More conservative Legislature considers evolution bill

More conservative Legislature considers evolution bill
As lawmakers wrestle with financial and policy challenges that could affect the quality of education in the state, one influential legislator is also hoping to change the way evolution is taught in Florida public schools.

Science education advocates are alarmed by a bill before the Legislature that they say could force teachers to challenge evolution at the expense of settled science.

Stephen Wise, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has resurrected legislation he authored in 2009 that calls for a "thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution." Wise's bill failed to pass in 2009.

The critical analysis approach originated at the Discovery Institute, a think tank that supports the teaching of intelligent design, which holds that evolution alone cannot explain life, which is so complex that it must have had a creator.

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, led another battle over evolution in 2008, but the Legislature failed to pass her bill that would have given protection to teachers who criticized evolution.

Storms' bill was filed in response to science standards adopted that year by the State Board of Education, which for the first time used the word "evolution" instead of such terms as "biological change over time." The standards also required more intense and detailed teaching of the concept.

Wise, R-Jacksonville, thinks his evolution bill may have a better chance this year because there are more conservatives in the Legislature and because he chairs a substantive committee.

"Why would you not teach both theories at the same time?" Wise said, referring to evolution and what he called "nonevolution."

"You have critical thinking in school," Wise added. "Why would you not do both?"

In 2009, Wise told WMNF radio he was concerned that students might be persecuted for wanting to talk about intelligent design.

"Why do we still have apes if we came from them?" Wise, a retired educator, said during the interview with the Tampa radio station. "And those are the kind of questions kids need to ask themselves. You know, 'how did we get here?' And, you know, there's more than one theory on this thing. And the theory is evolution, the other one is intelligent design."

Brandon Haught of Florida Citizens for Science – an organization that promotes science education in the state and opposes the teaching in public schools of Intelligent Design - said evolution detractors fail to understand that when scientists use the term 'theory," they mean something different than when the word is used in general conversation.

"A theory in science is one of the strongest things you can possibly have," Haught said. "In science, a theory is not a guess. It's an established explanation for a set of facts."

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Haught called Wise's bill "quite literally, an embarrassment for our state."

"Why drag everybody through this yet again?" asked Haught, who is interning to teach biology at Eustis High School. "It's already been hashed out."

"It's quite clear," Haught said, that Wise has "no background in biology." Man did not descend from apes, Haught said, but the species share common ancestry.

But Wise is not alone in his feelings about evolution; in spite of an overwhelming consensus among scientists that evolution has been proven, the debate has continued around the country.

Between 40 percent and 50 percent of Americans accept a biblical creationist account of the origins of life, while about the same or slightly larger numbers accept the idea that humans evolved over time, according to 2009 statistics from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

And in January, two Penn State professors reported that about 28 percent of public high school biology teachers surveyed consistently implement National Research Council recommendations that students be taught that evolution has occurred and continues.

In contrast, the professors found that about 13 percent of biology teachers "explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design by spending at least one hour of class time presenting it in a positive light."

The remaining approximately 60 percent of teachers mostly avoid the controversy, either by teaching only the less-contested aspects of evolution, by letting students make up their own minds or just teaching enough for students to pass standardized tests, the professors reported.

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The battle has been fought in legislatures and courtrooms:

• In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in a Louisiana case, declared the teaching of creation science unconstitutional.

• A federal judge in 2005 ruled against school officials in Dover, Pa., who had tried to require the teaching of intelligent design. In a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, Judge John E. Jones III barred the district from "requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution."

• In 2004, the Ohio Board of Education approved a model lesson plan for 10th-graders titled "Critical Analysis of Evolution." But the plan was rescinded following the Dover, Pa., court ruling, according to information from Pew.

• In 2006, South Carolina officials approved standards requiring high school students to "summarize ways that scientists use data from a variety of sources to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory."

The standards have apparently not been challenged in the courts. In 2008, the state Board of Education handed evolution advocates a victory when it approved a high school grade biology textbook that had been criticized for its inclusion of Darwin's theory.

• And in 2008, Louisiana adopted legislation similar to that now proposed by Wise, according to Josh Rosenau, programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education, dedicated to keep evolution in the classroom and to keep other theories out.

Although there are news reports of an effort to repeal the law, Rosenau said there hasn't been any litigation. "It's really hard to know what effect (the law is) having," he said.

Rosenau said Florida's existing science standards have been reviewed by national experts who found them to be "really good…The students are already doing the critical thinking."

"There's no reason for the state Legislature to mandate that particular scientific theories be taught or how they should be taught," Rosenau added. "There's no particular reason to single out evolution."

The Discovery Institute maintains the "critical analysis" approach to evolution is based on mainstream scientific criticism of Darwin's theory.

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And Wise denied he is trying to introduce religion into the classroom.

"I think it's a way in which people can have critical thinking," he said of his bill. "If you just keep things away from folks, you don't have a good debate, you don't have, 'You give me your side and I'll give you my side,' and you look at the facts and make your decision.

"We're not saying you ought to be a Muslim, you ought to be Jewish, you ought to be Christian or you ought to be Baptist or Episcopalian, what we're saying is here's a theory, a theory of evolution, a theory of whatever, and you decide."

Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida ACLU, however, said Wise's bill "would require the teaching of intelligent design, which is - despite the proponents and the people in the Legislature who will jump up and scream that it is science and not religion - it is, at its heart, a theological belief."

Would the ACLU file a lawsuit if the bill becomes law?

That depends, Simon said, on how local school officials react.

"There would be litigation," he said, "were some county school district to be silly enough to be enticed by the legislation to teach religion instead of science."