Commentary' Category

Do state science standards matter?

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

With the fight over including evolution in the state science standards here in Florida now over the hump, we now need to ask ourselves: what did we win? As several news articles have pointed out, in many school districts across the state evolution was already being taught anyway. So, does have a stronger set of science standards actually mean anything?

A timely study was recently published that at least in part addresses that very question. The paper detailing the study is “The evolution battles in high-school science classes: who is teaching what?” by Kristi L Bowman. It’s an attempt to determine whether evolution is actually being taught to high school students by asking college students to describe the quantity and quality of the subject’s instruction back in their high school days. I’ll let you read through it for yourself and let others, like PZ, give their takes on the bigger picture. But what I’m focusing on is how much of a role state science standards might have played in the results.

The study used students from eight universities scattered across the country (Florida wasn’t one of them). The states these universities are in were carefully chosen based on a variety of criteria. One category was the states’ science standard’s handling of evolution. Four were considered strong and four were considered weak. Of course, other factors played a role in the results — for instance, consider why the state might have strong or weak standards — but here they are for your consideration:

Of all recent public high-school graduates in strong standards states, 93% reported evolution instruction, but only 72% reported being taught that evolution is a credible scientific theory. By comparison, 89% of recent public high school graduates in weak standards states reported evolution instruction, but only 60% reported being taught that evolution is a credible scientific theory.

Wow! Only 60% were taught it is a credible scientific theory! That makes me itch to know what has been going on here in the Sunshine State the past decade. The study reflected a bit deeper, though. There is always more to the story (emphasis mine):

However, when evolution is taught, it can also be presented as a concept lacking scientific credibility. Applying a logit regression analysis and holding constant states’ partisan political preference and geographic location, the estimated odds were that respondents in weak standards states are three times as likely as those in strong standards states to receive instruction that evolution is not scientifically credible (P = 0.01). The frequency-based statistics account for much of this disparity, with 4% of strong states’ respondents reporting that evolution was taught, but presented as a concept lacking scientific credibility, compared to 9% in weak states.

Here’s the message I take away from that: We should be proud of what we did here in Florida! We definitely jumped from a set of weak standards to very strong ones. That increases the chances that our students will be exposed to sound science in the correct context.

Now, ummmmm, could someone tell me what “logit regression analysis” means? 😉

How do we calm the fears?

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

As we continue to defend science here in Florida and across the country, it’s important to keep in mind what, exactly, we are up against. These folks are not anti-science just because they kinda don’t like science or find it generally offensive. It truly and completely scares them. Have a look at what Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio has to say in the Florida Baptist Witness.

The “crux” of the disagreement, according Rubio, is “whether what a parent teaches their children at home should be mocked and derided and undone at the public school level. It goes to the fundamental core of who is ultimately, primarily responsible for the upbringing of children. Is it your public education system or is it your parents?”

Rubio added, “And for me, personally, I don’t want a school system that teaches kids that what they’re learning at home is wrong.”

Rubio, a Cuban-American, made a comparison to the strategy employed by the Communist Party in Cuba where schools encouraged children to turn in parents who criticized Fidel Castro.

“Of course, I’m not equating the evolution people with Fidel Castro,” he quickly added, while noting that undermining the family and the church were key means the Communist Party used to gain control in Cuba.

“In order to impose their totalitarian regime, they destroyed the family; they destroyed the faith links that existed in that society,” he said.

Mocked. Derided. Communism. If you think I’m reading that wrong, and it’s not fear, then please tell me what your take on it is. How do we handle people like Rubio, who I sincerely doubt are going to be swayed by, well, any argument we can come up with.

Let’s talk about theories

Friday, February 15th, 2008

Joe Wolf, president of Florida Citizens for Science, had heard that the Department of Education was shopping around the idea of inserting the word “theory” in the new draft of the state science standards wherever evolution is mentioned. I believe that they also said that they would apply “theory” to other applicable areas of the standards, such as gravity and plate tectonics, I think.

FCS is solidly against that idea. We’ve consulted with our membership and other sources with experience in this issue, and sliding in the word “theory” to appease some of the anti-science folks is the wrong thing to do. The anti-science crowd wants to turn the word into a scarlet letter for evolution. They are famous for shouting “It’s only a theory” as loud as they can, completely bulldozing the fact that a theory in science is not a guess or hunch. The word “theory” is then seen in a negative light in the public eye. So, if theory is pasted into the science standards, the anti-science crowd can crow about their victory. They will have forced the DoE to admit that evolution is somehow not on solid ground. Never mind that just the opposite is true. The public relations battle is won at that point. It doesn’t end there, though. Essentially, the word then becomes the thin edge of a wedge. Once they have labeled evolution as “only a theory,” they then have the opening to demand “other theories” be taught. That other theory, which is not a scientific theory by any stretch of the imagination, would be intelligent design. The wedge is driven deeper and deeper as intelligent design pulls its creationism origins into the science classroom with it.

However, Joe and I were thrown a curveball this afternoon. We both got calls from reporters saying that the DoE wasn’t just suggesting that “theory” be added, but rather two words would be used: “scientific theory.” Before giving our statements to the media, Joe and I consulted a bit and felt that such a move could blunt the “just a theory” wedge. So, we both told the reporters that it’s an idea we could live with.

I explained to the St. Petersburg Times that first and foremost FCS is all about the teachers and students in science classrooms across the state. If something helps the teachers raise science understanding among the next generation, then we are all for it. The new draft of the state science standards is one such helpful tool. Evolution’s place in those standards is also a great tool for use in the biology (and elementary school) classroom.

I said that the DoE should be praised for working so hard on finding a way to get the science standards approved with all science concepts within intact. The DoE heard the potential problems concerning just inserting the word “theory” load and clear. So, in an effort to overcome obstacles, “scientific theory” was proposed as a way to make sure that the “only a theory” and “teach other theories” strategies could be stopped in their tracks.

Then I said that inserting “scientific theory” could make the standards kinda cumbersome. It’s a waste of ink, really. A point that I tried to hammer home was that it’s important that students get a firm understanding of basic science. They need to know the nature of science. They need to know what a hypothesis is and how to properly test it. They need to know what a theory in science is. These concepts need to be firmly in place before students move on to chemistry or astronomy or biology. Then, when they encounter various theories in science there is no heartburn over what is being learned. If science is being taught properly, the theory of evolution will be no different than any other science theory encountered. Having “scientific theory” repeated over and over in the science standards shouldn’t be necessary.

But all of that happens in the schools, not in the adult world. Here in the adult world — ruled by uniformed opinion, strong passions, opinion polls, and the 6:00 news sound bite — we need to find a way to get sound science education past the scientifically illiterate (and some blatantly dishonest) gatekeepers. That’s why I praised the DoE. They’re trying to do that. They’re working hard on behalf of our teachers and students while navigating the maze of politics.

However, I do understand our fellow pro-science advocates. Many still vehemently distrust any attempts to change the science standards at this late stage. I’ve heard it said that the “scientific theory” idea wouldn’t help since the anti-science folks will just read that as “scientific guess” anyway. And no matter what happens, the if-you-give-a-mouse-a-cookie effect could still happen. Additionally, the whole mess over “theory” is but one battle in this senseless war. Some anti-science folks still want strengths and weaknesses of evolution taught, along with who knows how many other uninformed or malevolent anti-science rants there are out there.

So, you are going to soon read in the newspapers some quotes about all of this from Joe and I. As a matter of fact, Joe’s quote already appears online at the Florida Times-Union. Before you burn Joe or I at the stake, I wanted you to know what our thought process was while being questioned by deadline-driven reporters.

I look forward to reading your opinions in the comment thread. No, really, I do. Is adding “scientific theory” a good idea? Before burning up your keyboard, though, please read these other news reports here and here.

Another columnist in support of evolution

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

Tallahassee Democrat columnist Gerald Ensley encourages his readers to attend the local Darwin Day celebration where they will, hopefully, learn a thing or two about evolution.

Florida, Illinois and Oklahoma are the only three states that currently do not teach evolution. The omission is one of the chief reasons Florida’s science-education standards have twice been given an F by national evaluators. Such poor science education is crippling our students in college admissions and in the job market.

Scientists explain that evolution is like gravity: a theory and a fact. Both are explanations and observed behaviors. There is debate on some aspects of natural selection in Darwin’s theory of evolution. Yet 99.8 percent of all scientists agree evolution has been proved through the study of fossils and animals.


Friday, February 1st, 2008

There’s a new movie coming out called Expelled. In it Ben Stein takes on the scientific community, claiming that scientists who dare challenge evolution are being unfairly ostracized. The movie was recently screened here in Central Florida and movie critic for the Orlando Sentinel, Roger Moore, blasts the film to smithereens. My favorite part:

He was showing the movie to what he and the producers hoped would be a friendly, receptive audience of conservative Christian ministers at a conference at the Northland mega-church next to the dog track up in Longwood. They’re marking this movie, which they had said, earlier, they’d open in Feb. (now April) the same way they pitched The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia, said Paul Lauer of Motive Entertainment, who introduced Stein.

In other words, a stealth campaign, out of the public eye, preaching to the choir to get the word out about the movie without anyone who isn’t a true believer passing a discouraging judgment on it.

They postered the Orlando Sentinel with email invitations, then tried to withdraw the one they sent to me. No dice. They also passed out non-disclosure “statement of confidentiality” agreements for people to sign. I didn’t.

What are they hiding from you? Straight propaganda, to be sure.

Oh, and keeping your movie from the public because you’re afraid of ridicule is just gutless. Put it out there, let people have time to chew on your arguments. Your fans will buy tickets. And plenty of folks will emerge to tear it apart. Even Michael Moore has the courage to do that.

Show and tell time

Friday, January 25th, 2008

Here are a couple of things that have happened to me lately that I thought y’all might get a kick out of.

I don’t get personal mail at work. No letters, no junk mail, no packages, nothing. But yesterday a small package arrived for me. That’s weird, I thought. The first thing I did was look for the return address. There wasn’t one. That’s really weird, I thought. I have to admit to being a bit nervous as I slowly and carefully opened the box. To my relief, the only contents were a book and a typed note. The book was The Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel. The note was polite and well intentioned, but unsigned. My mysterious benefactor shouldn’t have wasted the money and effort on sending me the book. I’ve already read it along with several other books of the creationist/intelligent design stripe. I wasn’t impressed with Strobel’s book to say the least.

Creationist/ID apologetics books are just part of the game, and I can understand and live with their existence. But I have a problem with all of Strobel’s books that goes a step beyond just the apologetics. His promotional material plays up the whole “journalist investigates” angle, which I find nauseating. His books are nothing more than butt kissing sessions with his carefully selected lineup of creationist/ID cast of characters. His “I’m a skeptic” crap is nothing short of a blatant lie.

You want some real reporting in a book? Give Monkey Girl by Edward Humes a try. Humes does an outstanding job of examining all the angles of the Dover, Pa. ID trial. And a good way to wash away the awful sliminess I felt when I had read Strobel’s book was to read Carl Zimmer’s Evolution, The Triumph of an Idea.

That’s not my only story. I work for a Sheriff’s Office, and earlier this month one of our helicopters did an amazing emergency landing. Thankfully, no one was injured despite the chopper blowing a turbine in midair and losing power. The local newspaper reports on the incident, of course. Well, the paper’s website has one heck of a lively online community of folks who leave comments on each story. These comments conversations (which for some reason they refer to as blogs) can get explosive, silly and just plain nuts. The helicopter story was no different. Here’s one comment that I thought y’all would enjoy:

Have any of you that blogged last night on the Evolution VS God story that spoke about Brandon Haught from the Sheriff’s office, ever considered that maybe just maybe this happened because GOD WAS ANGRY? He also wanted to show his power by allowing these guys to walk away from this crash with minimal injury! DO YOU THINK IT WAS A LESSON?

Well, do ya, punk? Do ya think it was a lesson?

11th editorial, other tidbits

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

The 11th newspaper editorial supporting evolution in the schools appeared in the TCPalm today.

Editorial: Science classes need to evolve

And, since Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was published in 1859, in which his theory of evolution was first introduced, scientific research and discoveries have added immensely to confirming his theory as factual. The physical evidence — including DNA — is on the side of evolution. Other biological theories or beliefs lack such physical support.

Florida students test poorly in science. They need the best, most reliable scientific observations and explanations to enhance their understanding.

The teaching of evolution must be part of that experience.

As usual, a TV station completely screws up a story about evolution in the science standards. Do these folks even know what their own story is about?

Explaining how time began has long been a controversial issue for many.

They didn’t even bother to go for a “balanced” story, only interviewing those opposed.

Jackson County School Board Member Daniel Sims says they are opposed to those changes. “The Sunshine State standard says the fundamental concept underling all biology is evolution, we disagree.”

If it wasn’t so sad, that would be a knee-slapping statement. “We disagree.” Oh good grief! People say that the sun rises every day, but we disagree. On what scientific authority do these people base their opposition to evolution? Do they also disagree with the restaurant chef, auto mechanic, dentist and hair dresser when they use these people’s services? You say that a battery is needed for my car to run, but I disagree.

Taking apart Gibbs and Grubbs

Monday, January 21st, 2008

The Gradebook has a follow-up post about the Gibbs and Grubbs “legal” memos [previous post on this here]. This time FSU law Professor Steven G. Gey is featured, and he completely rips apart Gibbs’ and Grubbs’ arguments. It’s a good read well worth a few minutes of your time. Here’s just a taste:

The offensive part of the memo’s discussion of this point is that it uses several quotes from Ken Miller to bolster the memo’s contention that teaching evolution “will demand that the concept of ‘God’ be banished from the mind and replaced by atheism.”  I know Ken Miller.  He is not only one of the country’s leading evolutionary biologists, he is also a deeply devout Catholic, who takes his religion very seriously.  Here’s what Ken has actually written about the subject (in an article he wrote for the religious website  “Like many other scientists who hold the Catholic faith, I see the Creator’s plan and purpose fulfilled in our universe. I see a planet bursting with evolutionary possibilities, a continuing creation in which the Divine providence is manifest in every living thing. I see a science that tells us there is indeed a design to life. And the name of that design is evolution.” (See To even remotely suggest that Ken Miller believes that (again quoting the memo) evolutionary theory is “anti-religious and atheistic leaving no room for religion in the life of the mind” suggests that the memo’s author is completely ignorant of both Ken Miller and evolutionary theory.