Archive for March, 2008

Jumping the gun a bit

Monday, March 31st, 2008

Here’s a funny blurb up on the St. Petersburg Times website:

SENATOR QUITS: The sponsor of a measure allowing Florida teachers to espouse “alternatives” to the theory of evolution announced today that she is resigning from the Legislature to pursue a degree in paleontology.

State Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, said she has changed her mind about evolution and hopes to be able to build a model of a T. rex in the lobby of the state Capitol.

In reply, the president of the state Association of Science Teachers announced plans to enter a seminary.

The headline says “Be sure to check the date on this news.” Of course, it’s meant for the April 1 edition … but it’s up on the website March 31 at 7:30 p.m. I guess the joke is on the paper for posting a bit too early.

Oh, and speaking of April Fools.

Friday morning news

Friday, March 28th, 2008

Tampa Bay Online: Academic Anarchy

What Stein really meant to say is that the bill insulates teachers from being held accountable for their speech. One wonders whether Florida’s citizens really desire that public-school teachers have that type of protection, one to which few private-sector workers are entitled (and for good reason).

Principals are accountable to the government for the academic performance of their students, and yet the government is proposing another bill that will severely hamper the management flexibility of principals. This is accountability without autonomy, and it’s a recipe for failure.

In this particular case, Floridians should be especially wary. Academic-freedom bills, of all stripes, are generally terrible things. They proclaim to protect a persecuted class, but rarely is that verifiable.

The Storms and Hays proposal purports to shield public-school teachers who are vilified for questioning evolution’s tenets. But a significant number of such teachers simply doesn’t exist.

And what’s more, public-school educators, especially the most incompetent ones, already receive from their unions more job protection than they need or deserve.

The “Academic Freedom Act” is thoroughly flawed and is deserving of deft dismissal.

St. Petersburg Times: Floridians seem content in a state of ignorance

Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859; it wasn’t until this February that Florida’s state Board of Education voted to allow teachers to utter the word “evolution.” But Sen. Ronda Storms, ever a vigilant foe of egghead secularism, has filed a bill to strike a blow for biblical science.

“I would love to know what the ‘scientific alternatives’ are,” says Joe Travis, evolutionary biologist and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at FSU. “I don’t know of any. Not unless I change my definition of ‘science’ to include the supernatural.”

Storms, Wise et al. insist their bill is also about freedom of speech. Why not throw the Word of God up against Darwin in biology class? Never mind that Genesis has differing accounts (Gen. 1:1-2:4 and 2:5-24 — check it out) of the creation. Never mind that knowledge of ancient Hebrew myth won’t go far in getting you a job at Scripps or Torrey Pines. Speaker of the House Marco Rubio claims he wants Florida to become the “Silicon Valley” of energy diversification and biotech industry. But he told the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper, “I don’t want a school system that teaches kids that what they’re learning at home is wrong.”

Which impulse will win out with the Republican leadership, Sunshine Silicon or Ain’t Kin to No Monkey? Here’s a hint: Check the poll numbers above. Our students don’t need no stinking science. They’ll have God. He’ll tell them all they need to know. And if they ever travel beyond the Floridian Theocracy, He’ll protect them from falling off the edge of the Earth.

Morning news dump

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

Palm Beach Post: ‘Evolution Act’ passed by panel

“You cannot simply call a religious belief scientific information and thus open the door to teaching it in our scientific classrooms,” said Courtenay Strickland, the daughter of a Baptist minister and a science teacher.

Strickland spoke on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the Pennsylvania lawsuit that struck down the teaching of intelligent design.

She promised another “massive” lawsuit here if teachers use it to discuss religion in science class.

Tampa Tribune: Evolution Bill Moves Forward

Those who oppose Darwin’s theory of evolution aren’t all religiously motivated, backers said Wednesday, although Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, made her views clear when she said she thought kindergartners should not be taught Darwinian evolution because “that may be brainwashing.” She also told the committee of her own experience in college, where she refused to answer a science exam question about evolution with the accepted Darwinian answer and instead copied down the creation story in Genesis, Chapter 1.

St. Petersburg Times: High-profile issues move through the Florida Legislature

The debate over school science standards moved to the Legislature officially Wednesday when a Senate education panel voted 4-1 for “protections” for students and teachers who offer alternative theories to evolution — despite a report saying there’s never been a case alleging such discrimination in Florida.

Don’t Panic

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

I have a little bit of an eyewitness account of what happened in the Senate Pre-K – 12 committee today concerning the creationism bill (“academic freedom”) SB2692. But before I get to that I want to tell you: Don’t Panic.

Today’s committee meeting was just one hurdle. The bill was also assigned to the judiciary committee, and that hearing has yet to be scheduled. From there the bill must then go to the full Senate. There is a bill on the House side, too. It has yet to be scheduled for its education committee hearing. If it makes it out of that committee, the bill then goes before the full House. If both bills go that far and are approved in their respective chambers, any difference in the two versions must be hashed out. Finally, the bill goes to the governor. Bottom line: Don’t Panic. There are still opportunities to stop this … ahem … “smelly crap.”

Here’s something to think about, though. We are aware that the offices of the senators who are on the committee that met today were absolutely slammed with phone calls. So much so that staffers were assigned full time phone duty to handle the onslaught. Our callers were told a few times that the majority of messages were in favor of the bill. You can be sure that the organizations that have gone public with their support for these bills (Florida Baptist Witness and Florida Family Action) have mobilized their forces in a big way. If you care about science education in Florida, then you need to be making phone calls and sending letters and prodding everyone you know to do the same. Our state legislators need to know that those who support sound science education are here … and are mad!

OK, enough of the lecture. Let’s move on to the eyewitness account. What I’m relaying here comes from a person who was at the meeting. However, the information comes via e-mail to me and isn’t complete. If I can fill in some holes later I will.

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At least five people (college professors and an ACLU representative) attended the committee meeting to testify against the “academic freedom” bill. Sen. Storms testified in favor of her bill. She read from a list of names of scientists who question evolution as a satisfactory theory [I guess it’s the Dissent from Darwin list she used. Project Steve is a good answer to it. –Brandon] After that, each person testifying was given three minutes to speak.

In response, one person testifying against the bill chose to quote from the National Academy of Sciences document “Science, Evolution & Creationism.” He read:

“Recent calls to introduce “critical analysis” into science classes disguise a broader agenda. Other attempts to introduce creationist ideas into science employ such phrases as “teach the controversy” or “present arguments for and against evolution.” Many such calls are directed specifically at attacking the teaching of evolution or other topics that some people consider as controversial. In this way, they are intended to introduce creationist ideas into science classes, even though scientists have thoroughly refuted these ideas. Indeed, the application of critical thinking to the science curriculum would argue against including these ideas in science classes because they do not meet scientific standards” (p.52).

One committee member asked Sen. Storms what the competing theories to evolution are and she gave a non-answer. Then another committee member gave a rambling testimony of her support of the Bible and how she is against evolution. It is sad to think that she represents Florida citizens in matters such as this. It is hoped that this committee does not represent the thinking/feeling of the full Senate.

[edited to add: I spoke with the person who gave me the above account, Ron Good who is a FCS board member and Professor Emeritus, Science Education, Louisiana State University and Florida State University. He added that there were about five people against the bill (including Ron) and about 10 people for the bill. However, only five of the 10 for the bill got to speak because there was little time left during the meeting. Ron says he seriously doubts any of the people speaking had any influence on the committee’s decision. It looked like all of their minds were made up already. He also said that Sen. Bullard was the one who was talking about her support for the Bible. This brief post on a Palm Beach Post blog goes into detail as to what Bullard said: “That may be brainwashing.” That certainly falsifies this quote from Storms: “It’s interesting for me to note that the only folks who have brought up religion today have been those in opposition.” Thank you, Ron, for your time!]

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Here is a post in the St. Petersburg Times education blog about today’s vote. There is a ray of hope there:

But [Larcenia] Bullard, the lone supportive Democrat, had reservations. And she said she might not support it if a final Senate vote is taken.

“This is very confusing to me because I believe this is going to open the door for some serious problems in the public school system,” said Bullard, of Miami.

I don’t know what kind of recording goes on in these committee meetings. Hopefully, there is some audio or at least a transcript that can be requested under public records law. It would be very good to listen to or read everything that happened.

The Miami Herald has a short story posted online about some changes made to the senate bill. Essentially, Storms is trying to answer protests that she is sneaking intelligent design into the classroom. If that is the case, then what in the heck is the purpose of this bill? ID is the only anti-evolution (and yet non-scientific) flag waving right now. Could Storms please give us some scientific arguments against evolution this will would cover that are not ID or creationism based!

Storm’s changes pleased scientists like as Paul Cottle, an FSU physics professor, and Gerry Meisels, a chemistry professor at the University of South Florida. Both men helped form the new state science standards, approved last month by the Board of Education, that evolution be explicitly taught clearly and consistently for the first time in Florida public schools.

They both noted that the standards already call for critical thinking, so they questioned the motives of the religiously minded groups pushing for the bill.

“The standards are not broken. Please don’t try to fix them,” Meisels said.

I will keep the tracking the bills post updated as things move along, complete with links to committees, voting record, etc. It’s not too early to start contacting the Senate Judiciary committee members!

Bad news

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

Storms’ “academic freedom” bill was approved by the education committee on a 4-1 vote.

[edited to add: For those of you dropping in from outside links, please see my latest blog post “Don’t Panic” for much more information. And also see the “tracking the bills” post for legislative information.]

Morning news dump

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

Sun-Sentinel: Consideration of evolution bill is questioned.

State Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, said the Board of Education was updating standards that produced students with science scores “among the lowest in the nation.”

The state has invested hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to lure biotechnology companies to Florida.

“Then we turn around and say we’re back to [the 1800s.],” Rich said. “It has nothing to do with the money, the budget. It is just an issue that we should not waste any time on.”

News-Press: Evolution-bill fight reaches Statehouse

Tampa Tribune: Astrophysicist DeGrasse Speaking In St. Petersburg

TAMPA – Neil deGrasse Tyson may be the world’s sexiest astrophysicist, but he cares more about the state of science literacy than his much-touted good looks.

“There are adversaries, cultural adversaries, to the progress of science,” Tyson said by telephone this week. “History has demonstrated that whenever they get the upper hand, progress stalls or reverses.”

Tyson will talk tonight about his passion — the universe — but he’s happy to tackle any subject the audience wants to discuss, including the evolution-creationism debate.

“My concern is not whether people in the world are religious or whether they maintain a faith-based system of thought,” he said. “What matters is whether they take that philosophy into the science classroom. If you want to bring non-science into the science classroom you will compromise what the next generation thinks science is.”

Senate bill analysis and edits

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

It looks like preparations are being made for the Wednesday afternoon Florida Senate Education Pre-K – 12 committee meeting. At this meeting Senator Storms’ so-called “academic freedom” act will be considered. A check of the bill’s page on the Senate website shows a couple of new documents have been created. First is a Bill Analysis and Fiscal Impact Statement. This document was prepared by the “Professional Staff of the Education Pre-K – 12 Committee”, with the specific person who is the analyst only being listed by last name: Carrouth. Whoever Carrouth is, I want to give that person a pat on the back. The analysis is pretty darn good.

It first points out that the new state science standards already provide for free inquiry in the science classroom. The Nature of Science section of the standards address this quite nicely. The bill analysis states: “Taken as a whole, the science standards encourage teachers and students to discuss the full range of scientific evidence related to all science, including evolution.”

The analysis goes on to say that the curriculum standards must be taught, and that those standards now in place provide for addressing “controversial subject matter … albeit in a professional and objective manner …” The analysis then points out that no Florida teacher or student has ever claimed to be discriminated against in science class.

There is some ambiguity in the bill, according to the analysis. Some terms are not defined, which could lead to misinterpretation and eventual lawsuits. The analysis says: “Additionally, the bill is silent on who defines the objectivity of the scientific information presented. The administration and the teacher may have quite different views on the objectiveness of the information presented.”

On page three, there are a number of good points brought up concerning teacher discipline and student expectations. Some pertinent quotes:

The bill is silent on the school district’s or principal’s authority to discipline a teacher for failing to teach the standards.

The bill provides that public school students may be evaluated based on their understanding of course materials (emphasis added). This provision appears to allow school districts the discretion in evaluating a student on his or her knowledge of the standards.

The bill provides a protection for a student’s views on chemical or biological evolution. This provision is unnecessary and may have an unintended consequence.

The next page makes it quite clear, based on past court cases such as Epperson, Mozert and Kitzmiller that there is nothing wrong with teaching evolution, any law passed of this nature needs to be purely secular, and that intelligent design is not permissible because of its religious nature.

Overall, a very good analysis that I hope all the committee members read closely.

I’m guessing that in response to this analysis, a committee amendment was created, tweaking the language of the original bill. Note that it now says that instead of being entitled “academic freedom act” it should now be called the “evolution academic freedom act.” How interesting!

Also note that there is a new paragraph (2) that explicitly defines the term “scientific information.” With this very clear paragraph inserted, it makes me wonder if anyone knows what the heck they’re talking about. The paragraph is accurate as far as I’m concerned, but it also completely neuters the bill. Seeing as how there is literally no scientific information, as defined, that conflicts with evolution, what is the secular purpose of this bill?

There are a few other spots in the amendment that were changed, most likely based on the analysis. One thing that was left intact, though, is the line about the legislature finding that “in many instances” educators felt threatened when presenting the “full range of scientific views regarding chemical and biological evolution.” And yet the analysis makes it quite clear that no such cases are known.

Here’s to hoping that there are enough sane lawmakers on the committee who will see this act as a waste of time and energy. We’ll find out tomorrow.

[edited to add: We’ve gotten word that the senators on the committee have been flooded with phone calls about this bill. You can be sure that those in support of the bill are burning up the phone lines. It’s important that you get on the phone as soon as you can Wednesday morning to counter them. Remember: those who tried to change the state science standards flooded the board of education with correspondence, which turned out to be influential with varying degrees of success. The board had no intention of holding a public hearing during their February meeting, but did because of the overwhelming pressure. What kind of pressure is being exerted now on the senators? Click on each senator’s name on this list to get their contact information and then call!]

How will the Senate committee meeting shake out?

Monday, March 24th, 2008

The St. Petersburg Times education blog, The Gradebook, wonders how Wednesday’s Senate education committee meeting will go with Senator Storms’ “academic freedom” bill on the schedule.

The committee has seven members – four Republicans and three Democrats – and one of the Republicans, Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, is co-sponsoring Storms’ bill. Two members – Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami – have commented about the issue, but not enough to comfortably predict how they will vote. As for the other four, who knows?

The blog then links to an earlier news story that quotes the committee chair.

Sen. Don Gaetz, the Panhandle Republican who chairs the K-12 committee, said he will most likely schedule Storms’ bill for consideration.

“I had hoped the Board of Education would resolve the scientific standards, but obviously the pot is still boiling,” said Gaetz, former Okaloosa school superintendent.

Still, he is cautious.

“I just hope we don’t have the second rendition of the Scopes Monkey trial,” said Gaetz, a self-described Christian, “I don’t think her bill does that. If she wants to truly encourage discussion and debate, then I can be supportive. If it turns into a prescription for a certain religious doctrine, then I have to oppose the bill.”