January 07, 2008

Brandon Haught/Florida Citizens for Science in the News

I'm glad to see that this morning's Daytona Beach News-Journal is running a front page news article about Brandon Haught's efforts to improve Florida's science education standards via Florida Citizens for Science. I was a member of the organization when I lived in Florida, though as a full-time student I had very little time to do much besides write letters. Nonetheless, I know that FCS has worked unceasingly against some very long odds and been an effective voice in a state in which anti-science fundamentalism is largely the norm. I hadn't known until this article that Haught's day job was as a spokesperson for the Volusia County sheriff's office. In fact, I never had an encounter with the Voluisa County sheriff's office at all, which I count as a good thing!

Sheriff's spokesman joins evolution debate

Brandon Haught stays on top of murders, robberies and freak accidents as a spokesman for the Volusia County Sheriff's Office.

In his spare time, Haught has gotten in the middle of the debate over teaching evolution in public schools, tweaking elected and school officials who would water down science education.

He is the chief blogger for the Florida Citizens for Science. Under the header "Those not in favor of good science education, raise your hand," Haught lists the names of officials skeptical of teaching evolution.

The cultural war is heating up because the Florida Board of Education is expected to vote on new science standards Feb. 19. The state standards influence the development of classroom instruction, the content of science textbooks and the kinds of questions asked on standardized tests...

Haught said journalists are inaccurate whenever they say evolution is "just a theory" because scientific theories by definition are backed up with experimentation and tests. So unlike the common use of the word of theory, scientific theories are much more than "hunches" or "best guesses," Haught said...

As an activist, Haught also makes sure his side knows the enemy. David Gibbs III, a member of the Christian Law Association critical of the proposed science standards, is the same lawyer who represented the parents of Terri Schiavo in the intense political battle to keep the comatose woman on life support, noted Haught, who linked online to the lawyer's biography.

...When asked about his activism, Gary Davidson, Haught's boss, referred to the sheriff's directives manual, which tells employees they are "encouraged to exercise your rights as citizens" with the stipulations that county employees cannot run for political office or participate in political activities during work hours.

Looking beyond his current job, Haught, 37, is taking online courses to become a high school science teacher. As the father of two children in public schools in Lake County, he is concerned about state education. As a taxpayer, he finds it contradictory that Florida will spend millions to attract biotech companies but balk at teaching basic science...

Haught said Polk County School Board members backed away from their initial support for alternative explanations after getting flooded by email from Pasta-farians.

For the record, four of five Volusia County school board members told The News-Journal they support making evolution part of the state's science standards. Only Al Williams said he did not know enough to have an opinion.

Two of the five Flagler County School Board members responded to an e-mail query. Peter Palmer said he thinks of "himself as a good Christian who has no problem with the evolutionary concept." Colleen Conklin straddled the issue, saying "the state must recognize evolution as a science standard" while adding there "is value in sharing with students that not all believe this theory to be true."

As a supporter of science education, Judy Conte, chairwoman of the Volusia County School Board, said she is worried about the upcoming vote on the science standards.

"I hope the state board doesn't give Florida anything else to be embarrassed about," she said.
I'll second what Judy Conte said and hope that FCS is already working to give Al Williams the education he needs. I'll even agree with Colleen Conklin that there's value in letting students know that not everyone "believes" in evolutionary theory, though I'd condition that by noting that scientific theories aren't matters of belief but of evidence. Individual belief plays no part in good science. I'd then move on to teaching evolutionary theory as it applied to the material under discussion. That's just me — and, thankfully, a lot of other people of the state in which I formerly resided.

Peter Palmer seems, from his statement, to have the right idea. He doesn't call evolution a belief but a concept, which of course is exactly what it is. I don't know how much thought he's put into the statement, but he seems to have chosen a neutral — dare I say logical — term. My suspicion is that Palmer has his beliefs and is comfortable with the idea that he's the one who has them; he's not driven to push them into a classroom or laboratory. According to his bio, Palmer is a New England native, and I wonder how much that influenced his thinking on this. As I've noted elsewhere, one of the things I like about New England generally is that there is a much more live-and-let-live attitude and religion tends to be a personal matter, not a force for creating social models. Yes, people go to church here and have their beliefs and rituals and whatnot. They just don't expect that everyone else will agree. Fine with me.

In any case, it's nice to see Brandon Haught getting some positive recognition for his work and Florida Citizens for Science getting a bit of publicity. If it attracts a few more people to the organization, so much the better.

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