Poll: Evolution's not enough
A majority of Pinellas parents who profess to follow the controversy say intelligent design should be taught in schools.
By DONNA WINCHESTER and RON MATUS
Published December 30, 2005
[Times photo: Kathleen Flynn]
|Patricia Hanna, a life sciences teacher at Largo Middle School, lectures in class Dec. 7. The Fordham Institute says Florida's K-12 science standards force teachers to cover too much material and water down evolution "in response to religious and political pressures.''
Many Pinellas County parents want public schools to teach "intelligent design," the idea that life on Earth was produced by an unidentified intelligent agent, a St. Petersburg Times poll shows.
That sentiment runs contrary to Florida's current policy of teaching evolution, the theory developed by 19th century biologist Charles Darwin and accepted by nearly all scientists as the answer to how humans and other species originated and evolved.
Fifty-eight percent of the parents who said they have been following the national controversy over intelligent design told pollsters it should be taught "just like evolution."
Only 21 percent said intelligent design should not be taught.
"Being Christian, I believe there is a higher power," said Jackie Shields of St. Petersburg. "I agree (with) intelligent design more than evolution. It blows my mind to think we evolved over time. There's no such thing."
"New ideas develop," said Kathleen Helfand of Oldsmar, who also supports the teaching of intelligent design. "If there are other theories out there, kids should be able to entertain those theories along with whatever else is being taught."
The Pinellas poll mirrors a national divide. But it also shows that intelligent design has gained mainstream support, even in a politically moderate county not known as a hotbed for Christian conservatives, who are often portrayed as intelligent design's core supporters.
Intelligent design proponents have "essentially cast it as a fairness issue," said Wesley Elsberry, a spokesman for the Oakland, Calif.-based National Center for Science Education. "There's nothing Americans are not, if not trying to be fair about things."
More than a third of the 617 parents polled during the last week of November said they haven't paid any attention to the debate over intelligent design. But 36 percent said they have paid some attention, and nearly one in four said they have paid "a lot" of attention.
Among those who professed some knowledge of the issue, about one in five were critical.
Teaching intelligent design is "about the stupidist thing I've ever heard of," said Robert Rusher of Clearwater, whose 11-year-old daughter attends Safety Harbor Middle School. "It seems like some people don't have enough to do."
Another 13 percent said intelligent design should be taught, but "not as science."
Leona Pfeiffer of Palm Harbor said she has no problem with her son, a student in the medical magnet at Palm Harbor University High, discussing it in a language arts class. But she thinks intelligent design has no place in a science class.
"It's not been proven," she said.
So far, intelligent design has not become an issue in Florida. But it is sparking heated debates elsewhere.
Last week, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled that a local school board's attempt to introduce the subject in science classrooms violated constitutional restrictions separating church and state. News stories billed the six-week trial as the 21st century sequel to the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial," which put evolution on the stand in Tennessee.
Meanwhile, public disputes have flared in more than two dozen other states, including Georgia, where courts are deciding whether the Cobb County school district can put labels saying evolution is "a theory, not a fact" on textbooks, and Kansas, where the state school board voted last month to redefine science in a way that critics say includes the supernatural.
In Florida, one anticipated skirmish was recently postponed.
The Florida Department of Education decided a few weeks ago to delay a review of K-12 science standards, originally slated for next year, until 2007 or 2008, citing ongoing reviews of standards in other subject areas. Some observers expected the review to be a ripe opportunity for intelligent design supporters to argue for a change in the current standards, which don't cite evolution by name but reference its core principles.
Gov. Jeb Bush and Education Commissioner John Winn have declined to comment on intelligent design. But Bush, who enjoys strong support from Christian conservatives, said last week he doesn't think evolution should be included in the standards.
"I think people have different points of view and they can be discussed at school," Bush said. "They don't need to be in the curriculum."
In Pinellas, the artificial divide that pits evolution against other theories such as intelligent design can put teachers on the spot, said Jason Tenbrink, a teacher at Countryside High School in Clearwater.
"I tell the students they should talk to their parents," he said. "I don't want to step on anybody's toes."
Part of the problem, Tenbrink said, is semantics.
"A lot of people say evolution is "just a theory,' " he said. "But a theory is something that is rigorously tested. Evolution has been tested, and it's something we can observe the results of. We cannot observe intelligent design."
Not all science educators agree.
Sherry Gerodimos, who teaches biology at Largo High School, said while she is "more comfortable siding with evolution," she was impressed with a DVD she received on intelligent design and has considered showing it to her students.
"It's offensive to me that biologists shove evolution down people's throats as the only answer," Gerodimos said. "If we're saying (intelligent design) should never be taught, we're saying we're afraid, and that we're against what we say we do, which is investigate.
That argument carries no weight with the district's K-12 science supervisor, Robert Orlopp.
"There are lots of folks who, like me, want to stay open-minded," he said. "I don't believe they understand the real issue is that there is no scientific evidence one way or the other to prove or disprove there was a creator. Science relies on physical evidence. There is just no physical evidence to support (intelligent design) in a science class."
School Board member Linda Lerner, who identifies herself as a Reform Jew, does not think evolution and intelligent design are mutually exclusive.
"The district court (in Pennsylvania) acknowledged that evolution theory does not negate the existence of God, but it is not science," she said. "I do believe in some sort of intelligent designer, but I believe intelligent design is a theory that should not be taught in science class."
Board member Nancy Bostock thinks schools should teach both.
"I think as long as the public schools remain focused on the science behind the theory, they will be doing right by our community," she said. Bostock, who identifies herself as a Christian and believes that humans were "divinely created," said she wasn't surprised at the poll numbers. That more than half of the parents following the issue think intelligent design should be taught along with evolution simply reinforces the broad nature of the question, she said.
Some evolution supporters weren't surprised by the poll numbers, either.
The intelligent design movement has had "a good 10 years putting the spin on it their way," said Elsberry, with the science education center.
He said the Pinellas numbers will swing the other way if intelligent design becomes more publicized and debated locally. But he also said the issue shouldn't be decided by opinion polls.
Astrology is popular, too, but that doesn't mean it should be taught in science classrooms, he said.
"We don't decide science by popular vote."
[Last modified December 30, 2005, 07:18:26]
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