Archive for November, 2007

We know what one vote will be now …

Friday, November 30th, 2007

Before I begin, let me give a brief recap of what’s going on for anyone just joining us. Florida’s state science standards for public schools is currently going through a revision process. The current standards are a miserable mess, having been given a grade of F by the Fordham Institute. The standards don’t mention the word evolution, instead referring to this important biology concept as simply “changes over time.” The draft of the new standards feature evolution as one of the major concepts students must know. The draft standards are now going through a public review period. Anyone can go to the website and rate/comment on the standards. Of course, the inclusion of evolution is causing quite a stir. Several newspaper articles, editorials, letters to the editors, online forum posts, etc. have been keeping track of this. The public comment period closes about mid-December. Then the writing committee will make any needed revisions to the draft. Finally, the state board of education will vote on whether to accept the new standards.

That is just the short version of what’s going on. For more details, feel free to browse through this blog’s posts over the past few weeks. Of special note is the concern over the Polk County board of education expressing displeasure over evolution in the standards.

Got all that? Now comes the next steep hill in this fun roller coaster ride. The Florida Baptist Witness has online an editorial by James Smith Sr. In this editorial he complains about evolution being “dogmatic” and believes that there is a real controversy within the scientific community over evolution. He cites the Dissent from Darwin list as supposed proof. (Project Steve is an appropriate counter to that dishonest Dissent list.) Smith doesn’t mind using the Discovery Institute, the public relations machine for the anti-evolution crowd, as his crutch throughout this article. So far there is nothing new or shocking coming from Smith. Unfortunately, his readership might be influenced by his drivel, but that’s his job after all.

But then he reports that he had an e-mail conversation with Florida Board of Education member Donna Callaway. Callaway states quite clearly that she is going to vote against the new standards because of evolution. She’s apparently not advocating actually teaching intelligent design, the Discovery Institute’s creationist Trojan horse. But she does think that students need to be exposed to “other theories” in some way.

“I agree completely that evolution should be taught with all of the research and study that has occurred. However, I believe it should not be taught to the exclusion of other theories of origin of life,” Callaway told me.

What Smith and Callaway don’t understand is that those other theories of origin of life are not science. There is not even a thimble full of scientific evidence in intelligent design. Cold, hard facts have exposed in a court of law that intelligent design is nothing more than a vehicle for inserting religion into the public school science classroom. Even as a footnote, allowing intelligent design into biology lessons forces children to make a choice. Students are smart. As soon as intelligent design mentions its unspecified “intelligent designer,” kids know that the conversation is about God. That then sends a signal to students that religion is in conflict with science and that they have to pick one or the other. That’s a potential showstopper, turning many students off of science because they are falsely led to believe that the issue is God versus no God. That does a disservice to both religion and science. There are many religions that have no problem at all with accepting evolution.

The common refrain to the steadfast resistance to having intelligent design in the classroom is that evolution is a theory in crisis and can’t stand up to criticism. Yes it can stand up to criticism. It has for about 150 years! Every single scientific theory by its very nature is falsifiable. If it’s not falsifiable, it’s not science. If the intelligent design crowd has the evidence to bring evolution down, then they need to provide the scientific evidence. They won’t do it, though. All of their time is spent on public relations.

Smith and Callaway have a dangerous mindset. It’s obvious they have little understanding of what science is, or they are willfully being deceitful. This is dangerous because Smith has an audience to preach to and Callaway has a vote on the state Board of Education. They can rob students of a proper science education; an education sorely needed in this state. Everyone in this country has a right to freely practice religion, but every student in our public schools also has a right to a good science education that will prepare them for their adult lives in this rapidly changing world.

Although she is not attempting to “arouse controversy,” Callaway told me she is concerned about what’s best for children. “I want an informed public so that when these and other similar decisions are made that affect all of us that they are reflective of how the people feel.”

Science is not about how people feel, Ms. Callaway. It’s about a methodical way of exploring and understanding the natural world around us. Science is about discovering a body of facts, piecing those facts together to hopefully reveal a fuller understanding of what is being studied, and then presenting that work to the scientific community. That community will then pick apart the work, test it, test it again, and test it some more. There is no popularity vote. The work has to stand on its own merits. The “informed public” is best served by learning science in the science classroom. Evolution is science. Intelligent design is not.

A longtime, active member of First Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Callaway added, “My hope is that there will be times of prayer throughout Christian homes and churches directed toward this issue. As a SBOE member, I want those prayers. I want God to be part of this. Isn’t that ironic?”

Not at all, as far as I’m concerned. Indeed, Florida Baptists should pray for the State Board of Education — as well as let their opinions be heard on this vital matter.

Be careful what you wish for, Ms. Callaway and Mr. Smith.

Standards are getting a thumbs up

Friday, November 30th, 2007

This article in the St. Petersburg Times does what every good article should do: talk to the experts. The real experts. This gives such writing proper balance without resorting to the “equal balance” fallacy. The paper commissioned their own reviewer to render an opinion about the new draft of the science standards with good results.

Two years ago, an influential national think tank concluded in a scathing report that Florida’s science standards – which outline what students need to know to be well grounded in the subject – were sprawling, superficial and deserving of a big, fat F.

Amazingly, the Fordham Institute noted, the standards didn’t even mention the word “evolution.”

Fast-forward to now.

Proposed standards are more focused and better organized. They not only mention evolution, they dub it a “big idea.” And this time, they get a thumbs-up from the chief author of the Fordham report.

“Much better,” said biologist Paul Gross, a former provost at the University of Virginia, who reviewed the draft at the request of the St. Petersburg Times.

The current standards were adopted in 1996, when some education officials were concerned that direct mention of Darwin’s theory of evolution – the keystone of modern biology – would spark a cultural firestorm.

This time, state officials haven’t flinched. And though it remains to be seen how much of an uproar there may be from religious conservatives, the proposed standards are garnering strong support from teachers and scientists.

“Nothing like that is ever perfect,” said Gerry Meisels, a University of South Florida chemistry professor who directs the state’s Coalition for Science Literacy. “But they are a very big step forward.”

“They’re good science,” said Joe Wolf, president of Florida Citizens for Science.

There obviously is a lot of controversy when it comes to evolution. Mention the “e-word” and people come out of the woodwork. The article says that as of early this week, 7,069 have left comments on the standards at the public review website. The good news is that comments in favor of evolution are winning out by a 2-to-1 margin.

Now the real question is whether the Florida Board of Education, which has final say over the fate of the new standards, will do the right thing or turn this into a circus.

Anti-science or anti-evolution?

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

A blog reader sent me an e-mail a couple of weeks ago taking me to task for calling any groups who oppose evolution “anti-science.” The writer wants to know why I say “anti-science” instead of simply “anti-evolution.” Here is my response:

Thank you very much for your thought-provoking e-mail. I can understand that you and others might take offense at the descriptor “anti-science,” but I do use the term with a purpose.

First, in your e-mail you note that I reference groups that do not support evolution as being anti-science. That is not accurate. The difference is that the groups I refer to are not just non-supportive, but rather actively fight against the teaching of evolution. The distinction may seem like nit picking, but I believe it’s not. There are plenty of movements, activities and such that I don’t support, but I don’t actively attack them. The groups I reference do attack evolution … and how! If you are not one of those who attack evolution, then one can safely say that you may not be anti-science.

But why take that extra step into anti-science rather than just anti-evolution? Because those who do attack evolution do so through the use of publicity, public relations spin, big tent revivals, books targeted at the general public, etc. What they refuse to do is any actual science. I would think that if these folks had anything to contribute in the realm of science, they would do the actual work and quit harping about it in the public eye, at least until they have some actual science to harp about. Want to get into the science textbooks? Then do some experiments. Contribute to the body of scientific knowledge.

During the Dover, Pa. court case that tested whether intelligent design (ID) should be mentioned in the high school biology classroom, Michael Behe testified on behalf of ID. While being questioned, he admitted that the very definition of science itself would have to be changed to accommodate ID. Yes, I would call that anti-science.

Too many people want to express an opinion about evolution without first having any type of grounding in basic science first. The big warning sign that this is the case is when someone denigrates evolution as just a “theory.” This clearly demonstrates that the complainer doesn’t have sufficient background to be speaking knowledgeably about the subject. The word theory in science does not mean a guess or hunch. Quite the opposite. Theory is an explanation of a body of facts. The theory of evolution has withstood vigorous testing and has not only stood the test of time, but has strengthened. So, for someone to brush off a century and a half of research as “just a theory” certainly qualifies as anti-science in my book.

Thank you for your time and interest,
Brandon Haught

Space Week

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

Science is a hands-on field of study. Kids need to do it to learn it. That’s where Space Week comes in.

Becoming the next generation of NASA astronauts was a goal on the minds of many of the 700 Brevard County sixth-graders who came out for the first day of Brevard Space Week at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

The event, in its fifth year, teaches students about the importance and fun of math and science by showing how the subjects come alive at NASA.

Space Week is sponsored by NASA Education, Brevard Schools Foundation, Delaware North Parks and Resorts and Florida Chapter of the National Space Club. The program costs about $100,000 but the money comes from grants and donations by local businesses and technology companies and not the district budget, said Ed Short, the district’s elementary science resource teacher.

Shuttle astronaut Jon McBride presented an overview of Project Constellation, explaining how Orion, the new crew exploration vehicle — as well as the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets — will take astronauts and supplies to the moon.

McBride reminded students that they could be the commanders of these missions, but only if they focus on their education.

“You only get one chance,” he said. “These six or seven years are very important. Don’t mess it up.”

Evolution research in the news

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

For your reading pleasure, here are a couple of science-related news articles that specifically mention that scary word: evolution. Articles related to intelligent design discoveries and achievements? Zero. I’ll keep looking, though. 😉

In the first case we have hereditary blindness being treated by gene-transfer. How do scientists manage to get the new genes where they need to go? Well, a product of evolution leads the way

Now the gene-transfer technique is being tested for safety in people in a phase 1 clinical research study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Florida with support from the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

A young adult with a form of hereditary blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis type 2, or LCA2, received an injection of trillions of replacement genes into the retina of one eye this month, making the volunteer one of the first people in the world to undergo the procedure. Shalesh Kaushal, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of ophthalmology at UF, performed the gene transfer.

In LCA-type diseases, photoreceptor cells are unable to respond to light. NEI and NEI-supported researchers have found that LCA2 is caused by mutations in the RPE65 gene, which produces a protein with the same name that is vital for vision. This trial will evaluate the use of a modified adeno-associated virus — an apparently harmless virus that already exists in most people — to deliver RPE65 to the retina.

“Viruses have evolved a way to get into cells very efficiently, more efficiently than anything else we know to deliver a piece of genetic material to a cell,” Hauswirth said. “So all we’re doing is using evolution to our advantage — in this case, to deliver our therapeutic gene.”

Research like the following example needs more publicity. The facts underlying the theory of evolution are many and diverse, serving as a never-ending river of real research possibilities. As can be seen here, evolution is treated as just matter of fact. It just says, “here’s what we’re doing.” Period. No apologies. No euphemisms. Just another day exploring evolution.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — University of Florida and University of Texas at Austin scientists have shed light on what Charles Darwin called the “abominable mystery” of early plant evolution.

In two papers set to be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists report that the two largest groups of flowering plants are more closely related to each other than any of the other major lineages. These are the monocots, which include grasses and their relatives, and the eudicots, which include sunflowers and tomatoes.

Doug and Pam Soltis, a UF professor of botany and curator at UF’s Florida Museum of Natural History, respectively, also showed that a stunning diversification of flowering plants they are referring to as the “Big Bang” took place in the comparatively short period of less than 5 million years — and resulted in all five major lineages of flowering plants that exist today.

Article: Creationism — Evolution of a Flawed Notion

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

Lakeland Ledger writer Tom Palmer offers up a very good piece entitled Creationism — Evolution of a Flawed Notion.

Third, there’s the idea that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is a rejection of religion.

Darwin intended nothing of the sort.

“With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically,” he wrote in a letter to a colleague.

I pulled my copy of “Origin of Species” from the bookshelf the other day and found that the final sentence, which I had underlined years ago, is also instructive on this point.

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst the planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

What Darwin’s work on evolution and Charles Lyell’s work in geology did in the 19th century and what Galileo’s and Copernicus’ work in astronomy did centuries earlier was to challenge not religion, but some parts of religious dogma.

Focus on the Family weighing in

Monday, November 26th, 2007

An online arm of Focus on the Family, CitizenLink, is advising readers to contact the Florida Department of Education to demand the inclusion of intelligent design alongside evolution in the new draft of the state science standards. Fortunately, their brief is not too detailed or accurate. Rather than have their audience contact the actual Board of Education or visit the science standards website, they just have an e-mail link to someone in the Bureau of Instruction and Innovation. Nice.

Alliance for Science essay contest

Monday, November 26th, 2007

The Alliance for Science is hosting its second annual National High School Essay Contest. Interested students can submit essays of up to 1,000 words on one of two topics — Climate and Evolution, or Agriculture and Evolution. Submission deadline is Feb. 29, 2008.

Guaranteed Cash Prizes! 1st Place $300.00, 2nd Place $200, 3rd Place $150, and 4th Place $100. Additional rewards for sponsoring teachers: 1st Place $150, 2nd Place $100.