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Kansas science standards under fire

The November 8, 2005, vote of the Kansas state board of education to adopt a set of state science standards that systematically impugn the scientific status of evolution is, unsurprisingly, receiving criticism from all over. Some of the reaction is facetious, such as The New Republic's (November 21, 2005) quip [Link broken], "Governor Kathleen Sebelius worried that [the vote] would scare away high-tech employers. No word yet on projected growth in the state's lucrative necromancy, astrology, and alchemy industries," or the Annals of Improbable Research's suggested warning stickers (PDF) indicating which areas of science are now not valid in Kansas.

More seriously, in The New York Times, reporter Dennis Overbye concentrated on the redefinition of the term "science" in the standards (November 15, 2005). The previous definition reads in part, "Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us." The new definition describes science as "a systematic method of continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena." The crucial change, Overbye explained, is in the deletion of the phrase "natural explanations."

Adrian Melott, professor of physics at the University of Kansas, argued, "The only reason to take out 'natural explanations' is if you want to open the door to supernatural explanations," and historian of science Gerald Holton concurred, saying that the effect of the deletion is to imply that "anything goes." The Nobel-prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg added that investigating the supernatural is beyond the competence of science. "This doesn't mean that [scientists] commit themselves to the view that this is all there is," he said. "Many scientists (including me) think that this is the case, but other scientists are religious, and believe that what is observed in nature is at least in part a result of God's will."

Acknowledging that the task of providing a rigorous definition of "science" has proven to be difficult, Overbye noted that "[o]ne thing scientists agree on, though, is that the requirement of testability excludes supernatural explanations. The supernatural, by definition, does not have to follow any rules or regularities, so it cannot be tested." Accordingly, "[t]he redefinition by the Kansas board will have nothing to do with how science is performed, in Kansas or anywhere else." But as Holton explained to the Times, the lives of students and science teachers in Kansas -- and elsewhere, should other states emulate Kansas's redefinition of science -- will be complicated as a result.

In a sidebar to the story, Kenneth Chang briefly described four of the antievolution changes to the standards and presented responses from mainstream science. The changes involved defining evolution as "unguided" (to which NCSE deputy director Glenn Branch was quoted as replying, "'Unguided' is a very slippery word"), claiming that the results of molecular phylogeny contradict the idea of common ancestry, suggesting that macroevolutionary changes are difficult to explain in part because of "irreducible complexity" (a phrase associated with "intelligent design" advocate Michael Behe), and implying that the open questions in origins-of-life research in effect invalidate the field.

Writing in The American Prospect on-line, Chris Mooney -- the author of The Republican War on Science (Basic Books, 2005) -- noted, "These days, it seems, the less the creationists say about what they actually believe, the better they're likely to fare," and cited Kansas as his main example. He wryly remarked, "Call it the Ghostbusters approach: According to Kansas, scientists are now free to go hunting for ghosts, genies, and other supernatural entities. If they happen to discover God along the way so much the better, but let no one say the board has explicitly required it." Mooney concluded that the savvier creationists "have so shrunken the substance of their positive position that it has all but disappeared."

Back in Kansas, the Lawrence Journal-World hopefully suggested, in a November 13, 2005, editorial, that "the board's vote ... may have almost no effect on what is taught in most Kansas schools. Although the inclusion of arguments against the scientific theory of evolution will have some impact on state assessment tests, many teachers and school districts say they have no intention of changing what they teach in science classes." But the editorial expressed concern that "[t]he fact that many local school boards and teachers will ignore, if not overtly defy, the state board's decision on evolution may be the first wedge in a growing chasm between local districts and the Kansas Department of Education."

Perhaps the pithiest reaction appeared in the editorial pages of a small newspaper in a different state: the York Dispatch (November 16, 2005), fresh from covering the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. The editorial [Link broken] described the antievolution additions to the Kansas state science standards as "rather goofy" and as effectively introducing "[i]ntelligent design in new bottles," advising Kansas citizens to "[g]o to the polls and kick 'em out." "The religious zealots will keep trying to change the tone of science education in this country, but they have a losing game plan. Common sense will always win out in the end."