February 20, 2008

Small Victory for Science Education in Florida

I watched the proceedings of the Florida State Board of Education yesterday over a webcast from Tallahassee. I couldn't watch all of it because I had to teach a biology lab and the feed was choppy at times. Still, I did manage to follow along from 9:00 AM until about 1:00 PM. I listened in from my office at school, spending part of that time reading a paper on the co-evolution of fig trees and the wasps that pollinate them.

I'm glad that the standards passed in some form. Science education in Florida's public schools is a mess and the new standards offer the hope for general improvement. None of the science embodied in those standards includes any theism whatsoever, which is absolutely as it should be. This fact was either lost on or unimportant to the opponents of evolutionary biology, whether they were on the board or testifying before it. The ignorance displayed by some of those who spoke demonstrated exactly why science education standards must be improved and schools must be held accountable for meeting them. I don't know that they will; I suspect that there will be a number of schools in some parts of the state that won't meet the mark and we probably won't know about that until 2012. That's the first time that a science test will be included in the FCAT.

I'm not so happy about the way that the standards were changed to include sticking the words "scientific theory" before every mention of evolution. This having been done, a benchmark should have been included somewhere in the standards that mandates teaching students what a scientific theory is as well. There are a lot of people who don't understand this point or perhaps exploit the multiple meanings of the word intentionally in full knowledge of the scientific connotation in order to push a non-scientific agenda. An excellent example of this was provided by Marti Coley, a state legislator from Marianna, who stated at one point that evolution was just a theory, that it hadn't become a law. If she understood or were honest about what the words mean, she would never make such a statement. The shortcoming that improving science standards carries is that it isn't retroactive. There are still going to be a lot of people who didn't get an education in basic science running the show for years to come.

I was particularly impressed by the vast gusts of hot wind generated by John Stemberger, an ambulance-chaser from Orlando and legal counsel for a bunch of fundamentalists, a man who clearly has no problem lying prolifically in front of large numbers of people. Anyone who says that there is no evidence for evolution, that there are no transitional forms in the fossil record, that any number of independent lines of data generated by every scientific research field don't exist, is nothing more than a liar and anyone who believes that person is nothing more than a sucker. I sat there reading yet another report on research confirming evolutionary theory as Stemberger vomited forth gouts of bilious falsehood onto the floor of the Florida capitol building. There is so much new data every month that confirms the predictions of evolutionary theory, that applies it to a problem and has it successfully resolve the quandry, that I can't possibly hope to keep up with all of it. It's not new; the paper I've linked in this case is already three years old. Nonetheless, here's this shyster standing up and saying that none of it exists. Either I have an imagination so powerful that it can conjure up entire scientific publications that not only I but others can see as well, or else John Stemberger is a deceiver of the greatest magnitude. I leave it to the reader to decide which of these scenarios is more probable.

That deception was the rule of the day on the anti-evolution side was no surprise, of course. Any of us who follow this issue are used to it by now. Donna Callaway stating that her motives in opposing the inclusion of scientifically-sound education in the underlying principles that unites all biological disciplines in the new standards in favor of Dennis Baxley's "Academic Freedom" nonsense were not religious still stand out. Callaway is largely a mouthpiece for the Florida Baptist Convention and Baxley himself leads the Florida Christian Coalition. The last time he pushed something called "Academic Freedom," it was an attempt to allow university students to disrupt college classes if they didn't like what a professor was saying. Now it's an attempt to undermine science education. Baxley, a former state representative from Ocala, and Callaway are nothing if not absolute religious enemies of modern education and progress, and like Stemberger, Callway's insistence that she has any interest in good science education and that her support for undermining it is motivated by concern for free inquiry is bald-faced deception. These are not honest people, and whatever one's opinions on evolution, nobody should stand for being lied to.

In the end, though, at least students have a somewhat better chance of learning about evolution. Who, I wonder, is going to educate the teachers in places like Taylor and Hamilton counties, though? What will insure that lessons on evolution don't consist of one ignorant individual teaching another to memorize a few phrases out of some textbook and then informing them that scientists are the enemy, that everything they've read is a lie but the Great Satan that administers standardized tests demands that they spew forth a few facts in order to graduate to the next grade?

It's a victory for progress in education, but in the end I think it's only a small first step. I fully expect that there will be a few lawsuits coming along the way from clowns-before-the-bar like Stemberger and David Gibbs, backed by fundamentalist groups with deep pockets. There will be attempts to scuttle the new standards through litigation, and after that there may be attempts to have the science portion of the FCAT excluded so that even if the new standards are the de facto law, Creationist-dominated school districts can still get away with teaching nonsense de jure. After all, the new language was included to allow lessons that teach that evolutionary theory is only one theory that explains how life as we know it today came to be in the forms that we see it; the implication is that there are others. None of the deceivers who spoke yesterday made clear what those theories are, of course, but we know what they are. They're neither theories nor science, but they'll be taught nonetheless in some classrooms to the disservice of students. Florida has swapped very bad science education for something nebulous that can easily turn into very bad science education when it comes to biology.

Time will tell whether yesterday's decision in Tallahassee translates into good education. There's still a long way to go.

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