Standing Up by Sitting Out

April 12, 2005

Evolution and science are under attack again in Kansas, and academics there and around the country are refusing to participate in state Board of Education hearings designed to debate the concepts.

The head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science became the latest to beg off, saying in a letter to the board Monday that "rather than contribute to science education, [the hearings] will most likely serve to confuse the public about the nature of the scientific enterprise."

Kansas has become a central battleground for a spreading dispute over the teaching of evolution and of alternative explanations, like creationism and intelligent design, for how the natural world came about. Although the Kansas fight is focused on whether and how those concepts are taught in the state's elementary and secondary schools, "the implications for science at the university level are really pretty dramatic," says Steve Case, a research assistant professor at the University of Kansas.

The current dispute is essentially Round 2 in the fight; round 1 unfolded six years ago and brought a flood of attention, much of it negative, to the Jayhawk State.

In August 1999, the state education board scuttled a new set of standards for teaching science by eliminating the requirement that schools teach evolution, instead leaving decisions about how to teach about the beginning of life up to individual school boards and teachers.

A year later, Kansas voters turned out of office several members of the board who favored the alternative theories, and in 2001 that reconstituted board adopted a curriculum that restored the primacy of evolution in the state's K-12 science curriculum. But the fight did not end there.

Last summer, the state began a planned review of the curricular standards, led by a 25-member Science Curriculum Writing Committee on which scientists and other supporters of evolution held about two-thirds of the seats. In October, and then again last month, the panel issued drafts of standards that threw the committee's weight solidly behind evolution and defined science as "restricted to explaining only the natural world, using only natural cause. This is because science currently has no tools to test explanations using non-natural (such as supernatural) causes."

A minority of the panel's members offered their own report that encourage the teaching of alternative theories, including those that embrace supernatural rather than purely natural explanations for the beginning of human life and other scientific events.

Last November, amid a general electoral tide of faith-based voting nationwide surrounding issues such as gay marriage, Kansans elected to the state Board of Education enough opponents of evolution to give proponents of such views a 6 to 4 majority.

In February, the (re-)reconstituted board adopted a resolution that called for a set of hearings on the subject, citing "significant disagreement" on the committee "about issues that seem to be of legal and scientific substance, particularly with respect to the issue of the definition of science and the issue of origins and evolution."

The board established a subcommittee -- made up of three of its own members, all of whom oppose the teaching of evolution as the only explanation for the world's creation -- to preside over the hearings, designed to "investigate the merits of the two opposing views" offered by the committee's majority and minority. (The chairman of the Board of Education and of the new subcommittee, Steven E. Abrams, said in an interview Monday evening that the board had offered one of three seats on the new panel to all four supporters of evolution on the board.)

A few weeks later, a group called Kansas Citizens for Science urged scientists to boycott the hearings on the science curriculum. The group's vice president, Jack Krebs, a math teacher in the Oskaloosa, Kans., public schools, said the format of the sessions -- which are designed to feature three days of discussion about evolution and three about alternative theories -- make them a "sham" by giving proponents of intelligent design and creationism "their soundbite opportunity to appear equivalent to scientists."

"The scientific standards committee was created as a panel of experts to address the scientific community and come up with the best summary of what is supported by scientific evidence," Krebs said. "The board is now saying, 'We didn't like the conclusion that the scientific community came to, so we're going to create a forum that we like.' " Krebs said he and other advocates for science would be at the site of the hearings to talk to reporters and respond to comments made at the hearings.

In an interview Monday evening, the chairman of the State Board of Education, Steven E. Abrams, a veterinarian and one of the three members of the subcommittee that will lead the hearings, said the hearings were important to provide a public airing of a very "intense issue." He noted that a "significant minority" of the curriculum writing committee did not agree with the majority's report, and that in public hearings held around the state in recent months, "lots of people, just your average moms and dads, feel very strongly about the issue."

"The other parts of the process did not provide an opportunity for people on the other side" -- those who challenge the concept of evolution -- "to question the views of the scientists," Abrams said. The scientists refusal to testify, he added, make them "seem unwilling to present the science testimony about which they say they feel so strongly." 

Asked whether he stood by earlier comments he'd made that the scientists were reluctant to participate because they "can't defend what's put out there," Abrams said: "Is there another conclusion?"

Case, the University of Kansas professor who is among those who have opted out of speaking at the hearings, said it would "take quite a bit of ego" for him or anyone else to try to "defend" evolution and traditional scientific methods in the "political and social forum" that the hearings represent.

"For hundreds of years, science has been defended every day," he said. "Every time somebody does an experiment in biology they're essentially testing the theory. And to do it in front of three judges who have already made up their mind in a social science debate isn't the appropriate forum for science to be defended or advanced."

Turned down by dozens of scholars in Kansas, the board has scoured the country for other potential witnesses, and has been consistently rebuffed nationally, too.

In a letter to the board's science consultant Monday, Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of the AAAS, said that by presenting the hearings as a debate over evolution, the board "implies that scientific conclusions are based on expert opinion rather than on data. The concept of evolution is well-supported by extensive evidence and accepted by virtually every scientist. Moreover, we see no purpose in debating interpretations of Genesis and 'intelligent design' which are a matter of faith, not facts. The AAAS position is that facts and faith both have the power to improve people’s lives, and they can and do co-exist. But they should not be pitted against one another in science classrooms."

He added: "Although scientists may debate details of the mechanisms of evolution, there is no argument among scientists as to whether evolution is taking place."

Although the Kansas battle is unfolding mostly at the elementary and secondary education level, college scientists say the implications for higher education are significant. Case helps to train future teachers through the University of Kansas's Center for Research on Learning and its Center for Science Education. He said that to stay in compliance with national accrediting  standards for teacher education, which require colleges to prepare students to meet their own states' school curriculums, the university would conceivably have to train its students in alternative scientific theories.

"Students are not going to learn the crap from the minority report in our current biology courses," Case said.

He also said the current climate is likely to give universities in the state renewed trouble attracting high-quality graduate students, as they did when the evolution debate first exploded in Kansas in 1999. "Back then, we had some grad students who, when they told their friends they were coming here for grad work, asked them, 'Why? Why would you go there?' "

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