Evolution, E-Mail and Kansas

University reviews new course after learning of professor's anti-intelligent design comments.
November 28, 2005

When news spread last week of a new course at the University of Kansas on intelligent design, the reaction was fairly predictable. Since the course will be taught in the religious studies department and is called "Intelligent Design, Creationism and Other Religious Mythologies," scientists said that intelligent design was being properly explained, supporters of intelligent design questioned whether the course would be biased against their ideas, and the university released a statement defending the academic freedom of the professor who created the course.

In Kansas, of course, intelligent design is not treated as the fringe idea that the vast majority of scientists consider it to be. The state's Board of Education this month approved new science standards that, while preserving the teaching of evolution in Kansas public schools, also call for students to learn about differing views.

So when newspapers published e-mail comments by the professor who created the new course in which he mocked intelligence design, legislators and other supporters of intelligent design interrupted their Thanksgiving vacations to demand that the university do something -- and many said that the course should be called off. A spokeswoman for the university said Sunday that the chancellor of the university would review the plans for the course, in light of the e-mail comments of the professor, Paul Mirecki, who is the chair of religious studies at Kansas.

In the e-mail message to a listserv, Mirecki said of intelligent design: "The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category 'mythology.' " Mirecki said he was "doing my part" to upset "the religious right" and signed his posting "Evil Dr. P."

Mirecki could not be reached for comment, but the head of the Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics at the University of Kansas, whose listserv posted the remark, confirmed its authenticity.

However, Andrew Stangl, president of the group, added that politicians in Kansas have taken the posting "completely out of context" by suggesting that Mirecki was mocking all Christians or all religious people. Stangl said that in the context of the larger discussion in which Mirecki was participating, it was clear that he was talking only about supporters of requiring the teaching of intelligent design.

Stangl also said that the listserv is closed and Mirecki thought that he was sharing his views only with the group's members, but that a "mole" had apparently leaked the comments to newspapers in Kansas. "We assumed that people would have better things to do than monitor a secular group's e-mails and activities with the intent of using them against us or our members," he said.

Intelligent design supporters increased their criticism when another professor announced that he would add material about the concept to a course called "Archaeological Myths and Realities." John W. Hoopes, an associate professor of anthropology at Kansas, said that the course has typically covered such topics as myths surrounding real objects such as the pyramids or Stonehenge, as well as myths about things that don't exist at all, like the supposedly lost continent of Atlantis.

Of intelligent design, Hoopes said, "I think it is very likely it would qualify as pseudoscience. It is based on hypotheses that are not falsifiable," he said, explaining that when dealing with real scientific theories, proponents will indicate the kind of evidence that would make them back away from their theory -- something intelligent design supporters are unable to do.

Hoopes said he was very concerned about the idea that university officials were reviewing Mirecki's course because of his posting to a listserv. "I feel that the university should be very cautious about reviewing the content of any courses," he said. "Academic freedom should assure the freedom of any faculty member to teach what they want to teach." 

The issue is important because Kansas faculty members have an obligation to get involved in the intelligent design debate, Hoopes said. He said that he thinks the state board's requirement may have a positive and unintended consequence of inspiring high school biology teachers to do a much better job at teaching evolution, and result in Kansas students knowing more about evolution that those elsewhere. But Hoopes said that colleges and employers nationwide are likely to now think Kansas high school graduates "will need remedial education" in science.

Brian Sandefur, a mechanical engineer who has been an active proponent of intelligent design in Kansas, said it was "totally irrational and reactionary" to say that Kansas high school students would face any problems for not being taught that evolution was a fact. "Our students will be better equipped to think scientifically," he said.

Sandefur said that when he heard about the new courses at the University of Kansas, he was initially inclined to wait to see syllabuses before raising any concerns. But he said that based on Mirecki's listserv posting, the courses "should be tabled."

"My initial suspicions are clearly demonstrated. There is no interest in serious reasoned examination of intelligent design. It's crystal clear from that e-mail," Sandefur said. "The attitude of the university is, 'let's take the easy way out and mischaracterize intelligent design as a bunch of religious fundamentalists who don't like evolution,'" he added.

Sandefur, who is on the board of the Intelligent Design Network, said he also objected to intelligent design being taught by religious studies and anthropology professors. "Both of those are not the most appropriate" disciplines, he said. "Intelligent design belongs in biochemistry and molecular biology class. That's the very foundation of intelligent design."


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