Polk Needled, Noodled In Evolution Flap
LAKELAND - Public floggings hurt, even when administered by satirical sacred noodles. Ask the Polk County School Board. The panel made news last month when five of its seven members declared a personal belief in the concept of intelligent design, the religiously based explanation of the development of life believed in by many Christians. Four of those five sympathetic board members said they would like to see intelligent design taught in Polk schools as an alternative to Darwinian evolution, at a time when new state standards mentioning evolution by name for the first time are under consideration. Just like that, it appeared the Darwin wars had found their newest battlefield.Yet a few weeks later, the controversy is dying with a whimper. There's no board support for a challenge to the proposed standards. Some of the five school board members blame the local newspaper for trying to start a fight. "It's not our agenda," said Tim Harris, one of the board members. "My personal opinion and how I vote don't always jibe." What happened? You can start with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The satirical religious Web site asserts that an omnipotent, airborne clump of spaghetti intelligently designed all life with the deft touch of its "noodly appendage." Adherents call themselves Pastafarians. They deluged Polk school board members with e-mail demanding equal time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism's version of intelligent design. "They've made us the laughingstock of the world," said Margaret Lofton, a school board member who supports intelligent design. She dismissed the e-mail as ridiculous and insulting. That's the point. The Pastafarians are part of an informal online network that can rain scrutiny and ridicule on school districts flirting with intelligent design. In Polk County, where leaders are working hard to start a polytechnic university campus and talk about attracting high-tech jobs, that's unwelcome attention. "I imagine the school board was surprised by the speed and volume of the response," said Bobby Henderson, founder and operator of the Spaghetti Monster Web site. "They saw it as a local issue, but it didn't take long for word to spread on the Internet. "I think all of us have a vested interest in not seeing science standards lowered - or in this case having the definition of science changed to allow supernatural theories." Topic Of Interest It started innocently enough. A reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland called school board member Kay Harris Fields to ask her opinion of the pending state standards. There's nothing pernicious about that, said The Ledger's longtime Executive Editor Skip Perez. "We do what newspapers are supposed to do, report on what our public officials are thinking about topics of interest," Perez said. The story quoted Fields as opposing the evolution portion of the new standards and looking for state Superintendent Gail McKinzie to say whether there was anything to be done about them locally. "There needs to be intelligent design as well," Fields said in the story. "You need to show both sides." Fields said later, via e-mail, she didn't realize there would be a story "on the front page of the Ledger indicating that I opposed evolution." The newspaper followed up with a second story polling the entire board. "And the rest is history," Fields said. Enter the Pastafarians. And Wired Magazine. And national science blog Pharyngula. And local bloggers. This network is now armed with more than just biting humor and active readership. It has a 2005 federal court ruling from Dover, Pa., barring the teaching of intelligent design in public schools there. Intelligent design "cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents," wrote Judge John E. Jones III in his opinion. Wesley R. Elsberry, a Michigan State scientist who was raised and educated in Lakeland, wrote an open online letter to the school district, making reference to the Dover case. Elsberry, who studies the evolution of intelligence in digital organisms akin to computer viruses, helped prepare a Dover expert witness. In his Polk letter, Elsberry wrote: "You've been conned. 'Intelligent design' is a legal sham, a con game, one whose sole purpose is to insert a narrow sectarian doctrine into public school classrooms." Echoing Fields' original statement about teaching "both sides," Elsberry says intelligent design advocates want to set up a "conflict model" for judging scientific progress. Under that model, science and religion often will come into conflict, and to be religious, one must come down on the side of religion. That's a false conflict, argues Elsberry, who says he believes in God and sees no reason why observed science and religion can't co-exist. Based on the scientific observation, Elsberry believes God employs evolution and natural selection as the mechanism of developing life. Polk County is increasingly at odds with itself as it urbanizes and struggles to decide to which region of Florida it belongs. One of the few generally unifying ideas, though, is the pursuit of a new applied science-focused campus of the University of South Florida, to be located in northeast Lakeland along Interstate 4. It would be the state's first four-year public polytechnic college. Polk County and Lakeland city governments each have recently pledged $5 million to help kick-start the campus, which remains in bureaucratic and fiscal limbo. Backers see it as a potential economic engine and keystone of a high-tech I-4 corridor. They envision creating business incubators and luring technology companies. So what was the reaction to news of intelligent design talk? "I was surprised," said Marshall Goodman, a USF vice president and CEO of the existing and future Lakeland campuses. Goodman, who has worked to promote the new campus among Polk's civic, business and political leaders, stopped short of criticizing local school board members. Intelligent design, however, merited no such tact. "It's not science," Goodman said. "You can't even call it pseudo-science." Josh Hallett is a Winter Haven-based online social networking expert working as director of new media strategies for VOCE communications in Palo Alto, Calif. The intelligent design dustup and possible implications for Polk were hot topics on his local blog, Empirical Polk. In a post headlined "Say Goodbye To The Tech Sector," Hallett asked rhetorically: "What site selection consultant is going to recommend Polk County over, say, Orange or Hillsborough counties when the external impression of the school board is not that great?" It's not just traditionally rural Polk facing such questions. The Pastafarian nation already has turned its attention to urbane Pinellas County, where a similar majority of school board members came out in support of intelligent design this week. What's It Worth? Whether Polk County suffers from all the talk is hard to say. Florida is one of only a small handful of states with science standards that don't prescribe the teaching of evolution by name. The new standards would change that. State-sanctioned textbooks, however, already teach and discuss Darwinian evolution, by name and in some detail. "Many characteristics of a species are inherited when they pass from parent to offspring," reads one seventh-grade Life Sciences text. "Change in these inherited characteristics over time is evolution." The pro-intelligent design board members say they now recognize that the new standards are a state issue and there's nothing they can do about them, even if they'd like to. Lofton, a former geometry teacher with a master's degree in mathematics and one of the pro-intelligent design board members, said she has no interest in engaging with the Pastafarians or anyone else seeking to discredit intelligent design. She describes herself as secure in her beliefs. "I'm a Christian. I personally believe that the Bible is inerrant truth and the word of God." With that in mind, is it worth quitting over the forced teaching of Darwinian evolution as the only scientifically accepted explanation of the development of life? Lofton says no. There's been no talk by any other board member of taking such a stand. In fact, there seems to be great eagerness simply to return to the day-to-day work of running a school district with 90,000 students. "My job is about a whole lot more than a handful of standards in science," Lofton said. "We face issues that make that issue pale in comparison."
Reporter Billy Townsend can be reached at [email protected] or (863) 284-1409.