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For their own good
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Florida parents don't have much faith in evolution.
Only 22 percent want public schools to teach an evolution-only curriculum, while 50 percent want only faith-based theories such as creationism or intelligent design, according to a new St. Petersburg Times survey.
"I have a very firm religious background," said Betty Lininger of Lecanto, who is raising her 15-year-old niece and thinks public schools should teach intelligent design but not evolution. "I can't just shove it out the door."
The survey findings stand in stark contrast to the state's proposed new science standards, which describe evolution as the pillar of modern biology and do not include alternative theories.
If the state Board of Education approves them Tuesday, the new standards will guide what Florida students are taught and tested on.
The Times survey - which included questions about evolution and a host of other education issues - was administered to 702 registered voters Feb. 6-10, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
It revealed a huge gulf between scientists and the public.
While the vast majority of scientists consider evolution to be backed by strong evidence, nearly two-thirds of those polled were skeptical.
Twenty-nine percent said evolution is one of several valid theories. Another 16 percent said evolution is not backed up by enough evidence. And 19 percent said evolution is not valid because it is at odds with the Bible.
"It just shows we have a lot of work to do," said Christopher D'Elia, a marine biologist who is an interim vice chancellor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Fundamentalist Christians, often portrayed as the heart of the antievolution opposition, weren't the only ones who expressed doubt. While only 9 percent of respondents who described themselves as evangelicals or fundamentalists wanted an evolution-only curriculum, the numbers still weren't very high for Protestants overall 16 percent or Catholics (21 percent).
Sue Sams of Spring Hill, a retired English teacher who describes herself as Protestant, said schools should teach creationism only.
"I don't disagree with the theory of evolution," said Sams, 65. "I'm just not sure it's 100 percent right."
Responses such as Sams' fly in the face of endorsements from thousands of scientists and scores of scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"There is no justification for singling out evolution for special skepticism or critical analysis," wrote Richard T. O'Grady, executive director of the American Institute of Biological Sciences in a Feb. 8 letter to the Board of Education. "Its strength as a scientific theory matches that of the theory of gravitation, atomic theory and the germ theory."
The response from Dennis Baxley, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida: "He's in error."
"At one time, the scientific community thought that for good health, you should attach leaches to your body," said Baxley, a former state representative from Ocala. "We're just asking them to leave the door open a little bit" for other evidence to be considered.
Scientists say opponents are grossly distorting the evidence in an effort to fuel skepticism.
But they say a wide range of other factors are at play: Confusion over the term "theory" (which in a scientific context means much more than a hunch); a lack of basic science literacy among much of the public; and a common perception that science and faith are automatically at odds.
"There are many scientists who are religious," D'Elia said. "They know it's a different domain."
The Times survey is just the latest in a long line of polls that found a public divided on evolution. Among other findings:
- 43 percent said human beings evolved over millions of years, while 45 percent said humans were created directly by God.
- 54 percent of men said humans evolved over millions of years compared with 35 percent of women.
- 52 percent of college graduates said humans evolved compared with 33 percent of those with four years of high school or less.
- 31 percent of white respondents said only evolution should be taught in schools compared with 7 percent of nonwhites.
Florida State University professor Michael Ruse said the numbers are not likely to change any time soon. He likened the clash over evolution to the civil rights movement.
"People are going to have to be carried kicking and screaming over the threshold," said Ruse, an authority on the history and philosophy of science. "If we can only get over this hangup about the sciences and evolution, 20, 40, 50 years from now, people are going to be looking back and saying, 'Am I ever glad we don't have to fight that anymore.'"
It's unclear how much public opinion may sway the Board of Education. The board, which is appointed, often has backed unpopular policies - including use of high-stakes testing to grade schools - and often has described its approach as data-driven and evidence-based.
"We don't determine our science by polls," said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, a group that supports Biblical values. But in this case, the poll results are relevant because "policymakers need to be responsive at some level to parents."
The board may be boxed in by court rulings. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that teaching creationism violates the constitutional separation of church and state. And in 2005, a U.S. district judge in Pennsylvania ruled that intelligent design is a repackaged form of creationism.
Many opponents say they're not pushing faith-based theories, just a less dogmatic approach to evolution.
It's an argument that appeals to Americans' sense of fairness.
Kim Geiss of Safety Harbor said public schools should teach evolution, creationism and intelligent design.
"Until we can say definitely, 100 percent that this is the way it happened, we can't tell our children evolution is the only way," said Geiss, 37, who worked as an engineer before her daughter was born. "We don't know that. I don't think we ever will know that."