Archive for December, 2007

Has it hit you where you live yet?

Monday, December 31st, 2007

The battle over evolution continues at a fierce pace, as we discover in the Palm Beach Post today. Three new counties are now added to our watchlist: St Lucie, Palm Beach, and Martin. However, we need to keep our eyes on the ball. The real fight that we must concentrate our energy on is at the state level.

There are a number of good quotes in that story, though:

The current standards, which are used as the basis for school curricula and standardized testing, refer only to biological “changes over time.”

That’s not enough, said Mary Jane Tappen, executive director of the state Office of Mathematics and Science.

“If you look in any biology textbook, you’ll see a chapter or more on the theory of evolution,” Tappen said. “There is a disconnect here. If we really want to be clear, the accurate terminology should be part of our standards.”

[Middle School science teacher Gerard] O’Donnell said evolution is essential to many aspects of what he teaches and he never has heard a complaint from a parent.

” ‘Why does mom have brown hair and I have blond hair?’ ” O’Donnell said. ” ‘Why does a giraffe have a long neck?’ “These are questions that are begging to have answers for.”

“There has been the growing realization that our Florida graduates are not competing with students in just … Atlanta or New York,” said Jim Warford, executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators and former state public schools chancellor. “They’re competing with students around the world.”

The decisions about what is good science should be left to the scientific community, Warford said.

Intelligent design has not gone through the rigorous testing and scientific criticism to warrant time in science classrooms, he [Wesley Elsberry, a marine biologist and Michigan State University researcher studying the evolution of intelligent behavior] said.

“This is not something that is accountable,” Elsberry said. “Our students, in their limited time in a science class, they need to receive the information that has received scrutiny through the scientific process.”

On that news story page is a sidebar on the left that says “Know your theories” and goes on to very briefly describe evolution and intelligent design. That prompted me to write the following e-mail to the story author:

Mr. Jordan,

First of all, I want to express my gratitude for the work you put into today’s story “Evolution furor flares on Florida science proposals.” It’s obvious that you and Niels Heimeriks put a lot of time and effort into the story. It’s great to see where various education decision makers stand on this issue, and all the people you interviewed added quite a bit of depth to the piece.

However, there is one issue in the story that is important to address. There is an error in fact in the story, specifically in the sidebar that briefly explains evolution and intelligent design. The word theory has a definition in science that is far removed from the word’s commonly used meaning. Most people use the word theory to refer to their best guess or idea. Someone might have a theory as what horse is going to win a race. However, in science a theory means something much more concrete. A theory is an explanation for a set of facts, observations, and evidence. That theory undergoes rigorous testing and experimentation. Once it withstands the test of time and testing, it accumulates the weight of the consensus of the scientific community. Essentially, a scientific theory is the furthest thing from a guess, idea, or hunch.

Evolution is a scientific theory. I welcome you to call Dr. Elsberry again in order to discuss this point. Even though he is no longer living in Florida, he still has ties here and he is an active member of my organization, Florida Citizens for Science, via e-mails and phone calls. On the other hand, intelligent design is not a scientific theory. It’s not even a viable hypothesis. It has virtually zero acceptance or even interest in the scientific community, let alone a consensus, especially among scientists who use knowledge of evolution in their day-to-day work. Beside Dr. Elsberry, I also invite you to call up any major university here in Florida and discuss the matter with working scientists in their life sciences departments. Furthermore, I’m sure biotech companies like Scripps also would have scientists working there who work with an understanding of evolution every day.

The reason I am devoting so much of this letter to the definition of theory and what is and isn’t a theory is that such confusion over the term fuels the fire in this public and political debate. There is no debate in the scientific community over the viability of evolutionary theory. But there is a huge debate in the public and political spheres. A lot of it has to do with lack of scientific knowledge among citizens and decision makers. To call evolution “just a theory” is a gross mischaracterization of science. And to elevate intelligent design to the same theory status of evolution is quite simply an error in fact.

This is not my personal opinion, and I encourage you to verify what I have written here by talking to those who would know: the scientists. I believe that a correction needs to be printed to clarify this important matter.

If there is anything else my organization or I can do for you, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Brandon Haught
Florida Citizens for Science
Board Member / Communication Director

[post edited to add the following]

I heard back from the reporter. He had spoken with his editor about my letter and decided that a correction was not in order. However, I agree with their reasoning, part of which was that a correction would barely be noticed. They instead suggested that I chop down my above e-mail into a 250-word letter to the editor. I have now done so and shipped it off just a few minutes ago. Furthermore, they suggested that I correspond with the newspaper’s ombudsman. I have also done that and will await a response.

Here is my shortened letter to the editor:

Re: “Evolution furor flares on Florida science proposals” Dec. 31, 2007. Mr. Jordan and Mr. Heimeriks did a wonderful job on this in-depth story.  However, there is an error in fact in the story, specifically in the sidebar that briefly explains evolution and intelligent design. The word theory has a definition in science that is far removed from its commonly used meaning. Most people use the word theory to refer to their best guess or idea. Someone might have a theory as what horse is going to win a race. However, in science a theory means something much more concrete. It’s an explanation for a set of facts, observations, and evidence. That theory undergoes rigorous testing and experimentation. Once it withstands the test of time and testing, it accumulates the weight of the consensus of the scientific community.

Evolution is a scientific theory. On the other hand, intelligent design is not a scientific theory. It’s not even a viable hypothesis. It has virtually zero acceptance or even interest in the scientific community, let alone a consensus. I invite you to call any major university here in Florida and discuss the matter with working scientists in the life sciences departments. Furthermore, biotech companies like Scripps also have working scientists whose work is based on an understanding of evolution every day.

To call evolution “just a theory” is a gross mischaracterization of science. And to elevate intelligent design to the same theory status of evolution is quite simply an error in fact.

Editorial: Focus on science

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

The Tampa Tribune is the latest newspaper to offer strong support for evolution in the state’s science standards on the editorial page.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is central to science curriculum because it explains more observations than any alternative. It has been debated for nearly two centuries. It has been tested and substantiated, and modified and refined, by generations of scientists. This is how science works.

The newspaper web page allows reader comments, and the creationists are out in full force there. Please take a moment to stop by and correct their misinformation campaign.

Yet another editorial in favor of evolution

Saturday, December 22nd, 2007

The St. Petersburg Times uses the Dover, Pa. intelligent design trial as a springboard to scolding the Pinellas County school board in an editorial.

As the judge found, “every scientific association that has spoken on the matter” has rejected the challenge to evolution mounted by proponents of intelligent design. Darwin’s theory of natural selection has withstood the test of time because scientific testing has repeatedly affirmed its validity. Any science curriculum that doesn’t fully explore it, or puts it on a par with other claims of life’s origins, would be seriously flawed.

Pinellas School Board members and the state education commissioner might reflect on the judge’s comprehensive review and conclusions before they speak again about an accepted scientific theory they apparently know little about.

Those very last few words are the most important: “they apparently know little about.” Let the experts do their jobs, school board!

Polk County cries uncle

Saturday, December 22nd, 2007

Sometimes public school education decision makers are foolish enough to express their ignorance of what makes sound science. But an unrelenting pounding by pro-science groups and individuals can turn the tide.  It can be a rude awakening for these folks, but if a little bit of ribbing, unapologetic educating about what science is and isn’t, and no-holds-barred ridiculing gets the job done, who are we to complain?

Apparently, Polk County school board members who originally had no problem stating their opinion on matters of what they think is science, and religion’s role in science have decided to abandon ship. The Tampa Tribune credits the Flying Spaghetti Monster, outspoken scientists and concerned citizens who all flooded the school board with correspondence on the subject. And it doesn’t hurt to mention that Polk County wants to attract the science and technology industries to set up shop in their county to help the economy. It’s kinda hard to do so when you don’t want to teach your kids science. Dr. Wesley Elsberry, who is originally from Polk County, agrees.

Even though it looks like the school board decided it would be wise to get out of the business of promoting intelligent design, not all have abandoned creationist’s Trojan horse completely … or their belief that maybe religion should mix with science.

The pro-intelligent design board members say they now recognize that the new standards are a state issue and there’s nothing they can do about them, even if they’d like to.

Lofton, a former geometry teacher with a master’s degree in mathematics and one of the pro-intelligent design board members, said she has no interest in engaging with the Pastafarians or anyone else seeking to discredit intelligent design.

She describes herself as secure in her beliefs. “I’m a Christian. I personally believe that the Bible is inerrant truth and the word of God.”

That’s one hot spot down for now. It’s worth keeping an eye on Polk County, though, because you never know what people will do when backed into a corner. 

But the more important fight is on the state level. Let’s not forget that!

Here’s why you need to get involved

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

Recap: Florida’s public school science standards from 1996 are being completely revamped. The current standards don’t mention evolution, but the new draft standards do so prominently. This has stirred up the anti-evolution crowd, including several education system decision-makers. The real story here is that the science standards overall have been dramatically improved. Unfortunately, the anti-science folks are turning the spotlight off of this improvement and onto the heartburn they have over evolution. Here is a list of decision-makers and other influential people who have gone on record as being in favor of including “other theories,” mainly the creationist Trojan horse intelligent design, alongside evolution.

Yesterday, I posted about a story in the Florida Baptist Witness that is rallying the troops to shoot down established science. I had said that there was little new information in that story. I was wrong. Mike O’Risal pointed out on his blog that there is something very interesting at the tail end of that story:

Kemple distributed to SBOE members a letter and legal memorandum by attorney David Gibbs and curriculum expert Francis Grubbs critiquing the science standards.

“We are concerned about the scientific accuracy of the Florida standards and also about the potential some of these proposed terms might have for requiring only one particular belief system in Florida classrooms, which would be an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause,” write Gibbs and Grubbs.

David Gibbs had made a name for himself before. Here’s what O’Risal clues us in to:

It turns out that David Gibbs, the same David Gibbs who helped get right-wing congressmen to call an emergency session in the middle of the night to stop Terri Schiavo being put to rest, and the same David Gibbs who is currently representing Nathaniel Abraham, the Woods Hole Creationist, has also managed to find himself a place in the spotlight as a leader in the effort by Creationists in Florida to insert religious indoctrination into science classes.

Here’s a bit more about Gibbs’ involvement in the Schiavo case. And here’s information about Gibbs’ involvement in the Nathaniel Abraham case.

Reader, I hope you are not on the sidelines just watching what is happening to Florida’s science education. Get involved. Now.

Yecke beats feet

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

Cheri Yecke is no longer Florida’s K-12 chancellor. The AP story neglects to mention a thing or two that Yecke is very well known for. Oh well. At least she’s gone.

Florida Baptist Witness is on the case

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

We learned of Florida Board of Education member Donna Callaway’s dislike for sound science education, namely, her opposition to evolution being taught, in the Florida Baptist Witness last month. It looks to me like the publication is rallying the flock to turn up the pressure with their latest story on the subject. There’s not much new in the story, but one worrying aspect is that the editor apparently had a conversation with the Board’s chairman, Willard Fair. Fair is quoted a few times in the story, but doesn’t come out and say anything to take a side for or against the new draft of the state science standards that include evolution prominently. However, he is in the story, and talks in a positive way about Callaway. Is that a bad sign, or am I reading too much into the quotes?

The story focuses on parent activists working hard against the teaching of evolution. We need to work harder. Don’t forget our All I Want for Christmas is a Good Science Education campaign. And there are still two more public meetings concerning the draft science standards. Consider attending one and being heard!

January 3, 2008, 5:30 to 7 p.m.
The Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership
http://www.schultzcenter.org/
4019 Boulevard Center Drive
Jacksonville, FL 32207
(904) 348-5757

January 8, 2008, 5:30 to 7 p.m.
Everglades High School
17100 SW 48 CT.
Miramar, FL 33025
(754) 323-0500

Let these folks know that this is not a battle between religion and non-religion as they would have us believe. They are forcing a battle between religion and religion. I’ll let a quote from Florida Citizens for Science president Joe Wolf illustrate this point:

But Joe Wolf, president of Florida Citizens for Science, said intelligent design is a religious concept, not a scientific theory.

“Teaching intelligent design, creationism, can only cause confusion in the minds of students. How can we expect students to learn science when we’re teaching religion?” said Wolf, who identified himself as a Christian believer and a deacon in his church. “I accept evolution as the only current scientific theory that explains the natural world. I’m sick and tired of being told you can’t accept evolution and be a Christian.”

Why can’t he just stand up for science?

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

The St. Petersburg Times education blog tries to nail Jello to the wall. In other words, they interviewed new Florida education commissioner Eric J. Smith and tried to get him to commit to a stance on evolution and intelligent design. He simply wouldn’t do it. The blog says that he was a science teacher, but doesn’t specify what branch of science. A quick search on the Internet turns up little more than that he taught “math and science at what was then Union Park Junior High” in Orange County in 1972. So, there is no telling if he knows any biology.

Do you believe evolution should be taught in the science curriculum?

This decision will ultimately be made by the State Board of Education. The public input period for the web concluded on Friday and we have two public hearings set to take place in January. I’m going to reserve my opinions on the matter until all of that input has been received and I have had a chance to review it.

Does the state need to include other “alternatives” such as creation or intelligent design and let the students decide for themselves?

Again, I’m going to reserve my opinions on the matter until I am able to review public input and listen to what is said during the public hearings.

Good grief. You either think we should teach science or you don’t. Once again we have someone who seems to want to defer to public opinion rather than the actual experts in the subject.