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Friday, February 29, 2008
Update: Kansas Academy of
Mathematics and Science


Photo from KAMS

The KAMS website is now up and running, including information regarding the proposed curriculum and what they're looking for in prospective students:

KAMS will begin recruiting students in fall 2008, once funding is made available, with an anticipated first class of 40 Kansas juniors enrolling in fall 2009. These exceptional students will represent urban, suburban, and rural communities from across the state. Prospective students must have completed at least two years of high school with distinction in mathematics or science. However, outstanding academic achievement is not the only criterion for acceptance. KAMS will select students based on drive, interest, maturity, stability, and personal and family commitment.

Complete the online form if you'd like more information.


posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams




Educational Malpractice

Kansas has a critical shortage of doctors and nurses. Should this problem be solved by allowing individual hospitals to grant licenses to their own doctors without requiring them to pass any type of exam, take any relevant coursework, or have any clinical experience?

Unfortunately, there's a bill before the Kansas House of Representatives (HB 2903) designed to make sure that school districts can fill vacant teaching positions with any non-criminal holding a bachelor's degree under a new, umbrella "district licensure" proposal. Although the bill specifies that the district's licensing program must meet KSDE standards, the KSDE has been more than eager to cooperate with this proposal and is expected to give rubber-stamp approval to those programs. This so-called solution to the teacher shortage doesn't even reach the band-aid status; it merely ensures that a warm body will be present in each classroom. For example, HB 2903 would allow schools to focus on beefing up their coaching staff, then assign those coaches to teach any class.

How can we expect students to learn REAL science in their classrooms when there's no guarantee whatsoever that the teacher has the slightest clue what REAL science is all about?


Research has shown that the most significant school-controlled factor in a child's achievement is the presence of a highly-qualified teacher in the classroom.

Although the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has its faults, it does require that every classroom have a highly-qualified teacher at its helm. "Highly qualified" originally meant that every secondary teacher must have at least a bachelor's degree in each subject they're assigned to teach. Now, the requirements have been adjusted a bit - "the teacher must demonstrate subject matter competency in each of the core academic subjects taught by the teacher" - as the teacher must attain 100 points on the Kansas Content Area Rubric from the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE).

All in all, these are reasonable, research-based requirements.

However, some legislators and school superintendents seem to think that the teacher shortage is caused by so-called barriers to licensure. The data shows otherwise.

The problem isn't a lack of certified teachers. The problem is that districts can't keep them in the classroom.

As of 2000,

70,866 individuals hold a valid educator certificate in Kansas and yet districts report only 44,066 are currently employed. An additional 74,977 individuals have expired Kansas certificates. Based on a study completed by the state department staff in 2000, 47% of people (excluding those retired) who have held teaching certificates, but are no longer practicing, would consider returning to the profession.

One gifted science teacher I know left the teaching profession a few years ago because he could make more money elsewhere, with much less stress. Another promising young math teacher left the field a few years ago because she can earn a higher salary working at a part-time job for a local non-profit organization. Our students were the ones who paid the greatest price as they missed out on the opportunity to learn from these brilliant teachers.

The legislature may succeed in removing the so-called barriers to teacher licensure. In doing so, they'll have placed more barriers to kids learning REAL science in the classroom.


posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams



Thursday, February 28, 2008
Who Is Teaching What?

Although the theory of evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology, it is not uniformly taught in high schools across the country. Indeed, evolution is sometimes ignored or de-emphasized in favor of teaching so-called "alternative theories" like creationism and intelligent design. This glaring discrepancy is one of the primary reasons for the existence of this website and blog.

State-wide curriculum standards indicate the scientific concepts that show up on science assessments in a particular state, but there is little information available about the actual instructional activities that take place at the local level.

Fortunately, some researchers are attempting to provide a clearer picture of what is actually going on behind the closed doors of the Biology classroom. Professor Kristi Bowman of the Michigan State University College of Lawhas recently published a paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, a publication of the Ecological Society of America.

Here is a summary of the results of the study:

How frequently and in what manner are evolution, creationism, and intelligent design taught in public high schools? Here, I analyze the answer to this question, as given by nearly 600 students from major public universities nationwide in a survey conducted during the spring of 2006. Although almost all recent public high school graduate respondents reported receiving evolution instruction, only about three-quarters perceived that evolution was taught as a "credible scientific theory." Creationism and intelligent design were reportedly presented almost one-third and one-fifth of the time, respectively, though respondents recalled that both concepts were presented as lacking scientific credibility much more often than not. The survey results are presented in composite form and also disaggregated with respect to the strength of evolution-related state standards, red state-blue state divisions, and the regional location of states within the country.

All in all, the results are good news. A solid majority of students are learning about evolution, at least to some degree. When creationism or intelligent design is mentioned, it is not usually taught as a credible scientific theory.

For me, the finding that "creationism" is reportedly discussed more frequently in science classrooms than "intelligent design" was somewhat unexpected. Despite all of the effort on the part of the promoters of intelligent design over the last two decades, the majority of teachers who take the time to mention an "alternative" to evolution still refer to creationism. What does this say about the success of the intelligent design movement?

If you're interested in learning more about the study, you can hear Bowman discuss the results by listening to this podcast.

Or, you can download the actual paper (pdf) and read it for yourself.


posted by Jeremy Mohn




To the Stars!


Photo from NASA

Astronaut and Kansas native Steve Hawley (top left in this NASA photo) is returning to Kansas to teach physics at the University of Kansas.

According to the Lawrence Journal-World,

Hawley, a Salina native, received a doctoral degree from the University of California. He said one of his primary missions in Kansas would be to promote the benefits of advanced scientific degrees to students across the state.

Hawley is retiring this May from a 30-year career with NASA. He'll shift his focus from opening up new frontiers in space to opening young minds to the possibilities of careers in math and science.

Our state motto is "Ad Astra Per Aspera" - "To the Stars, Through Difficulty." Hawley has been closer to the stars than most other native Kansans. Can Hawley help Kansas through its difficulties in teaching REAL science in the classroom?

University of Kansas chancellor Bob Hemenway noted that:

...the number of teacher licenses in chemistry, biology and physics had plummeted in recent years. Schools recruit overseas to fill teaching vacancies in science and math jobs.

"Science education is vital to the future of this state and nation," he said. "We need people like Steve to build a new excitement and urgency about science and math education."

This development seems to be in the right direction for science education in Kansas. On the other hand, there are bills before the Kansas Legislature right now which are (unintelligently) designed to lower the standards for teacher certification in Kansas. (Post forthcoming on that issue.)


posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams



Monday, February 25, 2008
Appeasing the Controversy?

A few weeks ago Cary McMullen, a religion editor for a Florida newspaper, put forth what he termed a compromise solution for evolution education: that parents should be allowed to excuse their kids from learning about evolution if it contradicts their religious beliefs.

We exchanged a couple of (what I thought were) thoughtful, reasonable emails on the topic. I pointed out why I don't think his solution will help in the long run. All in all, I thought we had a productive exchange of views.

Guess I was wrong. Here's what he had to say about the response to his solution:

"In my experience, the pro-science faction has shown a scorn and intolerance equal to anything I have seen on the anti-evolution side. 'If we let these people opt out,' seems to be the thinking, 'then ignorance - and the ignorant - will win.' "

Sure, the voices on both sides get strident. Scientists and science defenders get mighty tired of being lied to and lied about.

Of far greater concern is whether Mr. McMullen truly recognizes that the point of education is to combat ignorance.

Just as the antidote for prejudice is association with The Others, and as surely as my antidote for despair is prayer, the cure for ignorance is education.

We wash our hands more rigorously during cold and flu season, and we vaccinate our kids against disease. Likewise, giving kids the facts about evolution will help prevent them from succumbing to the talk-radio version of evolution that some Christian sects love to hate.

Perhaps Mr. McMullen is unaware of this muddled, incoherent collection of sound bites which talk radio hosts and some ministers pass off to trusting listeners as the theory of evolution. As Ed Hume notes:

Talk Radio Evolution also tells us that man evolved from monkeys (which supposedly makes no sense because, if true, why are there still monkeys?); that evolution has never been observed; that scientists are covering up the flaws in evolutionary theory in order to disprove God; and that belief in godless evolution engenders immorality, a survival of the fittest, anything-goes mentality that, among other things, inspired Adolf Hitler to launch the Holocaust.

This grotesque version of evolution represents the real thing just as much as a tarted-up old prostitute resembles a radiant young bride. Yet it's this dim reflection of evolution which science teachers must be able to shatter if there is any chance of those students gaining a true understanding of what evolution is - and what it isn't.

Mr. McMullen worries that parents will pull their kids out of the schools if evolution is taught. Let them pull. If they want to home-school their kids, that's their decision. If they want to teach their own kids their bastardized versions of science, that's their right as parents.

However no one, regardless of religious belief or state of unbelief, should be allowed to dilute or pollute REAL science education in the public schools.

Ignorance is easily curable. Willful ignorance, not so much.


posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams




A Petition That Won't Harm Your Irony Meter


Now that the Discovery Institute's "Stand Up For Science" campaign has finally ended, it's time to promote a petition by the same name that will not break your irony-meter.

The text of the Texas Freedom Network's petition reads:

Texas students deserve a 21st-century science education that pepares them for college and the jobs of tomorrow.

I call on the Texas State Board of Education and the Commissioner of Education to adopt science curriculum standards that:

1) are based on sound, peer-reviewed scholarship;
2) do not undermine instruction on evolution, a concept that is critical to the understanding of all the biological sciences; and
3) leave instruction about religious beliefs to our families and congregations.

If you are a supporter of quality science education, especially if you're a Texas resident, be sure to sign the petition and stand up for REAL science!


posted by Jeremy Mohn




Texas Board of Education Is Up For Grabs

Voters in Texas may soon be deciding the future of science education in the state. Two seats on the 15-member Texas Board of Education are being contested in the March 4th primary election.

Yesterday, Cheryl revealed that one of the challengers in the primary, Barney Maddox, is a well-known antievolution activist. Now the other challenger, Lupe Gonzalez, has expressed a desire to give equal weight to "alternatives to the theory of evolution."

"The ... issue can be minimized to a large extent if we present alternatives to the theory of evolution, give both of them equal weight and that's it," he said.

"I just think that there has to be something far more than just a big-bang theory ... that it just happened haphazardly. I just have a hard time believing that that would be the case."

Brandon Keim of Wired Science explains why the results of the upcoming election are so important.

The board selects textbooks and decides what Texas children are taught. Later this year, the state will review its science curriculum; observers fear that creationist explanations of life's origins will be presented as scientifically valid alternatives to evolution.

There's ample reason to think intelligent design -- a theory that views so-called irreducible complexities to be proof of divine intervention, and was discredited legally and scientifically two years ago during the Kitzmiller v. Dover case -- could mount a comeback in Texas.

State science education official Chris Comer was fired last November after telling friends and colleagues about a lecture critical of intelligent design. The 15-member Board of Education is roughly balanced between supporters and opponents of evolution -- but the March 4 board election features two pro-ID candidates, both running against pro-evolution incumbents.


posted by Jeremy Mohn



Sunday, February 24, 2008
Defusing The Religion Issue

The Discovery Institute's Dr. John G. West recently gave a lecture in which he claimed that supporters of REAL science are promoting religious instruction in public school science classrooms.

Public schools are certainly allowed to hold objective discussions of competing religious beliefs, in relevant courses, but that's not what the defenders of evolution are proposing. They are pushing one-sided, really, religious indoctrination with the clear intent of changing the religious beliefs of students, not just the science beliefs, but changing and molding the religious beliefs of students.

-Dr. John G. West

If what West said is true, it would seem to expose a startling hypocrisy on the part of evolution proponents. After all, it is normally the supporters of evolution who accuse their opposition of seeking to promote a specific religious view. Such an accusation requires serious consideration and a close examination of the evidence.

Unfortunately, West's lecture was full of insinuations but empty when it came to concrete evidence.

In his talk, West repeatedly claimed that Dr. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), encourages science teachers to promote one religious view over others. To support his accusation, West cited an article written by Scott entitled "Dealing with Antievolutionism."

According to West,

She recommends that science teachers use science classroom time to have students read statements by theologians endorsing evolution. That's right, science class should be spent reading and discussing statements by ministers and theologians. She's quick to point out, however, that only theologians endorsing evolution should be assigned . . . but I guess that's not promoting a particular religious view in her mind.

Not surprisingly, in order to make this point, West had to completely ignore the context provided in the article. It turns out that Scott offered the above activity as an example of how one teacher makes students aware of the diversity of religious attitudes towards evolution.

Here is what Scott actually wrote:

Teachers have told me they have had good results when they begin the year by asking students to brainstorm what they think the words "evolution" and "creationism" mean. As expected, some of the information will be accurate and some will be erroneous. Under "evolution," expect to hear "Man evolved from monkeys" or something similar. Don't be surprised to find some variant of, "You can't believe in God" or some similar statement of supposed incompatibility between religion and evolution. Under "creationism" expect to find more consistency: "God"; "Adam and Eve," "Genesis," etc. The next step in constructing student understanding of concepts is to guide them towards a more accurate view. One goal of this exercise is to help them see the diversity of religious attitudes towards evolution.

After one such initial brainstorming session, one teacher presented students with a short quiz wherein they were asked, "Which statement was made by the Pope?" or "Which statement was made by an Episcopal Bishop?" and given an "a, b, c" multiple choice selection. All the statements from theologians, of course, stressed the compatibility of theology with the science of evolution. This generated discussion about what evolution was versus what students thought it was. By making the students aware of the diversity of opinion towards evolution extant in Christian theology, the teacher helped them understand that they didn't have to make a choice between evolution and religious faith.

So instead of promoting a particular religious view, as West contends, the purpose of the activity was to make students aware of the wide range of religious views concerning evolution, including some views that are compatible with it.

Not content to stop there, West continued:

Dr. Scott further recommends requiring science students to go out to interview clergy in the community . . . but not if the community is what she calls conservative Christian, because then the intended lesson, that evolution is okay...uh...with theology, that theology endorses evolution, might be undermined.

Again, West misleadingly distorted what Scott actually wrote:

A teacher in Minnesota told me that he had good luck sending his students out at the beginning of the semester to interview their pastors and priests about evolution. They came back somewhat astonished, "Hey! Evolution is OK!" Even when there was diversity in opinion, with some religious leaders accepting evolution as compatible with their theology and others rejecting it, it was educational for the students to find out for themselves that there was no single Christian perspective on evolution. The survey-of-ministers approach may not work if the community is religiously homogeneous, especially if that homogeneity is conservative Christian, but it is something that some teachers might consider as a way of getting students' fingers out of their ears.

As should now be evident, West consistently failed to acknowledge the stated purpose of the activities and, in so doing, managed to make it seem as though Scott is encouraging teachers to promote one particular religious view over others. In reality, the instructional activities described by Scott were intended to address a common misconception: the notion that religious people must reject evolution in order to hold on to their faith.

So, upon closer examination, West's accusations against Eugenie Scott turn out to be egregiously false. Scott does not encourage the promotion of religious views in the science classroom. She merely offers her help to science teachers who are looking to defuse the religious objections to evolution that originate outside of the classroom so that authentic learning can take place inside of it.

Pointing out that the diversity of viewpoints among religious people does not equate to promoting one viewpoint over another. That is a simple fact, one that West tried hard to obfuscate.

Representatives of the Discovery Institute claim that they really want students to learn more, not less, about evolution. If they really meant that, they would be supporting such attempts to defuse the religion issue because students are much more likely to learn about evolution when they can approach it without the fear that doing so will automatically lead them to reject their religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, this was not the only misleading part of West's lecture. He also used a quote from Dr. Kenneth Miller's book, Finding Darwin's God, to blatantly misrepresent Miller's viewpoint concerning evolution and the development of human beings:

Even the self-professed theists among evolution proponents tend to be less friendly to traditional religion than one might think. Let's take Ken Miller, who is usually cited as a traditional Roman Catholic by the news media. Yet he insists in his writings on evolution that it's an "undirected" process and that the development of human beings was "an afterthought, a minor detail, a happenstance in a history that might just as well have left us out."

I happen to own a copy of Finding Darwin's God, and the text quoted by West is not reflective of Miller's view. Miller does not believe that intelligent beings capable of knowing their Creator are an "afterthought" or a "minor detail" in evolution.

The following long excerpt provides a clearer view of Miller's beliefs:

So, what if? What if the comet had missed, and what if our ancestors, not the dinosaurs, had been the ones driven to extinction? Or, to use one of Gould's metaphors, what if we wind the tape of life backwards to the Devonian, and imagine the obliteration of the small tribe of fish known as rhipidistians. If they had vanished without descendants, and with the them the hope of the first tetrapods, vertebrates might never have struggled onto the land, leaving it, in Gould's words, forever "the unchallenged domain of insects and flowers."

No question about it. Rewind that tape, let it run again, and events might come out differently at every turn. Surely this means that mankind's appearance on this planet was not preordained, that we are here not as the products of an inevitable procession of evolutionary success, but as an afterthought, a minor detail, a happenstance in a history that might as well have left us out. I agree.

What follows from this, for skeptic and true believer alike, is a conclusion the logic of which is rarely challenged--that no God would ever have used such a process to fashion His prize creatures. He couldn't have. Because He couldn't have been sure that leaving the job to evolution would have allowed things to work out the "right" way. If it was God's will to produce us, then by showing that we are the products of evolution, we would rule Him out as our Creator. Therein lies the value or the danger of evolution. Case closed?

Not so fast. The biological account of lucky historical contingencies leading to our own appearance on this planet is surely accurate. What does not follow is that a perceived lack of inevitability translates into something that we should regard as incompatible with a divine will. To do so shows no lack of scientific understanding, but it seriously underestimates God, even as He is understood by the most conventional of Western religions.

Finding Darwin's God, p. 272-273

Miller summarizes his position on the following page:

Can we really say that no Creator would have chosen an indeterminate, natural process as His workbench to fashion intelligent beings? Gould argues that if we were to go back to the Cambrian era and start over a second time, the emergence of intelligent life exactly 530 million years later would not be certain. I think he is right, but I also think this is less important than he believes. Is there some reason to expect that the God we know from Western theology had to preordain a timetable for our appearance? After 4.5 billion years, can we be sure he wouldn't have been happy to wait a few million longer? And, to ask the big question, do we have to assume that from the beginning he planned intelligence and consciousness to develop from a bunch of nearly hairless, bipedal, African primates? If another group of animals had evolved to self-awareness, if another creature had shown itself worthy of a soul, can we really say for certain that God would have been less than pleased with His new Eve and Adam? I don't think so.

Finding Darwin's God, p. 274

Clearly, Miller's theological views are more nuanced than West would have his audience believe. While Miller does not believe that human beings were the inevitable outcome of evolution, he does believe that God intended to create beings that were worthy of a soul. It is therefore false to claim that Miller's views are "less friendly to traditional religion than one might think."

Ironically, after maligning Eugenie Scott for encouraging instructional activities that defuse the religion issue, John West demonstrated exactly why such activities are necessary.

People like him are working hard to make sure that the fuse stays lit.


posted by Jeremy Mohn




Neil Shubin Interview

Dr. Neil Shubin, the author of Your Inner Fish, was recently interviewed for a CBC radio show called Quirks and Quarks.

Earlier, I shared my favorite analogies from Your Inner Fish. Dr. Shubin discusses several more examples in the interview.


Dr. Shubin has tremendous enthusiasm for the science of evolution. I particularly appreciated the last thing he said in the interview:

What we're seeing is the influence of history. This doesn't mean that the human body is not a beautiful and remarkable thing. I mean it is truly astounding what humans are able to do. But what is astounding to me, and actually quite aesthetically beautiful, is all those remarkable abilities have come about through history, through parts, pieces, and tools that are common to other living creatures on the planet.

Charles Darwin was right. There is grandeur in this view of life.


posted by Jeremy Mohn




So Much for Stealth

The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram reports today that

Although little noticed by the public, the race for a local seat on the State Board of Education could lead to a dramatic ideological shift on the panel and -- by extension -- in Texas school policy.

Fort Worth-area District 11 incumbent Pat Hardy is being challenged in the March 4 primary by Barney Maddox.

According to the article, Mr. Maddox wouldn't return numerous phone calls and refused to provide information for that newspaper's voters guide.

A busy man? Undoubtedly.

A straightforward man? If Maddox was attempting to be stealthy about his creationism, it is now obvious that he failed. Why he refuses to share his platform with the media at this late date is questionable, as the Star-Telegram article mentions that

In 2003, for instance, the Cleburne urologist [Maddox] testified against evolution at the State Board of Education with his characterization of Charles Darwin's theories as "pre-Civil War fairy tales." He urged board members at the meeting to reject new [pro-evolution] biology textbooks.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. There's more:

Maddox also questioned evolution in a 2006 letter to the Cleburne Times-Review and has had anti-evolution writings posted on the Web site of the Institute for Creation Research, a Dallas organization that attempts to find scientific evidence for the writings in the Bible.

The Texas Freedom Network has been keeping a close eye on the situation.

So has the Free Market Foundation whose president, attorney Kelly Shackleford, was quoted as saying

"Conservative means careful -- it means that you don't put things in textbooks unless they're accurate," he said.

Scientists and science teachers could go along with that statement, no problem. We expect textbooks to be factual and present only well-tested theories, ones which are strongly supported by the experts in the relevant fields.

Since the Free Market Foundation president supports including only accurate statements in textbooks, the group should oppose Maddox's candidacy on the grounds that Maddox would rather have scientific inaccuracies - even outright lies - promoted in science textbooks. That is, if they hold honesty and integrity as traditional Judeo-Christian values; after all, their stated mission is

To protect freedoms and strengthen families throughout Texas by impacting our legislature, media, grassroots, and courts with the truth. To do this we are guided by the principles, which limit government and promote Judeo-Christian values.

One would also expect the Free Market Foundation to oppose Maddox's candidacy if they truly believe in limiting government, by letting scientists & science teachers set the science curriculum instead of politicians.

But if you look at the Free Market Foundation's voters' guide [pdf] for the 2008 primary, you find that their first requirement of a State Board of Education member is that

Biology textbooks which do not teach both the scientific strengths and weaknesses of the theory of evolution must be rejected by the Board.

In reality, Shackleford & the Free Market Foundation support scientifically inaccurate textbooks. Keep in mind that neither he nor Maddox are scientists. Although Maddox might know the male urogenital tract very well, his biologically-uninformed opinions on evolution are far from accurate and contradict the REAL science supported by well over a century of hard data.


posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams



Thursday, February 21, 2008
Discovery Institute Finally Sits Down


Picture by Giant Gecko

Over one year after the Kansas Board of Education (KBoE) rejected and replaced the 2005 Kansas Science Standards, the Discovery Institute (DI) has finally ended its "Stand Up for Science, Stand Up for Kansas" campaign.

In the summer of 2006, DI Senior Fellow John West and Director of Communications Robert Crowther both denied that their campaign had anything to do with the upcoming KBoE elections.

Despite the DI's claims, once the August 2006 primaries changed the composition of the KBoE...tumbleweeds.


However, like a ghost town, the website was apparently haunted. New links were periodically added to the "UPDATES" sidebar, even though the main content of the website did not change to reflect the new state of affairs in Kansas.

The tombstone for "standupforscience.com" reads:

This Site Has Been Replaced

Unfortunately, it does not admit:

These Standards Have Been Replaced


posted by Jeremy Mohn



Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Evolution Crosses Finish Line...But Who Won?

This morning, the Florida State Board of Education voted 4-3 in favor of adopting science teaching standards (pdf) that include the word "evolution" for the first time.

However, the Board also approved a last-minute "compromise" to insert the phrase "scientific theory of" in front of evolution and other scientific explanations, including plate tectonics, gravity, and electromagnetism.

Thankfully, the standards thorougly explain the meaning of the word "theory" in science and describe how it differs from the word's everyday usage. Here are a few snippets from various grade level standards:

3rd Grade:
-The terms that describe examples of scientific knowledge, for example; "theory," "law," "hypothesis" and "model" have very specific meanings and functions within science.

6th grade:
-Recognize and explain that a scientific theory is a well-supported and widely accepted explanation of nature and is not simply a claim posed by an individual. Thus, the use of the term theory in science is very different than how it is used in everyday life.
-Identify that a scientific theory is an explanation of nature supported by evidence.

9th-12th grade:
-Explain that a scientific theory is the culmination of many scientific investigations drawing together all the current evidence concerning a substantial range of phenomena; thus, a scientific theory represents the most powerful explanation scientists have to offer.
-Recognize that a scientific theory is developed by repeated investigations of many scientists and agreement on the likely explanation.

The lasting effect of the change remains to be seen, but I am optimistic that the so-called "compromise" could turn out to be a resounding victory for supporters of REAL science.

As I noted in an earlier post, in their misguided attempts to denigrate evolution by calling it a "theory," the opponents of evolution have actually assigned to it a level of significance that few other scientific ideas ever achieve.

Ironically, this is like arguing that an Olympian should be disqualified for the offense of finishing in first place.

So go ahead Florida, teach evolution as a well-substantiated, well-supported, and well-documented explanation.

We appreciate your support for REAL science.

Just don't expect to get the gold medal back.

Although I remain optimistic, I can't help but worry that the "gold medal" that Florida just awarded to evolution may actually be made out of lead.

Consider the following headline from Reuters:

"Florida will teach evolution but only as theory"

Clearly, supporters of REAL science may have won this leg of the race, but we have a long way to go.


posted by Jeremy Mohn



Monday, February 18, 2008
Florida BoE Set to Vote Tomorrow

Action item #1 on the agenda for tomorrow's Florida Board of Education meeting is the vote on whether to approve the state's revised science standards.

The revision process began in May, 2007. According to the proposed action item, an affirmative vote will "finalize this process, and the process of turning these new world class standards into quality world class instruction will begin."

That's some optimistic language. Hopefully, it's also prophetic language.


Brandon Haught, communications director for Florida Citizens for Science, will be live-blogging the meeting.

I also seem to remember reading somewhere that tomorrow's meeting will be broadcast on the Internet. If so, look for it here starting at 8:30 am EST.

Will the Florida BoE stand up for REAL science?

Tune in tomorrow to find out!


posted by Jeremy Mohn



Saturday, February 16, 2008
Still Standing . . . (One Year And Counting)

This last week marked the one year anniversary of the Kansas Board of Education's vote to reject the 2005 Kansas Science Standards and replace them with the standards originally written by the board-appointed writing committee.

A couple of months ago, I noted that the people responsible for the Discovery Institute's "Stand Up for Science, Stand Up for Kansas" website have curiously failed to acknowledge the rejection of the very standards their online petition was designed to support.

I just sent an email to the DI's Robert Crowther, formally requesting a change to the website. My email is reproduced below the fold.


Dear Robert,

I am writing to request a long-overdue change to the CSC's "Stand Up for Science, Stand Up for Kansas" website.

As you know, that website was created to support science standards that are no longer in effect. In fact, the 2005 science standards were rejected and replaced by the Kansas Board of Education over a year ago. Kansas has moved on, but your organization's website appears to be standing in place.

Unfortunately, the significant reversal in Kansas is not mentioned on the "Stand Up for Science" website. Visitors to the website who are unaware of the current state of affairs in Kansas are being inappropriately misled.

I respectfully ask that you do whatever you feel is appropriate to correct this situation.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Jeremy Mohn

If I get a response, I will let our readers know.

Update (02/19/08): When I sent the above email to Robert Crowther, I got an out-of-office reply, so I also sent it to Casey Luskin. Today I received a response from Luskin, thanking me for reminding him and his co-workers of the need to change the website. He assured me that the matter will be looked into.


posted by Jeremy Mohn



Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Apples and Oranges


UPDATE: Volusia School Board Supports Teaching of Evolution; revised graphics below the fold.

Dr. Debra Walker of the Monroe County (Florida) School Board deserves a nice, big, shiny red apple.

As Jeremy noted yesterday, archaeologist* Walker did some digging into the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) scores of some counties in northern Florida. Yes, these are the counties whose school boards have been raising all kinds of ruckus about adding the "e-word" to the state science standards. Panda's Thumb has an excellent map detailing the counties in Florida with their stance on evolution.

Lo and behold, Dr. Walker found that the students in those counties are the ones who have the lowest scores in the state on the science portion of the FCAT.


This graph above compares the average raw FCAT scores of the counties that have indicated support for or rejection of teaching evolution with the statewide FCAT scores. [Note: corrected 8th- and 11th-grade score transposition 17:44 02-14.]


These scores show the percent of students who scored at or above a "3" on a 1 - 5 scale, analogous to scoring at or above the "proficiency" level on the Kansas state assessments. [Note: corrected 8th- and 11th-grade score transposition 17:44 02-14.]

These graphs starkly illustrate the need for stronger evolution education. In those counties where evolution is strongly supported, FCAT science scores are significantly higher. In the counties where evolution education is strongly opposed, science literacy is below the state average.


Granted, FCAT scores aren't the be-all and end-all of measures of science mastery. Also, only two three counties have expressed support of evolution education, so that sample size is unavoidably limited at this point. The data used to generate these graphs is summarized below; please click to enlarge.
[Note: updated 07:00 02-14 to include data for Bay County.][Likewise, 17:05 02-17 for Volusia County]



The Orlando article also mentions a blurb from Mr. Dallas Ellis from the Panhandle. Mr. Ellis seems to think that if humans, pets, and oranges are related by a common ancestor, anyone who enjoys eating an orange might as well be partaking of their neighbor's dog. Or their own cat. One wonders how this gentleman takes care of his pets. When they're in need of medical attention, does he take them to his local vet or does he consult his local nurseryman whose specialty is the growing of oranges?

"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge" is the first part of Charles Darwin's quote at the top of the page. Dr. Walker of Monroe County and Mr. Ellis of the Panhandle quite succinctly illustrated the difference between knowledge and ignorance - apples and oranges - on Monday, the day before Darwin's 199th birthday.

*Dr. Walker assured me via email that she is an archaeologist, not a physical anthropologist as stated in the article. She also pointed out that she's not the current chair of the Monroe County Board of Education - another goof on the Orlando paper's part.

************************************************************

2/15/2008 16:07 CST - The Volusia County Schools have been supportive of evolution in the past, even calling it by name in their district curriculum guide:

For example, according to Volusia County Schools' current curriculum guide, high-school Biology I requires students to gain an understanding of how genetic variation of offspring contributes to population control in an environment, and requires students to understand that the theory of evolution posits that natural selection ensures those best adapted to their surroundings will survive to reproduce.

Graph of raw scores, revised to reflect Volusia County scores:


This graph shows the number of standard deviations between the state average and the averages of the counties accepting/rejecting evolution:



posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams



Tuesday, February 12, 2008
ScienceDebate2008 Has a Date


The organizers of ScienceDebate2008 have made it official:

Date: April 18
Time: 7 PM
Location: Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Candidates Invited: Clinton, Huckabee, McCain, and Obama

Anyone interested in seeing this debate happen is strongly encouraged to:

1. Contact the campaigns, and tell them to attend ScienceDebate2008! A list of contact information for the campaigns can be found here (see right margin).

2. Write letters to the editor of your local newspapers, raising further awareness about this initiative. Some handy letter writing tips can be found here.

3. Tell a friend about ScienceDebate2008 (handy link here). We need to spread the word as much as possible at this critical time. We're at 13,000 supporters right now; we want to get to 15,000 supporters by the end of the week and 20,000 supporters by the end of the month. We need your help to make that happen.


posted by Jeremy Mohn




Summary Article About Florida Hearings

The article is available here.

You can watch video of the hearings here.

The following was the best quote by a supporter of REAL science that I have seen in quite some time:

But Debra Walker, chairman of the Monroe County School Board, urged passage of the new standards as is. She said the current "political meltdown over Darwinian theory" was proof that too many people had received a poor-quality science education.

She noted that the school districts with some of the lowest science scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test were the ones complaining loudest about the new standards.

"Do we want these boards setting science policy in Florida? I think not."

As previously discussed on this blog, when school boards in Florida pass resolutions that call for evolution to be taught as "a theory, and not a fact," they demonstrate that they do not even know the meaning of basic scientific terms.

Do we want these boards influencing the content of science textbooks for the rest of the country?

I think not.


posted by Jeremy Mohn




Dover Isn't Over: Is Florida Next?

The Florida State Board of Education will vote next week on whether to adopt revised science standards that specifically describe evolution as "the fundamental concept underlying all biology."

If approved, the revised standards would replace the current standards that do not mention evolution by name, instead offering up the classic tap-dance known as "biological change through time."

If rejected, the potential ramifications for science education reach far beyond the borders of the Sunshine State.


Brandon Keim of wired.com has written an article that emphasizes the importance of the upcoming vote.

In the article, Lawrence Lerner of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute explains why all of this matters to non-Floridians:

"Texas buys about 10 percent of all K-12 textbooks, and Florida buys another 8 percent. If they want creationism in their textbooks, Wyoming may not have a choice."

Will the Florida BOE stand up for REAL science or will it be Dover all over again?


posted by Jeremy Mohn



Sunday, February 10, 2008
Evolution Sunday: Layers of Significance

This weekend marks the third annual observance of Evolution Weekend, an ongoing project intended to build a bridge of reconciliation between faith and science.

For me, this particular time of year has multiple layers of significance.

Allow me to explain.


Three years ago this weekend, my wife, Kristy, and I welcomed our youngest daughter, Rylan, into the world. She and her older sister, Avery, are a constant source of joy and wonder in our lives. I truly cherish the opportunity to share my life with such genuinely inquisitive and sweet little girls.

By sheer coincidence, Kristy's original due date with Rylan was February 12, the birthdate of one of the most influential figures in all of modern science, Charles Darwin. This fact did not go unnoticed on my part, to the point that I remember being somewhat disappointed by our doctor's recommendation to induce labor two days early.

(Please don't misunderstand me. I completely supported Kristy's decision to go with the induction. I was just envisioning someday having an evolution-themed birthday party, including a game of "Pin the Tail on the Monkey" and a stratigraphically-layered birthday cake complete with candy fossils. Hey, a science teacher can dream can't he?)

Around the time that Rylan was born, I was undergoing a transition in my professional life as a Biology teacher. I had already developed an intense interest in the social and political controversies surrounding evolution. Up to that point, however, I had been content to confine my public advocacy for quality science education to my personal website, An Evolving Creation.

My original goal for the website was to offer some ideas about how one might reconcile belief in God with the continually expanding scientific understanding of humanity's place in the universe. My advocacy for this viewpoint eventually led to me being interviewed in January 2005 for an article in TIME Magazine about what it is like to teach evolution in Kansas. I was surprised by the attention the article brought me, but I figured things would die down soon enough.

Little did I know that this was only the beginning.

About a week before Kristy was due to give birth, I made the decision to finally step out of my comfort zone. I attended one of the public comment sessions to express my opinion about the revisions to the Kansas Science Standards that had been proposed by proponents of intelligent design (ID). As luck would have it, I ended up being among the first of many people that night to express support for REAL science. As a result, some of my commentary appeared on at least one local television station, in a couple of the local newspapers, and even on CNN Headline News.

What was Kristy's reaction to seeing my testimony on TV?

She just shook her head and laughed.

The following week, on February 9, 2005, the Kansas State Board of Education (KBoE) passed a resolution that outlined their plans to circumvent the established procedure for revising the science standards and give the ID proponents a special platform to advance their anti-evolution agenda.

Rylan was born on February 10, 2005. The following day, as my wife and newborn daughter slept next to me in the hospital room, I wrote an open letter to the KBoE majority expressing my disappointment with their recent shenanigans. When Kristy found out what I had been working on while she was asleep, she just shook her head again and laughed. By now, she had come to accept the fact that I was deeply passionate about defending the integrity of my chosen profession.

What followed were several months of intense media scrutiny, beginning with an Intelligently-Designed "Kangaroo Court" and culminating with the KBoE majority inevitably voting to adopt the ID-friendly standards on November 8, 2005.

During this period of time, I got to interact with supporters of REAL science from across the state of Kansas and beyond by becoming an active member of an online discussion forum at Kansas Citizens for Science. This was how I got to know many of my science education buddies, including Cheryl Shepherd-Adams, my co-blogger. In fact, I have been thinking lately that it's about time for Cheryl and I to actually meet in person!

Also at this time, thanks to my friend and mentor Harry McDonald, I was on a short list of Kansas Biology teachers who were willing to talk to reporters. I was interviewed by an AP reporter for a series of newpaper articles. I also welcomed television news crews from Canada and France into my classroom for interviews with me and my students.

Predictably, the science standards issue turned out to be a major reason why the Board eventually lost its ID-friendly majority. But they would not go down without a fight. Indeed, I created the "stand up for REAL science" website in response to an attempt by ID proponents to influence the outcome of the 2006 primary elections (archived article).

On February 12, 2006, Charles Darwin's 197th birthday, I celebrated the inaugural Evolution Sunday as Rylan was baptized into the Christian faith. At the time, I remember thinking that it was quite fitting that my daughter would be baptized on a day with such historic, scientific, and now religious significance.

Last year, on Evolution Sunday 2007, our pastor preached a sermon that, in part, emphasized the compatibility of modern science and Christianity. After the worship service was over, I informed him that he had just finished preaching about the reconciliation of faith and science on a weekend that had been specifically claimed by others for exactly that purpose.

He had no idea.

This revelation struck me as yet another notable coincidence.

The next day marked Darwin's 198th birthday. By another stroke of sheer luck, the following day was a snow day and I had the distinct pleasure of sitting at home and listening online as the newly-elected KBoE majority voted to replace the ID-influenced Kansas Science Standards with the standards recommended by the committee of scientists and educators originally appointed by the Board.

You see, had I been teaching that day, I would have been unable to listen to the meeting, and I would have missed out on hearing the efforts of so many folks like me finally paying off.

----------------------------------------------------------------

So why did I feel the need to share all of this?

Is there some kind of hidden meaning behind all of these weird coincidences?

Are these experiences evidence of synchronicity?

Or are they merely examples of confirmation bias?

I honestly don't know. But I plan to wait a few more years before I completely reject the notion that Charles Darwin's birthday holds some type of special significance for me and my family.

Right now, I'm just looking forward to enjoying cake and ice cream with my three-year-old and hoping that one day she'll grow up to write something like this about me:

"He cared for all our pursuits and interests, and lived our lives with us in a way that very few fathers do ... He always put his whole mind into answering any of our questions."

-Charles Darwin's daughter, from Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters. Darwin, Francis (Editor).


posted by Jeremy Mohn



Saturday, February 9, 2008
Outstanding Editorial From Minnesota

Timberjay Newspapers editor Marshall Helmberger tells it like it is in an editorial entitled "Creationists resort to deception in attacking evolution."

"Personally I don't care if someone wants to believe that the world is 6,000 years old and that humans walked with dinosaurs.

Where I draw the line is when such individuals try to force their unscientific and insupportable beliefs into the science curriculum of our public schools."

In the editorial, Helmberger correctly notes that even though creationists have consistently failed to get their religious beliefs into science classrooms, they have still successfully undermined the teaching of evolution.

"While the courts have correctly ruled that the teaching of religion as science is unconstitutional in this country, the fact is that advocates of creationism have significantly undermined the teaching of evolution in American classrooms nonetheless. Few American young people graduate from high school or university with anything more than a rudimentary understanding of the basics of evolution and the literally mountainous and ever-growing base of scientific evidence to support it."

It is refreshing to read such a straightforward approach to the issue.

Thank you Mr. Helmberger.


posted by Jeremy Mohn




Texas Academy of Science Weighs In

The Texas Academy of Science has published a statement concerning the teaching of creationism, intelligent design, and evolution in Texas public schools.

The statement is entitled "Texas Academy of Science Position Against the Inclusion of Creationism and Intelligent Design Concepts in the Science Curricula in Texas Schools" (pdf).

A few relevant quotes are reproduced below the fold.


"The purportedly competing "theories" explicated by creationists to displace the theory of evolution in the biological sciences are not based on an effective application of scientific methodologies, nor are they testable using established scientific methodologies."

"Texas science teachers have a finite amount of class time and textbook space in which to teach the many valid and foundational scientific concepts that enable students to become knowledgeable consumers, decision makers and voters. Inclusion of creationist or intelligent design concepts in science curricula would seriously diminish the effectiveness of science education by distracting teachers from covering an already overwhelming body of knowledge, and would consequently dilute student's understanding of scientifically valid concepts and theories."

"The hiring of TEA administrators and staff must be based on appropriate educational credentials and teaching experience for those individuals to conduct the agency's mission to educate the children of Texas. Texas's reputation is at stake and the country is watching."


posted by Jeremy Mohn



Friday, February 8, 2008
Evolution Wins Gold Medal in Sunshine State

Imagine that you are in an argument with someone concerning an idea that you think has great merit. Your opponent adamantly opposes the idea and actively works to ensure that it is denigrated and disparaged in the public eye.

Your view is that the idea in question is so well-established that it is foolish for anyone to doubt its significance. Just as you begin to express this view, your opponent interrupts to argue that the idea is well-substantiated, well-supported, and well-documented.

You are surprised by such an admission, but then you realize that your opponent has no idea what those words actually mean.

The Bay District School Board in Florida is about to consider whether they will join several other Florida County School Boards to adopt a resolution that would express precisely this type of argument.


Florida's proposed science standards correctly state that evolution is "the fundamental concept underlying all of biology, and is supported in multiple forms of scientific evidence." Unfortunately, some politicians have misinterpreted this to mean that evolution will be taught "as dogmatic fact."

The collective response by Board members across the state has been to argue that evolution must be described in the standards as a "theory."

Ironically, this is like arguing that an Olympian should be disqualified for the offense of finishing in first place.

So go ahead Florida, teach evolution as a well-substantiated, well-supported, and well-documented explanation.

We appreciate your support for REAL science.

Just don't expect to get the gold medal back.


posted by Jeremy Mohn



Monday, February 4, 2008
Addressing Common Misconceptions

Florida Citizens for Science has produced a four-page fact sheet that dissects several common misconceptions and outright fallacies concerning evolution and science education.


One of the major misconceptions that has been seen repeatedly in the discussion concerning Florida's revised science standards is the notion that "evolution is just a theory, not a fact."

Here is how the fact sheet addresses this all-too-common misconception:

Is evolution theory or fact?
There is quite a bit of confusion in the public concerning the combination of the terms theory and fact when discussing evolution. The simple explanation is that there are an abundance of facts showing how life on Earth has changed over vast stretches of time. A scientific theory then seeks to explain how those facts interact and fit together to form an overall picture. So, a scientific theory is not a fact itself, but rather is a carefully reasoned explanation for what a related set of facts tells us about our world and how it works.

The fact sheet goes on to recommend Stephen Jay Gould's excellent essay entitled "Evolution as Fact and Theory" for further reading.


posted by Jeremy Mohn



Saturday, February 2, 2008
Avoid the Controversy?

Cary McMullen is the religion editor of Lakeland, Florida's The Ledger. Although he seems to support teaching the mainstream view of evolution in the science classroom, this week he offers up his idea for opponents of evolution:

"Let those parents who have a religious scruple about this part of the curriculum sign a waiver exempting their children from learning it. My guess is that relatively few families would take this step.

This proposal would allow evolution to be taught as unqualified science to willing students, while those whose families object would not have to learn it in violation of their consciences. Both sides would get their way."

A couple of years ago, I had a wonderfully talented student whose parents don't believe in germ theory on religious grounds. Should this young lady have been excused from learning about disease transmission in her biology class? What if a parent in the deep South disagrees with the mainstream, accepted history of the Civil War? Does this mean the son should be exempt from learning about the consensus view of the scholars and historians?

Although Mr. McMullen proposes what he sees as a compromise solution, it is more like offering a band-aid to the Black Knight's flesh wound. Exempting students from learning about the grand unifying theme of biology will not staunch the flow of fear and anti-intellectualism which seems to nourish the anti-evolution movement. Many vocal anti-evolutionists have promoted a bastardized, "talk-radio" version of evolution, a version which has little resemblance to the actual theory itself. If all students are required to learn the actual, scientific version of evolution, conflicts arising from such misunderstandings could be avoided.

It has been said that the answer to hate speech isn't to restrict speech, but to promote more free speech. The new Florida standards recognize the fact that the answer to ignorance of a scientific theory isn't to exempt students from learning about it, but to promote their understanding of the mainstream, accepted, REAL science.

Contact Mr. McMullen at cary.mcmullen@theledger.com.


posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams




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