Sheriff's spokesman joins evolution debate

Sheriff's spokesman joins evolution debate
Haught blogs for improving science education
By By Jim Haug - Daytona Beach News-Journal - 01/07/2008 - original
Brandon Haught stays on top of murders, robberies and freak accidents as a spokesman for the Volusia County Sheriff's Office.

In his spare time, Haught has gotten in the middle of the debate over teaching evolution in public schools, tweaking elected and school officials who would water down science education.

He is the chief blogger for the Florida Citizens for Science. Under the header "Those not in favor of good science education, raise your hand," Haught lists the names of officials skeptical of teaching evolution.

The cultural war is heating up because the Florida Board of Education is expected to vote on new science standards Feb. 19. The state standards influence the development of classroom instruction, the content of science textbooks and the kinds of questions asked on standardized tests.

With much at stake, Haught's blog links to state newspaper editorials supporting evolution, but also keeps a critical eye, chastising the media, for example, if they give equal weight to evolution and intelligent design as competing scientific theories.

Intelligent design, or the idea that creation is too complex not to have a designer, Haught blogged, "is not even a viable hypothesis."

Haught said journalists are inaccurate whenever they say evolution is "just a theory" because scientific theories by definition are backed up with experimentation and tests. So unlike the common use of the word theory, scientific theories are much more than "hunches" or "best guesses," Haught said.

Knowing the enemy

As an activist, Haught also makes sure his side knows the enemy. David Gibbs III, a member of the Christian Law Association critical of the proposed science standards, is the same lawyer who represented the parents of Terri Schiavo in the intense political battle to keep the comatose woman on life support, noted Haught, who linked online to the lawyer's biography.

As a disclaimer, Haught's opinions at are strictly his and are not a reflection of his employer, the Volusia County Sheriff's Office. When asked about his activism, Gary Davidson, Haught's boss, referred to the sheriff's directives manual, which tells employees they are "encouraged to exercise your rights as citizens" with the stipulations that county employees cannot run for political office or participate in political activities during work hours.

Looking beyond his current job, Haught, 37, is taking online courses to become a high school science teacher. As the father of two children in public schools in Lake County, he is concerned about state education. As a taxpayer, he finds it contradictory that Florida will spend millions to attract biotech companies but balk at teaching basic science.

Currently, Florida's science standards are vague about evolution, referring only to "changes over time." The Thomas Fordham Foundation, which critiques states' science education programs, gave Florida's science standards a failing grade in 2005.

The proposed changes are much more explicit about evolution, emphasizing fossil evidence, for example, but skeptics recoil at the tone of certitude. They turn their opponents' argument on its head, arguing that the promoters of evolution are the religious fanatics for not allowing other explanations.

"We cannot morph science education into a form of unconstitutional religious (or non-religious) indoctrination," wrote Christian Law Association attorney Gibbs in a letter to state education member Linda Taylor of Fort Myers.

Taylor and fellow state board member Donna Callaway of Tallahassee have come out in favor of supplementing evolution education with alternative viewpoints.

So far, only state education board member Roberto Martinez of Coral Gables has publicly voiced support for evolution while the other four board members have been silent about their position, said Haught, citing newspaper articles.

Because the courts have struck down the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in public schools, Haught said evolution opponents are limited to arguing that schools should keep an open mind about other possible explanations for the origins of life.

'Pasta-farians' poke fun

This line of argument has been parodied by the "Pasta-farians," who want public schools to teach that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created life with a magic noodle.

Haught said Polk County School Board members backed away from their initial support for alternative explanations after getting flooded by email from Pasta-farians.

For the record, four of five Volusia County school board members told The News-Journal they support making evolution part of the state's science standards. Only Al Williams said he did not know enough to have an opinion.

Two of the five Flagler County School Board members responded to an e-mail query. Peter Palmer said he thinks of "himself as a good Christian who has no problem with the evolutionary concept." Colleen Conklin straddled the issue, saying "the state must recognize evolution as a science standard" while adding there "is value in sharing with students that not all believe this theory to be true."

As a supporter of science education, Judy Conte, chairwoman of the Volusia County School Board, said she is worried about the upcoming vote on the science standards.

"I hope the state board doesn't give Florida anything else to be embarrassed about," she said.