Archive for December, 2007

Florida ACLU offers some advice

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

All of the controversy over the inclusion of evolution in the state science standards, and the shocking revelations that many education decision makers are looking seriously at intelligent design has attracted the attention of the Florida ACLU, according to the Orlando Sentinel education blog.

“The desire to inject particular religious beliefs into the science classrooms is divisive, unconstitutional and weakens the state’s credibility as educators,” wrote Rebecca Steele, the head of the ACLU’s Religious Freedom Project, in a letter to the state board.

The full letter can be found here.

Misinformation galore

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

A “your views” piece in the Tallahassee Democrat is a great example of how easily misinformation can be passed along to the general public. The man writes about supposed flaws in evolution research. The writer obviously has no idea what he is actually talking about, or else he’s purposely lying to the reading audience. He has done no research and presented no source material on which to base his assertions. It would be easy for anyone uncritically reading his garbage to think that the writer is knowledgeable and that he got in a few good zingers against those dumb evolutionists. The more likely scenario is that the writer merely parroted talking points he read in some Discovery Institute book.

The majority of his piece is muddled fluff. The only two specific points he actually makes turn out to be anything but fact.

First, he claims that the Cambrian Explosion is a problem for evolution. Supposedly, fossils of complex organisms appear fully formed with no record of anything preceding them. At least, that’s how the writer presents it. He’s wrong. Yes, the abundant fossils of the Cambrian and no discovered fossils before that time period was a puzzler for Darwin, but I’m sure his mind would be at ease with recent discoveries about life before the Cambrian. Have a look at this paper published in 2000: Solution to Darwin’s dilemma: Discovery of the missing Precambrian record of life.

Measured by virtually any criterion one might propose, studies of Precambrian life have burst forth since the mid-1960s to culminate in recent years in discovery of the oldest fossils known, petrified cellular microbes nearly 3,500 million years old, more than three-quarters the age of the Earth. Precambrian paleobiology is thriving—the vast majority of all scientists who have ever investigated the early fossil record are alive and working today; new discoveries are being made at an ever quickening clip—progress set in motion by the few bold scientists who blazed this trail in the 1950s and 1960s, just as their course was charted by the Dawsons, Walcotts, and Sewards, the pioneering pathfinders of the field. And the collective legacy of all who have played a role dates to Darwin and the dilemma of the missing Precambrian fossil record he first posed. After more than a century of trial and error, of search and final discovery, those of us who wonder about life’s early history can be thankful that what was once “inexplicable” to Darwin is no longer so to us.

And it’s important to understand that the “explosion” refers to a time period of about 30 million years, hardly a fast pop in time. Is there scientific controversy concerning the Cambrian explosion? Of course. But such debates have nothing to do with the veracity of evolution overall. For example, you and a friend might be standing in front of a big machine that is churning out widgets. You and the friend can argue about the inner workings of the machine, what makes it tick. But that doesn’t negate that fact that the machine is still producing widgets. Further reading can be found here and here.

Next, the writer moves on to the creationist standard whine about transitional fossils. He claims there are few, if any at all. The writer needs to stick with his day job, because a scientist he is not. There are transitional fossils. One that attracted a lot of attention in the news was a “fishapod,” the Tiktaalik. See more examples here and here and here.

The writer asks:

How many scientific disciplines are still struggling with problems identified in the 19th century? If I’m not mistaken, evolutionary biology is the only one.

Well, you are mistaken. You are the one stuck in the 19th century. Do some research in reliable, authoritative source materials and you may learn a thing or two.

More about Pinellas mess

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

Yesterday, the St. Petersburg Times teased in their education blog today’s story about the Pinellas County school board’s creationist majority. The board members are confused. They worry that students will have a tough time meshing the scientific theory of evolution with their personal and family religious beliefs. And it would seem the school board members themselves are experiencing the same dilemma. For these folks, this is not about the supposed non-religious idea of intelligent design getting equal time with evolution. Forget that paradigm. This is blatantly about wanting some form of religion in the science classroom. Read what these people are saying:

“I think that students should be given the opportunity to view all theories on how man evolved and let their science background and their religious background take over as to which one they believe in,” said Gallucci, also the immediate past president of the National School Boards Association.

O’Shea worries that children who are taught creationism at home might be confused by evolution. And Bostock wonders if creationism could be taught without saying it’s science.

Yes, creationism could be taught without saying it’s science. Just not in the science classroom. Talk about it in a class about world cultures, or comparative religions or philosophy.

Evolution is not a story of creation. It makes no statement on how life started. It addresses the vast diversity of life and how it has changed over time. It’s based on an overwhelming body of facts gathered by thousands of scientists over the past 150 years since Darwin first published his findings. Evolution makes no statement on religion, just like gravity and germs make no statements on religion. Many religious faiths have no problem accepting the facts of evolution.

Fortunately, there are voices of reason on these school boards, even if they are in the minority:

For Clark and Lerner, there is no issue.

“Creationism is a philosophy. It should be taught in synagogues, in mosques and in churches,” Lerner said. “Evolution should be taught in science class because it’s based on scientific evidence.”

To do otherwise would violate the separation of church and state, she said.

Clark, a former middle school science teacher, said the proposed standards are a “step into the 21st century.” She pointed to a recent study that found American students lagging behind many of their international peers in science.

“Let’s start teaching the Bible as science,” Clark said, “and then see how our students compete against the rest of the world.”

You can read the full interviews, not just what made it into the story, at the newspaper’s education blog. Note how some folks are not beating around the bush. The clearly want creationism in the classroom and they say so!

Florida Today has a good editorial today that addresses this matter. It’s the fifth newspaper to write about how important science is without religious interference.

Intelligent design advocates sometimes claim students should be taught both sides of what they call “the controversy” over evolutionary theory for the sake of academic freedom.

But there is no controversy, since evolutionary theory underlies all of biology and reflects volumes of rigorous, repeatedly tested and undeniable evidence.

That’s why a federal judge in Pennsylvania last year rightly ruled Dover, Pa. schools can’t require the teaching of intelligent design because that would be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

And why a January article in the official Vatican newspaper endorsed that ruling and said evolution does not conflict with Roman Catholic teaching.

The list of education decision makers in Florida who don’t understand science and who want to insert some form of religious belief into the science classroom is growing. Take a look for yourself. Let’s do something about it before the anti-science advocates do some serious harm to science education in our state. You can participate in the “All I Want for Christmas is a Good Science Education” project. Other groups are also mobilizing, offering their own campaigns to save sound science. 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
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

Et tu, Pinellas County School Board?

Monday, December 17th, 2007

The list of public school education decision makers who think evolution in the science classroom needs to be muddled with non-scientific ideas is growing. The St. Petersburg Times education blog, The Gradebook, reports that four, count ’em, four members of the Pinellas County school board think evolution needs to be balanced with “other theories.”

A majority of Pinellas County School Board members – including the immediate past president of the National School Boards Association – think that if Florida children are taught about evolution, they should learn other theories on the origin of life as well.

Board members Jane Gallucci, Carol Cook, Peggy O’Shea and Nancy Bostock (shown above, left to right) stopped short of saying that faith-based theories should be included in the state’s proposed new science standards, which the state Board of Education likely will vote on in February.

But all four said such theories should be taught in public school classrooms.

And the winner of the “I have no idea what I’m talking about, but I’ll state my opinion as if I do” award is:

O’Shea suggested that parents who object to evolution being taught to their children might be able to opt them out of that day’s lesson. “I’d probably ideally like to keep it all out of the classroom,” she said. “If it’s going to create this much controversy, how important is it?”

The very foundation of biology? The theory that a proper understanding of life sciences is based on? Naaaaaah … not important at all. While we’re at it, how about we just not bother to teach about punctuation in writing classes. All that mess about commas is just too controversal, so why teach it?

Attention all school board members: If you don’t tell your dentist about other ideas you heard concerning dental care, then I assume you are trusting that professional to do the job he or she is trained and experienced to do. If you don’t tell your auto mechanic that you think that one oily thingy should go here instead of there, then I assume you are trusting him or her to do the job he or she is trained and experienced to do. If, however, you are the kind of person who runs around pretending to be an expert at everything, well, I guess there is not much I can do about you.

However, if you recognize an expert when you see one, and you tend to trust that expert’s judgment over your own when you don’t have a similar expertise, then maybe you can be reached.

The new state science standards were written by experts. They chose to make evolution a big part of the standards for a reason. Likewise, they chose to exclude intelligent design and other nonsense precisely because they know it’s nonsense.

Have a question? Feel free to find and ask an expert. There are plenty of those experts right there in your own schools. Gather information, weigh the importance of the information based on the expertise of your sources, and then speak your mind based on good research rather than just how you feel. As a school board member, that’s your job! Find experts. Listen to experts. Use reasoning skills to arrive at a well-supported conclusion.

This is not about what the majority of the public feel is right. Toss out the popularity contest. Our school children need you to do your jobs!

One heck of a smart student

Thursday, December 13th, 2007

The Daytona Beach News-Journal runs a student voices column, which lets kids voice their opinions about the issues of the day. 15-year-old Johnathan Kenny talks about evolution and religion. He does a great job! Please head over to the site and leave a positive comment.

Regarding the article, Debate About Teaching Evolution Hits Florida (12/9/07), I believe that evolution should be taught in schools not just statewide, but nationwide. Our job as a nation is to instruct our future politicians, actors, engineers and all students everything that we, as a nation, have learned.

Intelligent Design does not belong in science; it belongs in history, as a topic that has only been proven through hearsay rather than through evidence. Belief does not belong in a class of facts and science.

Dust settles after radio show

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

Well, my appearance on the WMFE radio station show Intersection didn’t kill me. Boy, does that half hour fly by fast when you’re on the hot seat!

You can listen to a recording of the show at the station’s website.

I had some trouble taming my jitters, but they didn’t seem to affect what I had to say too much. Now that I’ve had time to listen to the show, I feel I managed to get across my main point: evolution is science and intelligent design is not. Quite frankly, Rev. Book was full of hot air and snapped into preaching mode a few times too many. He didn’t have even an inkling of what he was talking about concerning science, and relied on reading quotes from other people until the show’s host nicely asked him to stop it. However, he couldn’t resist throwing in a few more later on.

At one point, Rev. Book was in full preaching mode and rambling all over the place, and so I finally felt that I needed to step in or else risk Book dominating the show. Thus a little verbal sparring happened. And then right at the end Book tried to run me over and I did my best to not allow him. It looked to me like Book irritated the host at the very end when Book threw in a plug for his own TV show.

So, it was a lively time! Go listen to the show and hear for yourself.

Evolution: it’s on the test. Someone should tell the school board members!

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

The Northwest Florida Daily News published a story about evolution in the new draft of the state science standards. (Make sure to click through all three pages of it.) There are a lot of positive, reasonable quotes in the story, such as:

Evolution is already tested on the ACT and many college entrance exams, explained Mary Jane Tappen, Florida Department of Education executive director of math and science.

“Certainly, Florida students would be at a disadvantage if we decided not to include the theory of evolution in our standards,” Tappen said.

“It’s been proven that things change over time. It is science and things do change,” said Lisa Rogers, a Niceville High School biology teacher.

“Our charge is to write first-class science standards; our students would be at a disadvantage if we did anything less than that,” Tappen said.

Since Okaloosa teachers have always handled the topic “beautifully,” Hagan said this should the least of parents’ concerns.

“We have far more serious issues with our kids than evolution,” she said.

Comments made by a few students were muddled. I’m not clear on what the students were trying to say, and I would be interested in knowing what question they were asked.

Oh, and guess what? It just wouldn’t be a story about evolution without yet another person in charge of education demonstrating how little they know about the subject.

School board member Cathy Thigpen hopes the state board will not endorse the proposed changes.

“If it’s to be mandated, then the state needs to think about all of the other forms of creation that need to be taught in order to give students a balance,” she said.

More positive evolution opinions. Is anyone listening?

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

An opinion column in the Daytona Beach News-Journal points out how silly Florida looks when state leaders advocate science but then turn right around and denigrate science. Talk about a love-hate relationship!

And once more the state is in a fight over evolution, creationism and its big-city cousin, “intelligent design.”

Florida is in the process of approving new science standards, so expect this divide to be pronounced in 2008.

The current standards don’t mention the word “evolution.” They talk about “biological changes over time.”

This was a rather too-clever attempt to head off controversy. It’s not Yahooville because you can still discuss the concept generally. But it’s not Tomorrowland, because you’re talking about the central organizing concept of modern biology in a whisper, as though it were a relative who ran off with the circus.

Most legislators understand that laws mandating creationism, intelligent design, or “teaching the controversy” make our economic Tomorrowland sales pitch sound silly. And that’s bad for business.

Florida already gets enough ridicule without hosting a monkey trial. I’ll be anxious to see if we’ve evolved.

A “reader views” column in the Orlando Sentinel does a good job of highlighting how important revising the state science standards is, and how important keeping religion, yes that means intelligent design and other such “theories”, out of the science classroom.

This is a long overdue and well-reasoned initiative by science education subject-matter experts to include basic training in the fundamental principles of evolution and natural selection in science textbooks and science classroom instruction. This is not an attempt by government to exclude the teaching of concepts such as intelligent design or creationism from public-school classes in religion, history, art, literature or any other humanities discipline.