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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Hey, senator, leave evolution alone



Cottlepaul_3 Florida State University physics professor Paul Cottle, who's also a member of the Florida Science Standards Committee, is none too pleased with Sen. Steve Wise's proposal to change the way public school teachers teach science. He calls the ideas behind Wise's bill a threat to modern science education.

It's an issue Florida dealt with last year, Cottle says in a guest column for the Gradebook, and one we shouldn't be considering now. [The Gradebook welcomes original guest columns on Florida education issues. E-mail your contributions to [email protected] for consideration.]

Read on for Cottle's views on evolution education:

"Stephen Wise, the powerful Chair of the K-12 Appropriations Committee in the Florida Senate, has filed a bill (SB 2396) that would require that science classrooms in Florida's public K-12 schools provide a "thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution."  To the casual reader, such language seems as if it should be good news to someone like me who is both a scientist and an educator who helped write the state's new science standards.

After all, who could be opposed to a "thorough presentation and critical analysis" of such an important scientific topic?

But I, along with nearly all my colleagues on the science standards committee, recognize Senator Wise's language as a threat to the teaching of one of the most important ideas in modern science.

The bill language, suggested by the Discovery Institute in Seattle and introduced in a number of states, is intended to allow the introduction of Intelligent Design and Young Earth Creationism as alternatives to the theory of evolution, which is perhaps the most successful intellectual framework in modern science.  Intelligent Design and Young Earth Creationism require the direct supernatural intervention of a divine being in the development of the biology of life. In contrast, evolution relies entirely on the laws of nature. Therefore, the bill language is an attempt to inject religious ideas into Florida's K-12 science classrooms.

The Discovery Institute is a well-funded organization whose primary mission is advocacy for Intelligent Design, and it is the source for the infamous "Wedge Document" that describes Intelligent Design as an opportunity for introducing religion into the nation's public schools.

If Senator Wise was truly focused on highlighting scientific controversy, he would have instead proposed language requiring a "thorough presentation and critical analysis" of gravitation.  The laws of gravity do not seem to be working well at cosmological scales, and astrophysicists are proposing all kinds of speculative solutions to the problem.  In comparison, the basic framework of evolution is settled science.      

While Senator Wise's proposal represents a position advocated by some social conservatives as a defense against atheism, it does not represent the viewpoints of all Christians. In fact, the Catholic Church to which my family belongs strongly supports the science of evolution. 

Last year, Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando published an op-ed piece in The Orlando Sentinel endorsing the teaching of evolution while at the same time rejecting the notion that "evolution requires a materialistic or an atheistic understanding of the human person or of the entire universe."  Indeed, Intelligent Design was excluded from a Vatican-sponsored congress on the evolution debate held this month.

Most importantly, Senator Wise's proposal does not address the concerns that most of Florida's parents have concerning evolution education: the possibility that a science teacher (or any teacher) could use their privileged place in a child's world to change that child's beliefs regarding religion.  This is the primary concern of parents on both sides of the evolution education debate.  Evolution is a flashpoint for this concern, but there are certainly other opportunities in the public school curriculum for a teacher determined to change students' beliefs to try to do so. 

Hence, Senator Wise and the legislature should remove the language regarding evolution education from SB 2396 and leave the evolution standards alone.  If the legislature wishes to address the issue of religion in public school classrooms, it could send Governor Crist a bill that simply says that Florida's public schools should be tolerant of students' religious backgrounds and that no teacher may denigrate a student's religious beliefs, regardless of the curriculum subject being addressed.  It need not mention the topic of evolution at all.  Fine science teachers already take care to respect students' religious beliefs while providing instruction in evolution, and such legislation would acknowledge their efforts. 

Senator Wise is a conscientious and skilled legislator, and as Chair of the K-12 Appropriations Committee he is facing an historic challenge during this year's session.  We can only hope that he focuses all his considerable energy on the budget crisis and leaves the evolution education controversy behind."

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:17am]


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