Florida: Final Public Meeting, A Retrospective

Barring any media bombshells, the public commentary phase of responses to the proposed Florida science standards is now over and done with. I have not yet seen every minute of the meeting today in Orlando, but I did sample several hours of it.

There are several things to be said. The first is that I am very proud of the leadership role that the Florida Citizens for Science group played in bringing things to this point. While the pro-science side was numerically under-represented among the commenters, I recognized many of them as members of Florida Citizens for Science. Among those, FL CfS President Joe Wolf presented the petition supporting the standards that so many of you have signed, noting the total number collected in less than two weeks as over 1,500 signatures, and that somewhat more than 1,000 of those were Florida citizens. FL CfS Treasurer Pete Dunkelberg made excellent use of his three minutes at the podium, reminding the Florida Board of Education that they have the opportunity to change Florida’s standards score from “F” to “A” — if only they don’t mess up at the last minute by capitulating to the anti-science crowd. [There’s a blog post out there calling this “blackmail” or “threats”. Actions have consequences. Pointing out those consequences is neither “blackmail” nor a “threat”. It would be like putting a executive officer up for mutiny charges if he offered the observation that the captain could turn to starboard shortly, or run aground, his choice. Actually, the “Longitude” miniseries related the case of the seaman who offered the observation that the fleet was in dangerous waters, because he recognized a headland. The admiral’s navigation placed them in waters safe for sailing, so he had the seaman hanged for his impertinence. Ships did run aground, and the admiral, Sir Cloudesley Shovell, died as well. — WRE]

The numerical advantage of the antievolutionists in commenting has both a down side and an up side. The down is the obvious one that the BOE will be watching a lot of erroneous antievolution drivel. Some of the drivel requires more than just good sense to say, “Hey, that’s not right.” While some of the dreck was rebutted by pro-science commenters, one has to recognize that Gish Gallops cover more ground than can be effectively covered in limited time, much less three-minute chunks. The up side, then? While some of the antievolution advocates were obviously reading from Discovery Institute scripts, many more were simply letting it all hang out — including their heartfelt religious objections to evolutionary science. Several people were advocating young-earth creationism directly, including the famous YEC antievolutionist, Robert V. Gentry. (Is Gentry living in Florida these days? If not, how did he get advance notice for travel to the meeting?) There were statements that the Bible must be literally true, and should be taught in the science classes, too. People advocated “intelligent design” creationism directly. Antievolutionist Robin Brown was especially notable. She directly and explicitly advocated that the Florida Board of Education adopt a supplemental text authored by “Dr.” Richard Bliss. It’s not too terribly common that someone will stand right up in front of God and everybody and argue for something based on a fraudulent authority. Bliss is, of course, one of those antievolutionists with a less than solid “Ph.D.” degree:

Richard Bliss, formerly a member of the ICR staff, claimed to be “a recognized expert in the field of science education” and was co-author of a “two-model” book that creationists have pushed for use in the public school system.

Bliss claimed to earn a D.Ed. from the University of Sarasota in 1978. A previous version of this article described the university as a “diploma mill operating out of a Florida motel” as late as 1984. However, the university’s status has since improved. The University of Sarasota was accredited in 1990 by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to grant masters and doctoral degrees. According to the 1997 edition of Bears’ Guide to Earning College Degrees Nontraditionally [1], a student’s total residency at the University of Sarasota can be as short as six weeks.

Brown also recommended that Florida adopt “Of Pandas and People” as a supplemental textbook. One hopes that the BOE in Florida is somewhat brighter than that.

There were references here and there to “two models” and to “balanced treatment”. That may sound like just some variant of the “hip” “strengths and weaknesses”, but both of those phrases link the current situation back to the claims made in the McLean v. Arkansas and Edwards v. Aguillard cases. Those both have a legal history of deployment in promotion of creation science.

How does all of that amount to an “up” side? Because the antievolutionists have tipped their hand, just as Lenny Flank has often stated. Given the opportunity to keep their mouths shut and maybe leave only doubt about their bad intentions, antievolutionists predictably open up wide the better to fit in feet. The record of this public meeting will go a long ways towards satisfying any judge that a “reasonable observer” would conclude that the antievolutionist agenda is based on promotion of a narrow religious view. Since the FL BOE is stated to be charged with watching the proceedings and some members of the state legislature even participated, everything here will be weighted into any judicial consideration of “purpose” and “effect” when it comes to possible actions by either body.

A couple of specific issues:

Please consider the quality of the teachers, we will not disregard the sensitivity of our students, and we will present both sides.

That was from someone asking the board to adopt the standards as proposed. We do know that a substantial fraction of science teachers are on board with teaching antievolution arguments if given an opportunity. The above shows that even some of the science teachers who are not on board with the antievolution movement can be conned into playing the antievolution game with their students. What is left out of this is that science classes should not be spending time teaching things as being legitimate that either have not passed scientific muster, or that have been examined and discarded as unworkable or false. For any antievolution argument one cares to examine, it either isn’t accountable in a scientific framework or has actually been demonstrated to be false outright. To put discredited, unaccountable conjectures on the same level as actual scientific theories does a great disservice to children, and would be an actual instance of inconsistency.

Macroevolution not supported by fossil record or molecular biology. It’s an atheist way of faith. “Lemon law” may be violated by Florida establishing atheist faith.

Some time back, lawyer David Gibbs wrote a letter to Florida officials saying that “evolution” constituted a “religion” that the new standards would be promoting contrary to “establishment of religion”. It’s utter hogwash, of course; that sort of argument has been tried out in several court cases, and has uniformly been rejected. There is a “Lemon test”, and since that does tie in with establishment clause cases, it’s the likely meaning. “Lemon law” is about protecting consumers from buying defective cars and not having recourse to have the manufacturer make good. This particular idiocy was advocated more than once during the meeting, so expect to hear it again soon.

It is not possible to guess at this point whether the FL BOE will pay any particular attention to the statements from today’s public meeting, or which way they will jump. I want to thank the people who took time out of their day to stand up and let the DOE know how you felt. I’m proudest of those who stood up today for good science education, but even those who sincerely expressed their religious feelings favoring antievolution deserve recognition. Some of those may also need some tutoring, based on the utter swill they were spewing, but they at least were not hiding a religious agenda behind DI-speak scripts. They came by their ignorance honestly, and honestly seek to propagate that ignorance. We have to curtail their ambitions, of course.

Our contumely (and I do like the opportunity to use that word) deservedly rests upon those who hold the ends so dear that they are willing to employ any means, and especially those calls to compromise just a little; change just a few words, nothing to do with “creationism” or “intelligent design”, oh no, and all will be well. We know by hard-won experience in Ohio and New Mexico that “just a few words” are all that are needed to make antievolutionists feel like they’ve been handed letters of marque and reprisal for the public K-12 system, that they try by main force to insert whatever inane, bogus antievolution argument they feel like thereafter. Pete Dunkelberg was right in his statement that the label doesn’t matter; it is the odious dreck that the antievolutionists insist is just the thing children need to hear that is at issue.

Update: There is video available online from the public meeting.

Wesley R. Elsberry

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

4 thoughts on “Florida: Final Public Meeting, A Retrospective

  • 2008/02/12 at 11:54 am

    Thanks for the rundown, Wesley.

    There wasn’t just a full moon in Florida, was there?

    I particularly liked the person who noted that antievolution speakers showed that the current Florida standards had failed.

  • 2008/02/12 at 12:20 pm

    “Please consider the quality of the teachers, we will not disregard the sensitivity of our students, and we will present both sides.”

    Wesley’s seen this before, but for those who missed it, google “AP Biology” and Behe, or “intelligent design”. You’ll see its common to “present both sides” as an exercise in scientific critical thinking, either in class, or as supplemental material. I teach AP Biology, and participate on the College Board’s AP Biology teacher’s email list. Roughly half of the correspondants on the topic insist that their students are smart enough evaluate anti-evolution arguments, and are angered by the suggestion that they’re presenting anti-science propaganda that can’t be completely evaluated by the non-scientist. A portion of the other half proudly proclaim anti-religious views.

    The problem is that we STILL teach biology as a bucket of relatively unrelated facts. The years of emphasis on educating teachers to present method and an unstanding of what science is has been translated by colleges of education as a necessity to recreate the science in the classroom in the most dramatic way possible. There is no understanding of the scientific community, how it operates, peer review, and the necessity of referencing recognized authority in established science. The result is the presentation of a bucket of facts each of which has no more legitimacy than any alternative that might be proposed.

    Many (most?) teachers, no different than the rest of the public and media, view the “controversy” as the “inevitable” opposition of science and scientists to religion. This misunderstanding is produced by the two extremes using similar tactics. So two things have to happen. Science education needs to include the sociology and philosophy of science, as well as the methods, and the silent majority of scientists and educators have to do more unapologitic pushing back against extreme atheists using science to attack religion.

  • 2008/02/12 at 12:51 pm

    From my essay presented just about eleven years ago:

    The philosophical underpinnings of science are, for the most part, invisible to its practitioners. While being schooled in scientific disciplines, it is relatively uncommon for students to be explicitly exposed to the philosophy of science. The practice of science is mostly conducted by people who have neither a grounding in or an appreciation for epistemology, and who may even find consideration of the topic unworthy of their attention. Even the much vaunted “scientific method” rarely receives a cogent explanation to the student at the secondary school level, and may be entirely absent from the curriculum of graduating college students. A mystery worthy of exploring is how science continues to perpetuate itself without an efficient and explicit pedagogy.

    The solution is that many successful scientists learn by example and by doing science. In most cases, explicit lessons in the scientific method become superfluous because the neophyte scientist must undertake research directed by others, whether during their course work in school or in entry-level research positions. The structure of current scientific research holds many parallels to the medieval guild system, with the apprentice (read “undergraduate”, “graduate”, or “intern”), journeyman (read “graduate” or “postdoc”), and master (read “faculty”, “researcher”, or “scientist”) levels. It is uncommon that one may find a master level scientist (one who obtains grants as a principal investigator in his or her own name) who has not completed one or both of the lower levels. The course work of science curricula is, generally speaking, an insufficient basis for the actual practice of science. That comes from getting involved in the practice of science. Actually practicing science is unlikely to enhance the practitioner’s grounding in the philosophy of science.

    Still, this persistent and pervasive gap in the knowledge of scientists concerning the philosophical basis of scientific endeavor cannot be viewed with equanimity. A proper understanding of what science is and does should be part of every citizen’s education, especially as our society becomes more and more dependent upon technology. Miscomprehension of what scientists do hampers scientists in the long run, as public funding administration may then evaluate proposals using a skewed or even anti-scientific viewpoint. The objections of the late Senator Proxmire to various funded research studies in basic science demonstrate this point nicely.

  • 2008/02/18 at 8:55 pm

    and the silent majority of scientists and educators have to do more unapologitic[sic] pushing back against extreme atheists using science to attack religion.

    you need to reverse that 180. Here’s what REALLY needs to happen:

    the silent majority of religious moderates have to do more unapologetic pushing back against religious extremeists who feel they need to use their religious beliefs to attack science.

    there now, that’s better. That, in fact, is exactly what I’ve always admired about Wes. He pulls no punches wrt to what we are basically talking about here, which is stupidity, and fear of being ostracized for being stupid. let’s face facts: creationism isn’t a religion, it’s just institutionalized ignorance.

    the extreme atheists are doing a fantastic job shifting the discussion away from the idea that atheism itself is taboo.

    the problem hardly lies with them.

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