December 22, 2007

Creationism in Florida: PZ and Pastafarians Productively Pummel Polk; Pinellas Prepares

It's nice to have some good news in the effort to save science education, and my alliterative headline is in no way intended to take anything away from the efforts of Wesley Elsberry, Florida Citizens for Science, or anyone else who helped make it happen.

The good news is that it appears that the Creationism-inclined members of the Polk County Board of Education are backing down from their positions that intelligent design Creationism should be taught in science classes. That leaves Pinellas County in play, as it were, but the Pastafarians already appear to be wading into that fray as well. The following excerpts come from an article in today's Tampa Tribune.

Polk Needled, Noodled In Evolution Flap

LAKELAND - Public floggings hurt, even when administered by satirical sacred noodles.

Ask the Polk County School Board. The panel made news last month when five of its seven members declared a personal belief in the concept of intelligent design, the religiously based explanation of the development of life believed in by many Christians.

Four of those five sympathetic board members said they would like to see intelligent design taught in Polk schools as an alternative to Darwinian evolution, at a time when new state standards mentioning evolution by name for the first time are under consideration...

Yet a few weeks later, the controversy is dying with a whimper. There's no board support for a challenge to the proposed standards. Some of the five school board members blame the local newspaper for trying to start a fight.

"It's not our agenda," said Tim Harris, one of the board members. "My personal opinion and how I vote don't always jibe."

What happened? You can start with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster...

...They deluged Polk school board members with e-mail demanding equal time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism's version of intelligent design.

"They've made us the laughingstock of the world," said Margaret Lofton, a school board member who supports intelligent design. She dismissed the e-mail as ridiculous and insulting.

That's the point. The Pastafarians are part of an informal online network that can rain scrutiny and ridicule on school districts flirting with intelligent design. In Polk County, where leaders are working hard to start a polytechnic university campus and talk about attracting high-tech jobs, that's unwelcome attention...

A reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland called school board member Kay Harris Fields to ask her opinion of the pending state standards.

There's nothing pernicious about that, said The Ledger's longtime Executive Editor Skip Perez.

"We do what newspapers are supposed to do, report on what our public officials are thinking about topics of interest," Perez said.

The story quoted Fields as opposing the evolution portion of the new standards and looking for state Superintendent Gail McKinzie to say whether there was anything to be done about them locally.

"There needs to be intelligent design as well," Fields said in the story. "You need to show both sides."

Fields said later, via e-mail, she didn't realize there would be a story "on the front page of the Ledger indicating that I opposed evolution."

The newspaper followed up with a second story polling the entire board.

"And the rest is history," Fields said.

Enter the Pastafarians. And Wired Magazine. And national science blog Pharyngula. And local bloggers...

Wesley R. Elsberry, a Michigan State scientist who was raised and educated in Lakeland, wrote an open online letter to the school district, making reference to the Dover case. Elsberry, who studies the evolution of intelligence in digital organisms akin to computer viruses, helped prepare a Dover expert witness.

In his Polk letter, Elsberry wrote: "You've been conned. 'Intelligent design' is a legal sham, a con game, one whose sole purpose is to insert a narrow sectarian doctrine into public school classrooms..."

Polk County is increasingly at odds with itself as it urbanizes and struggles to decide to which region of Florida it belongs.

One of the few generally unifying ideas, though, is the pursuit of a new applied science-focused campus of the University of South Florida, to be located in northeast Lakeland along Interstate 4. It would be the state's first four-year public polytechnic college. Polk County and Lakeland city governments each have recently pledged $5 million to help kick-start the campus, which remains in bureaucratic and fiscal limbo.

Backers see it as a potential economic engine and keystone of a high-tech I-4 corridor. They envision creating business incubators and luring technology companies.

So what was the reaction to news of intelligent design talk?

"I was surprised," said Marshall Goodman, a USF vice president and CEO of the existing and future Lakeland campuses.

Goodman, who has worked to promote the new campus among Polk's civic, business and political leaders, stopped short of criticizing local school board members. Intelligent design, however, merited no such tact.

"It's not science," Goodman said. "You can't even call it pseudo-science..."

Darwinian evolution, by name and in some detail...

Florida is one of only a small handful of states with science standards that don't prescribe the teaching of evolution by name. The new standards would change that. State-sanctioned textbooks, however, already teach and discuss 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..."
It's worth noting a few things about what's being said in this article.

It's rather disingenuous for Kay Fields to state that she didn't expect The Polk Ledger to run a front page story on the position of school board members after interviewing them on the subject. Generally speaking, it a newspaper reporter interviews you, there's a pretty good chance that he/she is writing a story and will use some or all of what you tell them. It's frequently the case that the editorial staff of a paper doesn't decide before such an interview what story will appear on the front page of their paper; that depends on what else is going on when the paper goes to press and what they find out when they talk to you. If you don't want your opinions to appear in the paper, you tell the reporter that you're not willing to be interviewed. What Fields didn't expect was that what she said would turn much wider scrutiny upon Polk County. Nothing anyone says to a newspaper stays local anymore, ever since the evolution of the Internet. That Fields hadn't considered this possibility says almost as much about her thinking as does her support for intelligent design Creationism in the first place.

Margaret Lofton's claim that they made a laughingstock of the Polk County Board of Ed ("they" being all those people who became aware of what the board members were saying and had something to say about it in response) is utterly fallacious. It was Lofton and Fields and the other Creationist board members who set up for the punchline; those who responded merely delivered it. Had they not adopted this position and talked about it to the media, the responders would have nothing over which to "make a laughingstock" of Lofton and her associates in the first place. Were I a resident of Polk County, I would find it rather telling that at least two school board members were trying to dodge responsibility for their own decisions like this. For what else might they try to hide from accountability in the future? Their attempts to blame everyone in the world speaks volumes about their character.

Lastly, Lofton's statement that she believes that "the Bible is inerrant truth and the word of God" speaks volumes once again about the real motivations behind attempts to wedge intelligent design Creationism into science classes. Much like William Dembski's recent statements to Focus on the Family, we see again that the vast majority of those promoting this strategy are simply looking for a way to push Biblical belief into public schools. As Dr. Elsberry has implied, those who advocate IDC typically reveal themselves as con artists attempting to hide their true motivations if one simply waits long enough. For example, if Lofton really believes what she says that she does, how does she reconcile IDC with the account of creation offered by Genesis? The fact is, she doesn't; she's merely used IDC as a cover for Creationism. She may not even really be aware of what IDC proposes and judging by previous comments certainly doesn't know much about the empirical support for evolutionary biology. The fact is, as soon as a school board members says the word "Creationism," they know they're sunk and so, like the cdesign proponentsists before them, they use a different term in the hopes that nobody will notice. In this regard, very little has changed since Kitzmiller v. Dover. If Polk County wants to modernize, if it wants to attract high tech business and education, it will do much better without people like Lofton and Fields to say such blatantly ridiculous things. To anyone in the real sciences, they're a dead giveaway about problems they may face in locating facilities in a place where public officials say them.

In any case, it looks like everything will work out in the end. Those who worked to turn things around deserve congratulations, as does The Ledger for breaking the story in the first place. Who knows what might have happened had not the paper shone some light on the Creationists and sent them scurrying for cover.

Who knows, perhaps now that there's been a change in Polk there will also be one in Pinellas County. One thing seems certain, however; the fact that David Gibbs and Florida Baptists got involved doesn't seem to have overcome the awesome might of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (PBUHNA).

Sphere: Related Content