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Q&A | Jonathan Smith

Lithia's Jonathan Smith discusses evolution debate, state science education standards

LITHIA

Jonathan Smith doesn't have a problem with religion.

He has a problem with religion being pushed in the science classroom.

As one of the founding members of Florida Citizens for Science, Smith helped create new state science education standards passed in 2008.

Everyone from pastors to politicians argued against the new standards, which replaced a 12-year-old curriculum ranked last in the United States.

Opposition the science community faced then and now is disappointing, Smith said, taking a break from work on his 8-acre Lithia farm. There, he has found peace away from the controversy.

"It's frustrating to have to debate something when there is really not a question," he said. "There are not two sides. Science is science. Evolution is fact."

Smith, 60, grew up in England and studied engineering at Wellingborough College of Technology. He came to the United States in 1980 and is now a private consultant. He formed FCFS with five other scientists in 2007.

Since then he has given talks across the United States and appeared on television, including CNN Headline News. We talked to him about the long-time debate.

Why were Florida's science standards so low before?

There was a lack of content. The curriculum didn't include the teaching of evolution. Our priorities were all wrong, and Florida just wasn't progressing in that area.

How did Florida Citizens for Science make a change?

We wrote our own science standards and took them to Tallahassee. The standards were very well-received by the Department of Education. They went before the necessary committees and then were posted online to give members of the public a chance to comment. There were hundreds of thousands of comments. Most were focused on the evolution debate, which is not what any of us wanted.

Were you surprised by the backlash?

Yes and no. Evolution wasn't the biggest issue in the new standards. It was just one topic, but there were town hall meetings about it throughout the state. People were angry.

How did the board respond?

In February 2008, there was a meeting in Tallahassee for the board to approve the standards. It was a two-hour debate, with 10 speakers who were pro-science and 10 who were, I guess you'd say, antiscience. I was one of the speakers.

Was the experience frustrating?

It was extremely frustrating. The science classroom is for science. Teaching creationism in science is like teaching alchemy in chemistry class, or astrology in an astronomy class.

But the board decided to pass the standards?

Yes, but instead of using just the word evolution, everything was changed to say the theory of evolution, so they also had to say the theory of gravity. The creationists didn't know they were actually shooting themselves in the foot because in the science world, theory means an undisputed law.

Can a person have faith and be a scientist?

Yes. In the Florida Citizens for Science, we have atheists, agnostics and some members who are religious. You can have the two, there's no doubt about it. Religion and science just aren't the same thing.

What are your personal beliefs?

I am an atheist. I haven't seen enough evidence to believe in the supernatural. To me, the difference between a believer and a nonbeliever is, if you showed a nonbeliever evidence that there is a God, we would believe. If you showed a believer evidence there is not a God, they would still believe.

You recently discovered creation themes in a science textbook still being used in Florida. What happened?

It was an ocean science textbook. FCFS found some creationism in it. We had it taken out. We have to be vigorous and act as a watchdog committee because people still try to sneak things in from time to time.

You travel a lot speaking to educators and concerned citizens; what do you want to accomplish?

I want to see a set of national science standards put in place for all the schools to use. The problem now is schools don't teach children enough about science, then those children grow up and don't encourage their children to study science. It's a cycle.

What is the result?

When I go speak to adults, some of them don't know the answers to basic questions, like how many days does it take for the Earth to revolve around the sun. The United States has become sort of a laughingstock.

Do you think people are afraid that embracing science means giving up on faith?

I think they may be, but it doesn't have to mean that.

You called European schools more secular. Do you think religion puts us behind other countries in terms of science education?

It's about priorities. Americans don't put enough emphasis on education. We're running around taking our kids to football and cheerleading practice, but if you ask parents when the last time is they had a conference about their child's education, they'll shake their head.

For more information, visit flascience.org or proscience.us.

Sarah Whitman can be reached at swhitman@sptimes.com.

Lithia's Jonathan Smith discusses evolution debate, state science education standards 12/30/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 30, 2010 3:30am]
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