March 13, 2008

Feral Bullshit's Day Out: Florida Legislators Lobbied with Expelled in Tallahassee

Ben Stein and Casey Luskin were on hand last night at Tallahassee's Challenger Learning Center for an exclusive screening of the anti-evolution propaganda film Expelled. Of course, so were the authors of the so-called Academic Freedom Bill, a piece of proposed legislation intended to undermine Florida's at-long-last-modernized science education standards by creating a proviso to allow dissenting teachers to teach students personal opinions as scientific fact.

The people involved in this effort are unquestionably motivated by religious beliefs. Ronda Storms and Alan Hays, authors of the bill, are members of the fundamentalist First Baptist Church. Casey Luskin is a fellow of the Discovery Institute, an organization perhaps best characterized by the statements of fearless leader William "The Designer of intelligent design is the Christian God" Dembski. While not explicitly endorsing a particular religion, the intent of the bill is to allow for religious instruction disguised as science delivered to students who would, in nearly all circumstances, lack sufficient prior education to know the difference between the two.

Concerns that this screening violates Florida's Sunshine Law, which mandates that discussion of legislation and meetings with lobbyists over the same be conducted in public, were brushed aside:

The House general counsel's office advised members that the private screening of Stein's film does not violate the state's "gift ban" law, because the film company does not have a legislative lobbyist. It also is not subject to be "Government in the Sunshine" law because, Stemberger said, there would be no discussion of the Storms and Hays bills.


Portrait: When Failure Meets IncompetenceWhile it may be true that no such discussion took place during the screening of the film, it does seem that it took place after the film:
Stein, a conservative commentator on CBS best known for his role in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," scheduled meetings with House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, and other legislators to endorse bills by Rep. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, and Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon.


Meeting with legislators to endorse legislation sounds a lot like lobbying to me.

The question about the Academic Freedom Bill being asked is whether it permits for teaching Creationism as science in science classrooms. It does so without actually mentioning Creationism or its weaselier sibling Intelligent Design by name, and it does it by allowing for something called "any scientific theory" to be taught. It doesn't mention how to recognize a scientific theory, however, reducing it to whatever someone thinks might be one, particularly when that consists of an imagined scientific debate — even when the debate isn't taking place within a scientific discipline but instead is a political, social, or religious contention.
Asked whether intelligent design qualifies as "scientific," Storms was more circumspect. Anything that "legitimately provides for a scientific critique of the theory of evolution" should be permitted for discussion, she said.


Orlando attorney John Stemberger, head of the Florida Family Policy Council, and Casey Luskin, an attorney and program officer for the Center for Science and Culture at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, said the pending legislation would not permit teaching of religious theory in public schools. They said, however, that teachers and students need protection from being discriminated against for questioning evolution or advancing their own beliefs in other science-based theories.


Note that at no point have Storms, Hays, or anyone else advanced an alternative scientific theory, nor even been able to define what other theory would be protected by this legislation. Instead, let's put this in context: what's being protected here is an imagined right to teach things that are either bad science or not science at all. Whose opinions are being protected, then?

People who haven't been able to get papers published because they failed peer review. Teachers who have taught non-scientific, religious ideas as viable alternatives to the product of real inquiry. In fact, the only thing protected by this is crackpottery. This isn't about debates over the legitimacy of endosymbiosis theory or the frequency of transversions or the extent of epigenetic effects. We aren't talking about people who are attempting to apply their knowledge of skeletal physiology to the question of which extinct organisms were the progenitors of endothermy. What we're talking about, in fact, are those educators who want to assert a role for supernatural, untestable involvement against the force of knowledge gathered by the application of methodological naturalism.
"The answer is no," said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council. "This does not allow the permitting of alternate theories to be taught. It only allows the criticism and the presenting of relevant, objective scientific evidence which criticizes chemical or biological evolution."

That would seem to settle the question. Yet moments later, Casey Luskin, an attorney for the Seattle-based Discovery Institute said that even as he agreed with Stemberger, he personally considers intelligent design to be "scientific information."

All of which raises questions about what qualifies as "science" - and who, ultimately, decides.


The actor, and former speechwriter for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, is preparing to release "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," his documentary about scientists and educators who have paid a price professionally for challenging natural selection and other premises of Darwinian evolution.

Some have been denied jobs or tenure; others cannot get their articles published, and many have been subject of ridicule, he said.


Stein's ludicrous comments — mind you, they come from an actor and speechwriter from the Nixon administration, so Stein can't be said to be anything like an authority on any of this — betray a complete opposition to the peer review process. Why are scientific journals peer reviewed at all in Stein's estimation? Why don't they just publish everything submitted to them? The reason, of course, is that just because someone says something, no matter how fervently they might believe it, doesn't make it good science or science at all. In fact, material is refused publication in journals routinely because it's simply incorrect, flawed, or incomplete. A paper based on illegitimate hypotheses shouldn't be published. If Stein were to have his way, every crackpot idea that anyone could dream up would be put on the same footing as legitimate inquiry by finding an outlet in publication. It's impossible enough to keep up with all of the material that passes peer review; adding many times over that amount in sheer junk would swamp all attempts at scholarship. How useless would science education itself become if this were the state of things? But that's exactly what Stein, Luskin, and the authors of the Academic Freedom Bill would like to see. Make no mistake, this isn't just about evolutionary biology, but about science in general. In fact, it's about education in general; under the language of this bill, any belief could be taught in a classroom as if it were as well-founded as real inquiry. Children could get a Sally Kern version of history and sociology, for example, and I don't think it's coincidental that Kern is sponsoring legislation in Oklahoma that bears a good deal of resemblance to the legislation pending in Florida.

This effort by Stein, the Discovery Institute, the First Baptist Church, Hays, Storms and, yes, Sally Kern as well, has nothing to do science and everything to do with social engineering. This is the Wedge Strategy in action, nothing more and nothing less. Thankfully, not everyone is falling for it, not even all of those who attended the screening.
The ambiguity concerns Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Lutz. "I don't want that rubric to become a subterfuge for teaching faith-based lessons, which really belong in Sunday School."


"I wasn't aware of anybody being penalized for questioning evolution," said [House Minority Leader Dan] Gelber. "The Legislature needs to walk away from this debate. The State Board of Education has addressed it and that's the end of the debate. This is a solution in search of a problem."


People in Florida who are concerned with the students of that state receiving a well-founded, useful education in the sciences — and more generally — would do well to listen to Barry Boerner, president of the Tallahassee Scientific Society, in his letter to the editor appearing in the Tallahassee Democrat.
...Reviewers who have seen this film, which is set for general release next month, conclude that it is a baseless, scurrilous attack on science. On the basis of these reviews and the film's lengthy trailer, we concur.

We feel that this event runs counter to the CLC's mission "to foster long-term interest in math, science and technology; create positive learning experiences; and motivate students to pursue careers in these fields."

When we asked the CLC to explain why such a film would be allowed , we were told that in renting its facilities, the center is bound by guidelines that discriminate only on the basis of whether a proposed activity is "pornographic, exceptionally violent or illegal."

We feel that such guidelines beg for review. Under these conditions, a nonpornographic, nonviolent showing of a movie "proving" the genetic inferiority of blacks, just for one egregious example, would be acceptable to the CLC...
I would go one step further. The directorate of the Challenger Learning Center has, by allowing this film to be shown in their facility, has utterly failed in its mission and should either do the honorable thing and resign or else be removed from their posts. In a private email from someone close to the center, I have been informed of the following:
As you can see they had previously consulted their lawyers about the private showing, who advised that they would have no legal basis for refusing the rental of their theater even though they did not like the material to be presented. Whereas the programs they themselves produce must follow certain guidelines, only blatantly offensive presentations are prohibited by private showings.
By any standard, attempts to link evolutionary biologists to the Holocaust qualify as "blatantly offensive" in much the same way that Boerner's example is "blatantly offensive." Regardless of what attorneys may have said, someone charged with fulfilling the CLC's mission should have stood up to this. Attorneys are not the arbiters of conscience and any lawsuit that resulted from Michelle Personnette and Norman Thagard demonstrating the possession of a spine in the face of this egregious attack on science would have been met with widespread support in fighting it. Can you imagine a world in which people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been cowed into non-action by the threat of a lawsuit? "Oh, we can't march on Selma. The governor of Alabama might sue us." "Forget about women's suffrage; we might get sued." Cowardice will lose every time; at this unfortunate point in our cultural history, we need leaders to insure that America isn't plunged into a pre-scientific darkness. The directors of the CLC clearly aren't the right people for their jobs at this time and should be replaced with someone willing to do what needs to be done "to foster long-term interest in math, science and technology; create positive learning experiences; and motivate students to pursue careers in these fields."

Sphere: Related Content