April 12

Standing Up by Sitting Out

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

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

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

"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?' "

- Doug Lederman