An Open Letter to the Polk County, Florida School Board

The Polk County, Florida school board is upset that the proposed Florida science standards include evolutionary science and don’t include “intelligent design”.

I was born in Lakeland, Florida, and lived for eighteen years there. My parents still live there. I still care about what happens in my home town.

To those on the Polk County school board: 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. It is not a “paradigm shift”; it’s advocates are not “top scientists”; it generates no hypotheses and stays far, far away from even trying to test any of its claims. It is not science. The latest date that it even could have been considered scientific would be sometime in the 19th century, as our understanding of science developed a cognizance that reliance on untestable mechanisms (or non-mechanistic “explanations”) was unproductive. It is not a slur on you that you have fallen for this; it is the property of a well-crafted con that it should be made believable to the mark. But continuing to believe in the con after it has been explained would be a serious lapse of good judgment.

Please do have a look at the experience of the Dover, Pennsylvania Area School District. They adopted an “intelligent design” policy, having believed the hype handed to them by “intelligent design” advocates. Some of those advocates made them a tempting offer; they would be represented in court for free. What they didn’t get was a guarantee on the outcome. During the course of the case, ID advocate after ID advocate withdrew from roles as expert witnesses in response to a call from the Discovery Institute that they should distance themselves from the case. If you adopt “intelligent design”, you don’t have a choice; you have to get your experts from the Discovery Institute or do without. Even with two primary ID advocates testifying for them, the Dover Area School District lost in court, unable to demonstrate that teaching “intelligent design” had any secular purpose, and unable to counter the clear linkage of the content of “intelligent design” to earlier forms of creationism that had been ruled unconstitutional. They lost the case and were assessed costs for the plaintiffs’ legal expenses in the amount of $1,000,011. If you check with your insurer, I am sure that you will find that adopting “intelligent design” will mean that you forgo coverage when you go to court; any fines or costs assessed will be directly your responsibility.

“Intelligent design” had its day in court and was exposed as the sham it is, without scientific standing and without the ability to sidestep the simple fact that every one of its arguments comes from earlier forms of creationism. You don’t have to repeat that experience.

Now, if you do choose to follow the same path that the Dover Area School District did, please rest assured that I will be doing my best to make sure that you fail as spectacularly as they did. I will offer to assist any legal challenge that is made to any policy you adopt that advocates “intelligent design” with the weight of the public educational system behind it. (Among other things, I helped prepare materials used by Kitzmiller v. DASD expert witness Barbara Forrest, as acknowledged in her supplemental expert report filed in the case.) I will do that because what you are contemplating at the moment is wrong. The history of reaction to antievolution shows that those who object to antievolution are predominantly members or clergy of mainstream Christian denominations. “Intelligent design” scorns the beliefs of a large segment of Christian believers, with an ID advocate famously declaring that “intelligent design” was no friend of theistic evolution. ID is not a generic sentiment even among Christians; it remains a divisive, narrow sectarian viewpoint. It is your responsibility that students receive the best education possible, without adopting particular religious views at the expense of others. This means that you must leave the preaching to the churches, who have access to students outside of the public school context. Please also consult the resources of the Clergy Letter Project, where over 10,000 Christian clergy have signed a strong statement of support for teaching evolutionary science.

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

I hope that you make the right choice.

Wesley R. Elsberry, Ph.D.

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22 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Polk County, Florida School Board

  1. Keith

    Please correct ‘antievolution” to “evolution’

  2. Austringer Post author

    Keith,

    “Antievolution” occurs in this passage:

    I will do that because what you are contemplating at the moment is wrong. The history of reaction to antievolution shows that those who object to antievolution are predominantly members or clergy of mainstream Christian denominations. “Intelligent design” scorns the beliefs of a large segment of Christian believers, with an ID advocate famously declaring that “intelligent design” was no friend of theistic evolution.

    It is the correct term to use there. In the 1981 McLean v. Arkansas case, among the couple of dozen plaintiffs were the clergy of a number of Christian denominations, including the United Methodist bishop in Arkansas. These clergy saw clearly that “creation science” was a narrow doctrinal intrusion into the public schools, one that put the state in the position of preferring those narrow religious beliefs over others. They were right to object then, and concerned Christians are right to object now to the intrusion of the same arguments under the guise of “intelligent design”, “teach the controversy”, “critical analysis”, or “strengths and weaknesses” rhetoric.

  3. Tim

    You people are so scared that evolution will be exposed for the hoax that it is, that the way to stop it is through a lawsuit. Typical liberal tactic.

  4. Austringer Post author

    Evolutionary science has undergone almost 150 years of rigorous testing and produces results that hold up to scrutiny. There are applications in medicine, in agriculture, in wildlife management, and even in engineering. It’s hard to argue with 14 decades of success, but if, like Tim, one is prepared to close one’s eyes and stick fingers in one’s ears, one might pretend that the body of research accumulated over that time never happened.

    This is precisely why students deserve better education. If they had better education in their science classes, they would know precisely how Tim’s comment is a brazen falsehood, and they would, through their civics classes, understand why Tim and others like him have to subvert the political process to gain what they cannot hope to achieve via the scientific method.

    There’s an easy way to test whether there’s some “liberal tactic” at work, or whether IDC doesn’t measure up as science. Have the IDC advocates take a break from premature attempts to force their tired, old, bogus antievolution arguments into curricula via the political process and instead have them focus on making their case to the scientific community. If they develop data and test their ideas there, responding substantively and adequately to critical commentary there, like proponents of transposons, endosymbiosis, and punctuated equilibria did, then they would have a solid reason to claim a secular purpose in teaching their ideas in schools. If after that is accomplished, they still get lawsuits, Tim can scream, “Liberal tactic!” all he likes, and I wouldn’t think any the less of Tim. But until that (highly unlikely) outcome occurs, it just looks like standard partisan rhetoric without any basis in reality. It looks just like what I’ve explained above, that concerned citizens of all political stripes can recognize “intelligent design” as the sham it is. For example, the “Dover CARES” campaign ticket that had eight candidates for the Dover, PA school board opposing the IDC advocate incumbents had four Democrats and four Republican candidates. (They swept the elections, too, BTW.)

    That’s something else I should have mentioned in the letter above: advocating IDC is hazardous to a long career in a school board seat. The Dover, PA school board folks up for election got tossed out by the voters four days after the close of the trial; they didn’t wait around for the judge to render his decision. In Darby, MT, IDC was advocated under the term, “objective origins policy”. The difference between Darby and Dover was that the school board election in Darby occurred before there was an implementation of its “objective origins policy”.

    Well, after a protracted and heated school trustee election this past spring, the two candidates opposing the “objective origins” policy won handedly. Public awareness of the issues was at an all time high. Voter turnout was record-breaking, with over 50% of the electorate casting ballots. Moreover, the two victorious candidates both won by nearly a 2 to 1 margin. There can be no doubt that the people have spoken.

    Lawsuits happen when discourse stops. In the case of the IDC legal sham, it is clear that first amendment rights are infringed when narrow sectarian views are pushed with the authority of the state behind them. A lawsuit is the patriotic response in that case, the course of action that upholds and respects our constitutional form of government.

  5. bipolar2

    ** A copy of a letter sent to Huckabee, and Romney **

    * The supporters of intelligent design prove its falsity by believing “in” it. *

    Evolution is a “theory” in the same way that “Special Relativity” is a theory. “Theory” marks its centrality and preeminence, not only in science but within human thought as a whole. No religion, now or ever, will command such cross-cultural agreement.

    Darwin never referred to his view as “evolution” but as “descent with modification” in 1858. The idea that new species might emerge from a common ancestor was no novelty. Nor was the idea that nature displays no benevolence — “nature red in tooth and claw.” (Americans have not yet caught up with early Victorian thought expressed by Tennyson, “In Memoriam.” LVI 1850.)

    Nor was the idea that an entire species could become extinct. Nor was the idea that time was what we call “deep time” or “geological time” — vast stretches of millions of years in which life was present but human life was not. In this case, the work was Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830).

    What was new? Darwin’s mechanism of descent with modification which he called “natural selection” to compare nature’s action with artificial selection by a dog breeder or pigeon fancier.

    What makes natural selection so uncomfortable? In operation, it has no goal and achieves no purpose. It is a random trial-and-error process dependent upon differential reproductive success. (Puritanical religions — Xianity, Islam, and Judaism — violently denigrate human sexuality.)

    Darwin knew exactly what he had done and what deep ingratitude he would receive. Life in its multitudinous forms requires no life force, no élan vital, no teleological principle, no design, no purpose, no god.

    Darwin solved a famous puzzle, for all species: how can order arise from randomness.

    Since evolution through natural selection is true, then Genesis is false. Period. Biblical literalism is false, dead false.

    Any politician who “disbelieves” in evolution via natural selection is an ignoramus, or a typical politicking hypocrite. Probably both. Period.

    bipolar2
    copyright asserted 2007

  6. Steve Sutton

    We can only hope that the school board cares more about the quality of education the students receive than trying to pass off religious ideas as science. Religion does not belong in public school science classes, because it simply is not science. It belongs in churches and at home.

  7. AllanW

    Many thanks for your contribution on the debate about science standards in Polk County. Hopefully your standing and obvious insight will have a positive effect.

  8. Richard Simons

    Suppose the school board goes ahead then loses a court battle and is face with massive costs, as in Dover. I know virtually nothing about American law, but would it be possible to recover some of these costs personally from the members of the school board if it could be shown that they acted against the interests of the public by ignoring the best advice available to them?

  9. Austringer Post author

    As public officials, I don’t think that they can be held personally accountable for those costs and fines.

    It might be possible to charge them with misfeasance, given that the legal precedents are clear and the advisory rulings, such as Kitzmiller v. DASD, show no hope for successfully inserting “intelligent design” advocacy into the public school curricula. That would be pretty unlikely to happen, I think.

    Again, I’m hoping that they will take some time to investigate exactly what “intelligent design” means, and discover, like other school boards flirting with it, that it stands for a narrow sectarian doctrine, and not anything remotely like science.

  10. Dave S.

    Even if they don’t quite see how ID stands for a narrow sectarian doctrine, they should at least get clued in that such pro-ID policies could well lead to a costly disaster as happened in Dover. The Spidey-sense should be set to tingling already. Perhaps a word from their insurance carrier as to whether they plan to absorb any costs related to the entirely predictable lawsuit following.

  11. Austringer Post author

    Exactly. Even for those whose sensibilities are stunted by exposure to antievolution rhetoric, a clear indication that the insurance carrier will be washing their hands of any association when advocating “intelligent design” can provide that cold slap that jars one awake.

  12. Jonathan Smith

    Wesley,
    Thank you for taking the time to write to the Polk
    School Board,it may help them realize what a error
    in judgement they may be considering
    We at the Florida Citizens for Science need all the
    support we can muster to push for the adoption the new Sunshine State science standards.

  13. cletus

    well hopefully they’ll include the third and true option of creation, FSMism. everyone needs to know we were created by a flying spaghetti monster.

  14. Robert O'Brien

    I think I will write them with the recommendation that they drop common descent from the curriculum altogether without any recourse to ID; I would like to see you and your friends try to intimidate them in that case.

  15. Austringer Post author

    Gee, ROB, that’s brilliant, like nobody’s ever said, “Teach the controversy!”, or “Explore evolution!”.

    I sure hope ROB joins Joe Gallien as the legal brains behind defending the next IDC outbreak… I like cakewalks.

    The relevant court case addressing ROB’s proposal is, of course, Epperson v. Arkansas, which said that evolution or other science content cannot be excluded from the curriculum in order to privilege a religious doctrine.

    Then there is the history, where the school board members in Polk County have already gone on record that they are seeking to balance evolution with creationism in some form. See Edwards v. Aguillard.

  16. Robert O'Brien

    We are bound by the actual text of the Constitution, not stare decisis or the legal midrash that exists only in the heads of you and those of like mind.

    However, even if one were to make recourse to the “Lemon test,” I fail to see how simply deleting common descent would run afoul of it.

    In any event, I would like to see Barbara Forrest and the other members of the clown car try their luck at such a trial. Hopefully, the opposing counsel would bring up her asinine statement regarding evolutionary theory being indispensable to geology and other physical sciences, when it is clearly the other way around.

  17. Austringer Post author

    I see that ROB’s penchant for, erm, colorful rhetoric unsupported by, well, anything remains untouched.

    Running afoul of the “purpose” prong of the Lemon test is pretty well guaranteed for Polk County, where the school board is on record as wanting to trash evolution and teach creationism. Simply having them go into evolution denial is a sham that is unlikely to fool anyone, least of all any competent judge.

    I’ll note that as far as constitutional interpretation is concerned, antievolution scored once back in 1925, and has been absolutely skunked since then.

    ROB should keep it up with the fantasy life. I think that he is going to need it.

  18. Austringer Post author

    As a follow-up, I’d just like to say that it is the perennial optimism of those who would like to entrench ignorance that gets us to the point where lawsuits become necessary. The Dover school board thought they were going to win. It not only did not work out that way, it turned into a fiasco that the Discovery Institute continues to hope that wishful thinking will make it go away.

    ROB says, let’s just take “common descent” out of the curriculum. What’s the logic here? Common descent has lots of empirical support. Why should students be deprived of learning about this big idea in science? The “why” question becomes important, especially when a court gets involved. ROB might have a motive of spite when it comes to me, but spite isn’t really a believable justification for a school board to throw away a whole branch of human inquiry, especially one that comes with data and a history of critical tests. A believable, but constitutionally unjustified, motive is the privileging of a particular religious doctrine. Depriving students of knowing about common descent serves no secular purpose, and only makes sense in the light of a religious antievolution motive.

    I don’t think that would be difficult to present to a judge. ROB might still not “see” it, but he ultimately is not who needs to be convinced.

  19. Lane Taylor

    Wes,

    Good letter. The Kansas Citizens for Science will be offering their support to their sister organization in Florida, as well as encouraging a letter writing campaign in support of good science standards.

    We also have a regular bunch of ID supporters here in KS who continually bray about ‘just wait ’til we get our day in court, then you’ll see’. I can just imagine it’s followed by some hollow, maniacal laugh.

    Given all the blatant religiosity we have documented from current and former school board members, I would welcome that day in a real court.

    Good luck to the citizens and teachers in Polk County.

    Lane Taylor, Vice President, Kansas Citizens for Science

  20. Yournamehere

    Great idea ROB! Let’s also cut geology out of the science curriculum, and physics as well! (The fact that geology contradicts a young earth, and physics through carbon dating also does so, will surely be a coincidence.) Oh, anthropology too, and I’m sure lots more stuff. Heck, lets just stop teaching science at all. It just offends me. And who cares if the kids don’t learn that stuff–it contradicts the bible, so it is wrong. wrong, wrong. I don’t understand it all, but it is wrong nevertheless. Ok, well as a fallback, lets teach the controversy! They are all just theories after all. Those clowns will get theirs…gosh I just love a good ad hominem.

    And Tim, I just loved the “you people.” I agree! Its us against them–”Those people.” You know, those people who think separation of church and state is actually required by the Constitution and has allowed religion to florish in this country, and who believe that actual science should be taught in public schools, but religious pseudoscience should not be. Next step, a complete theocracy where we can boot “those people” out of the country and we can live our lives truly as one nation under our God, as He says…well, as we say he says…well, as we say he said in the Bible…well, not all it, but most it…or something like that. Should we kill the liberals or just kick them out?

  21. Daniel Morgan

    I lived in Gainesville from ’04 to ’07 and I was really surprised at how conservative parts of Florida can be, both politically and religiously. Lakeland has one of the largest (AFAIK) Assemblies of God (Pentecostal) colleges in the US, and you have to wonder what part that plays in understanding the demographics there.

  22. Clifford M Dubery

    Greetings all, I follow these US debates with an interest that boarders on amusement. The US constitution seems clear to me, a foreigner, that the government can’t make any law respecting religion. Intelligent Design has been seriously proven in Kitzmiller et al vs DBSD to be a religious belief. Why do they continue, imply Liberal (a dirty word) bias where none exists, and lie.

    I would suggest to all that being a majority religion, or at least perceiving one is a member of such is not a permanent position and all this border patrolling will achieve nothing except, perhaps, fees for the lawyers.

    Keep fighting them Wesley, the World needs the victory of rational thought.

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