Florida: At Least We'll Get to Say, "I Told You So"

On Monday, April 14th, Florida Citizens for Science, the Florida ACLU, and many other groups sponsored a press conference and panel discussion criticizing the “academic freedom” and “critical analysis” bills currently filed in the state Senate and House, respectively. The bill in the senate, the one still misusing the “academic freedom” phrase, is scheduled to go to the floor on the 17th. That will be today very shortly. I am not terribly optimistic about the outcome, since it seems that the legislators didn’t bother to turn out for the events on Monday, and the mainstream media invented some stuff out of whole cloth, but mostly failed to report on the full range of reasons why the bills under consideration are bad for Florida’s schools, students, parents, and business.

I’ll summarize what was actually said at the press conference. The segments may incorporate both paraphrased and verbatim passages.

We gathered on the courthouse steps. There were about six people taking video of the press conference, some people handling audio for the video, plus several more still photographers and journalists equipped with notepads.

Dr. Ann Lumsden (professor at Florida State University) described the press packets, including the text of the bills, analysis of the bills, information about the panel, and information about the evening panel event. She read off a long list of event sponsors, including Florida Citizens for Science, the Florida ACLU, and many scientific societies. She also read a statement from the National Association of Biology Teachers concerning the teaching of science and how the scope of science doesn’t include the religious-based “alternatives”. She then introduced the speakers: Vic Walczak (Pennsylvania ACLU and attorney for the plaintiffs in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case), Maryann Fiala (Executive Director of the AeA Florida Council), Sir Harry Kroto (Nobel prize-winning chemist and professor at FSU), and me. Each of us had about three minutes to make our statements.

Vic Walczak said that looked over the legislation in light of his experience as an attorney in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case. The first question he had was why any school district would want this legislation. It completely divest school districts of control of their curriculum in the area of evolution. This makes no sense. Why would the state tell local school districts they can have no control. Second, not only does the “academic freedom” bill invite religion into the classroom, it also makes it impossible to take it out. Vic used the metaphor of the school bully who slaps a hard-to-remove “Kick me” sign on a student, where the legislators are filling the role of that school bully when it comes to school districts. The bill is a “lawsuit magnet”. The bill gives the authority and right to every teacher to teach whatever what they want, including religious views. The school district can’t take it up with the teacher; the teacher could sue the school under this bill. If the teacher does bring in religious antievolution, the school district can be sued by parents who object to violations of the first amendment. We did this before with the Kitzmiller case, and we convinced a conservative judge that “intelligent design” was just “creation science” with a new label. We will be able to do the same in Florida when teachers use the same religious antievolution arguments in classes. This is a bad bill. it makes no sense.

Maryann Fiala commended the state on its fine new science standards that would help Florida’s students compete in the global marketplace. In order to do that, students have to have a basis that incorporates standards that measure up globally. Florida spent about 0.75 billion dollars in order to entice entities to set up a biotech cluster in Florida. Where will they get workers? Certainly not from an educational system that fails to provide a science-based curriculum. In terms of setting up a 21st century economy, this legislation is a step backwards, and I hope it is rethought and abandoned. Give our Florida students a fighting chance in the global economy, and give them a 21st century education.

Sir Harry Kroto laid it on the line, saying that as a governor of Scripps, that if he were coming to Scripps he would think twice if he thought his children would not be taught the basis of biology. Science is evidence-based. Our everyday technology tests many principles of science everyday. Evolution, tectonic drift, DNA, these are all fantastic examples that shows everyone that evolution is the bedrock of biology. “Intelligent design” is just a belief statement. The argument that the Grand Canyon is only 5000 years old is even contradicted by the government’s interpretive materials there. The vast majority of scientists agree on an old age for the earth and the Grand Canyon; the arguments for young ages of each should be recognized as beliefs only. When it comes to the microevolution/macroevolution split, there is abundant evidence for macroevolution, including Hox genes, which are found in fruit flies and humans. Scientists have evidence without certainty. Those whose propose “intelligent design” have certainty without evidence. The National Academy of Sciences should have the last word, and they recognize that evolution is the bedrock of biology.

I spent my three minutes linking the misuse of “academic freedom” and “critical analysis” language to past antievolution efforts. I also brought up the Discovery Institute and its “Wedge” document. I finished by noting that if the legislators were serious about improving science education, including evolutionary science, they would be setting up a program to support teachers earning undergraduate or graduate degrees in the fields they are charged with teaching.

In the mainstream media accounts, the Associated Press article said “The scientists argue evolution is a scientific fact…”. As one of the three scientists at the press conference, I can say confidently that I didn’t say those words, nor did I hear my colleagues say them. That particular phrasing is guaranteed to make many people stop listening to what one is saying, and it is more than annoying to have such inept words stuffed in our mouths.

Stephen D. Price reported for the Tallahassee Democrat, filing an 11.5 column-inch article that appeared on page 8A on April 15th. Price’s problem went the other direction. While he gave a response from Alan Hays concerning a question about how the wording of the bill brings creationism into the classroom (Hays answered that his bill did not even mention religion), Price failed to even hint that he had an extended response from both myself and Vic Walczak on that point that completely rebutted the know-nothingism of Hays. I pointed out the the bill didn’t specify what would be taught and was all about permitting things to be taught at the teacher’s discretion. I pointed out that we knew from experience what teachers do use when they broach “alternatives” in the classroom: the same old religious antievolution arguments. I briefly recounted the Roger DeHart incident where a Discovery Institute-affiliated teacher for years would substitute creationist and DI materials for the district-approved classroom unit on evolution. I brought up the respect DeHart had for the “academic freedom” of students in his marking a disagreeing student’s quiz with, “Interesting. Your opinion sounds biggoted. [sic]” Vic Walczak then gave an overview of the history of antievolution, noting that religious antievolutionists have progressively evolved their labels, but they still use the very same arguments. Vic also noted that the very same people who were behind “intelligent design” are behind the current bills, having provided a draft text of “academic freedom” online.