Florida: Open Letter on Learning from History

The “academic freedom” and “critical analysis” bills currently being considered by the Florida legislature are old stratagems borrowed from antievolution efforts in other states. Ronda Storms and Alan Hays have been asked whether “intelligent design” could be taught in science classrooms. Storms and Hays steadfastly refuse to answer the question posed. You have to look at what has been done in the name of narrow religious antievolution and not what is said.

Storms and Hays are treating this as a rhetorical shell game, that if they consistently claim that religion has no part in their bills, then they are being put upon when the issue comes up. For antievolutionists, the essential viewpoint revolves around this simple argument: creation can only have happened by evolution or by God, and one must choose one or the other. The simple — and erroneous — conclusion they make is that arguments made against evolutionary science are thus also arguments for their preferred narrow religious viewpoint, the one that denies that God could possibly have used the methods science is discovering in creating life and its diversity. They don’t have to mention their religious stance explicitly, or so they believe — if enough of their favored arguments against evolution are taught as if science to students, the students will make the “right” choice in rejecting evolutionary science and accepting their particular interpretation of God as creator. Their choice of this narrow religious doctrine does not have to be named, it is implicit in the ensemble of arguments that they wish to permit teachers and students to bring into the science classroom without oversight, interference, or rebuttal.

This is where the history becomes useful. Following World War I, religious antievolutionists took up the obvious strategy to make sure only their view was heard in science classrooms: exclude evolutionary science. That gave us the Scopes trial and about forty years in which textbooks excised or de-emphasized instruction in evolutionary science. In 1968, the Supreme Court decided in Epperson v. Arkansas that scientific concepts could not be excluded from the science classroom to privilege a specific religious doctrine. And religious antievolutionists made the needed adjustment: they now claimed that what they had to offer was just as scientific as evolutionary science. The new stance was called “creation science” and it repeated all the same arguments as plain old creationism before it, except that it dropped those arguments that made direct reference to scripture. It was during legal battles over twenty-five years ago about “creation science” that antievolutionists began to misuse “academic freedom” as a convenient rhetorical tool to press their view. Those came to an abrupt end with the 1987 Supreme Court decision in Edwards v. Aguillard, where the court correctly called “creation science” a sham and an illicit attempt to sanitize the narrow religious view of their brand of exclusionary creationism.

This setback famously led to the use of “intelligent design” as a reference to a non-existent field of study, accomplished simply by changing references to “creation science” in the drafts of the “Of Pandas and People” textbook to the new label, “intelligent design”. All the same arguments made against evolution under “creation science” would now be taught as the content of “intelligent design”, except for those that made explicit mention of a young age of the earth and a recent global flood. Along the way, they made an incomplete change from “creation scientists” to “design proponents”, giving us the delightful verbal transitional fossil of “cdesign proponentsists”. In 2005, the Kitzmiller v. DASD decision in Pennsylvania found an “intelligent design” policy to be an establishment of religion and that “intelligent design” itself was not science.

Ohio adopted new science standards in 2002, and it incorporated a compromise urged by “intelligent design” advocates, that evolution be the subject of “critical analysis”. A lesson plan that implemented “critical analysis” went through a first draft with open use of many arguments from creationism and those most closely associated with “intelligent design”. The second draft again chose a sanitized subset of arguments, but they were recognizably part of the religious antievolution ensemble of arguments. In 2006, the Ohio state board of education finally realized that it could not trust antievolution advocates when they asserted that no “intelligent design” would be taught, and removed the “critical analysis” language from their standards.

The arguments comprising “intelligent design” and other labels for the same old religious antievolution are meant to knock down more than “Darwinism”. They also stand for a rejection of the views of Christian denominations that have made their peace with the progress of science, such as the Catholic church and many mainstream Protestant denominations. The methods of deception and subterfuge consistently chosen by religious antievolutionists should earn the scorn of Christians everywhere.

Florida will make a choice soon. Florida can repeat the lessons of history by adopting the narrow religious doctrines that are implicit in the current mislabeled “academic freedom” and “critical analysis” bills, guaranteeing that students across the state are inculcated with a view that science and the scientists who practice it are untrustworthy. Or Florida can benefit from the experience of other states around the country and avoid a morally and legally indefensible adoption of a narrow religious doctrine dressed in secular language.

Reminder: This stuff is on the agenda for the session today. See Florida Citizens for Science for more information.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

13 thoughts on “Florida: Open Letter on Learning from History

  • 2008/04/25 at 6:34 am

    An excellent, and concise, summary of the history of the anti-evolution movement and their “change over time.” I am bookmarking for future reference.

  • 2008/04/25 at 7:26 am

    Wesley Elsberry says:

    “This setback [1987 Supreme Court decision in Edwards v. Aguillard] famously led to the use of ‘intelligent design’ as a reference to a non-existent field of study, accomplished simply by changing references to ‘creation science’ in the drafts of the ‘Of Pandas and People’ textbook to the new label, ‘intelligent design’.”

    Don’t forget the two other setbacks that led to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach that was developing even before the word “creation” and the designer’s identity became a liability. First was the increasing awareness among the activists that there was no evidence for a young earth or global flood. Had there been the slightest promise of such evidence, there would have been no need to invoke creation or design, or to support an alternate “scientific theory” exclusively on the basis of perceived gaps/weaknesses in the current one. Second, OECs had their own “scientific” arguments that, while attempting to refute evolution, refuted YEC. Alerting students to the mutual contradictions alone would risk exposing the fatal scientific flaws of OEC and YEC scenarios. Even then they began to realize that they had no choice but to put all the focus on evolution (or more correctly their “Darwinism” caricature), and to spin it however necessary to promote unreasonable doubt, and leave it to the students to infer – but of course not critically analyze – their favorite fairy tale.

  • 2008/04/25 at 9:38 am

    Have you considered sending this to the Florida newspapers for a Op Ed article?
    You should.

  • 2008/04/25 at 9:57 am

    That’s what I wrote it for. I sent it to the St. Petersburg Times and have heard no reply from them. If you have contact info for some others, send that along to me.

  • 2008/04/25 at 10:51 am

    thanks for this Wes. An excellent overview and well worthy of publication as an op-ed piece.

    did notice one typo, though:

    “that evolution be the subject of “critically analysis”.”

  • 2008/04/25 at 12:49 pm

    No worries. Thanks again for a great summary on the evolution of creationism.

    O/T question for you: are the Reports of the National Center for Science Education getting behind in publication – or is this a normal time-lag? The latest RNCSE posted is from early 2007.

  • 2008/04/25 at 7:16 pm

    RNCSE has been a bit behind for a while, but I think that Glenn is slowly catching up on the backlog.

  • 2008/04/25 at 8:19 pm

    A beautiful summation, Wes! Just goes to show these folks never learn from their mistakes – and neither do the legislatures, sadly.

  • 2008/04/26 at 7:34 am

    Thanks. As a college professor I’m going to have to clean up this mess. Unfortunately the only students interested in higher levels of science aren’t from here anyway.

    Your line about “(teaching) that science and scientists are untrustworthy” hits the nail on the head. I wish we could make people choose- accept science or reject it. If you don’t want to accept the evidence that science presents, please don’t accept medicine, technology, or all of the good things that science offers (and they happily accept).

    Please send your outstanding article to as many newspapers as possible.

  • 2008/04/26 at 11:49 pm

    … and how about sending it as well to all the relevant legislators before they vote on the third reading of the Bill?

  • 2008/04/27 at 5:14 am

    May I recruit some assistance on that project? I’m off at a recreational area today and don’t know how much access I’ll have to the net.

  • 2008/04/28 at 1:10 pm


    Just something to note. I have been reading through some of the news reports on the Florida Bill and came across this quote by Hays in an article from the Miami Herald:

    Neither Hays nor his co-sponsor, Brandon Republican Sen. Ronda Storms, could name any teachers in Florida who have been disciplined for being critical of evolution in the science classroom. Better known for his ”Win Ben Stein’s Money” game show, Stein made the documentary to document how evolution critics have supposedly run afoul of mainstream science in higher academics.

    “I want a balanced policy. I want students taught how to think, not what to think,” Hays says. “There are problems with evolution. Have you ever seen a half-monkey, half human?”


    I do believe the last sentence says it all. It might be useful to note that apparently Hays’ bill is aimed at allowing folks to question an apparition of his mind that he is putting forth. Whatever the reason – intentionally disingenuousness or genuine misunderstanding – that kind of erroneous thinking should be noted.

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