Evolution Revolution: Florida Aces Its Science Test – Will The Rest Of Us Do So Next?

February 20th, 2008
By Barry W. Lynn
Evolution & Creationism

Evolution finally got the respect it deserves in Florida yesterday. The State Board of Education voted to approve new science standards that explicitly mention the word “evolution” (gasp!) and make clear that it is the “fundamental concept underlying all of biology” (gasp again!)

Revisions to the standards commenced after a 2005 report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave the 1999 standards a failing grade.

The new standards come not a moment too soon! Apparently, by the time they move on from second grade, young Floridians should know that a “thermometer measures the amount of heat absorbed by an object.” According to the scientists who produced the report, however, a thermometer really measures changes in temperature.

If this is the standard for reading a thermometer, I shudder to think what Florida school children are learning about evolution. Not much, according to the report. The “E-word is sedulously avoided” and the standards consist of “loose, if not inaccurate” generalities. “The superficiality of the treatment of evolutionary biology alone,” the report concludes, “justifies the grade ‘F.’”

Yesterday, the Board voted 4-3 to adopt the new standards. Board member Roberto Martinez only voted “no” because he thought inserting the phrase “scientific theory” before “evolution” wrongly led children to believe the evidence for evolution isn’t as solid as it actually is. The addition, of course, wasn’t enough for the creationists, though.

A statement released by the Discovery Institute claims the Board was “tricked into [a] meaningless ‘compromise’ to… call Evolution [a] ‘scientific theory.’” A “scientific theory,” as defined by scientists everywhere — and now Florida‘s public schools — is “the most powerful explanation scientists have to offer” for natural phenomena.

There’s nothing wrong with calling evolution a “scientific theory,” unless, of course, you’re trying to convince parents, students and school boards that a “theory” is just a hapless guess.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State recognized long ago that the Discovery Institute and its ilk were the true tricksters. In a February 12 letter to the Board, AU State Legislative Counsel Dena Sher cautioned members about attempts to introduce religious teachings into public school science classes. Evolution, its detractors say, is “just a theory,” and therefore children should learn about “other theories” (i.e., creationism or “intelligent design”) as well.

The Board’s affirmative vote is a big win for sound science in Florida, but we have a long way to go. Too few of our citizens understand basic science, and we’re actively denying our children the competitive edge that will be necessary for them to succeed in our tech-based future.

The perfect place to start is by asking our aspiring presidential candidates how they will address looming issues in science, medicine, public health and technology. Fortunately for us, a group of scientists, lawmakers, scholars and concerned citizens is doing the legwork to put together just such a debate.

ScienceDebate2008 is a grassroots project intent on making sure scientific issues are taken seriously in the presidential race. According to the group, “the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness” demand that candidates inform voters of their views on these issues.

The steering committee includes screenwriter Matthew Chapman, who is Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson. Chapman has more than a familial interest in the debate, though. He is the author of 40 Days and 40 Nights, a fantastic book on the Dover, Pa., “intelligent design” trial.

Chapman says the debate won’t be a science test; he and his fellow committee members just want an illuminating debate where “candidates discuss their policy positions on our many scientific and technological challenges, what their ethical positions are in relation to them, and what their aspirations are.”

The New York Times reports that debate organizers have invited the remaining candidates to an April 18 event at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. I hope they answer the call because ScienceDebate2008 is a clever idea with tremendous real world significance.

You can answer the call, too. Go to www.sciencedebate2008.org and join the over 16,500 people who have signed a petition supporting the project. While there, submit a question you’d like the presidential candidates to answer. For you tech-savvy types, check out YouTube videos promoting the event and then create and post your own.

The sharp and creative minds at ScienceDebate2008 have set the stage in Philadelphia and it needs to be filled with candidates for office. If you have a favorite, let him or her know you’d love to see a discussion of science and scientific education before you cast your vote in November.

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