Science still under siege in Kansas


Following the widely criticized "kangaroo court" hearings on evolution in May 2005, the place of evolution in the Kansas state science standards remains unsettled. The standards have been revised along the lines suggested by local advocates of "intelligent design," and are to be reviewed by the original writing committee in early August. Later in August, the board will consider the standards again in light of the original writing committee's comments, and decide on a final version, which will then undergo external review. A final vote is now expected in September.

The "kangaroo court" hearings -- which reportedly cost Kansas taxpayers about $17,000 -- extended over four days in early May. Testifying before three antievolutionist members of the board, a parade of witnesses expressed their support for the so-called minority report version of the standards (written with the aid of a local "intelligent design" organization), complained of repression by a dogmatic evolutionary establishment, and claimed to have detected atheism lurking "between the lines" of the draft science standards. Conspicuously absent from the hearings were representatives of the scientific community, who honored the boycott recommended by the grassroots pro-science organization Kansas Citizens for Science; the only critical voice was provided by Topeka civil rights attorney Pedro Irigonegaray, who asked pointed questions with the aim of documenting dubious motivations and lack of relevant expertise on the part of the witnesses. (Recordings of the hearings are freely available from [Link broken]; transcripts of the hearings are available on the website [Link broken] of the Kansas Department of Education.)

The three-member subcommittee of the board that organized the "kangaroo court" hearings met on June 9 to discuss what changes to the standards to suggest to the board. To nobody's surprise, the suggestions of the so-called minority report were largely adopted, as the Wichita Eagle reported. School board member Connie Morris reportedly also wanted to add a detailed list of criticisms of evolution, commenting that "I just feel like there needs to be more there because that is the crux of this effort: getting the criticisms of Darwinian evolution into the standards and into the classroom." Harry McDonald, the president of Kansas Citizens for Science, replied, "It's not that science is suppressing these criticisms ... Science has rejected these criticisms as invalid." Noting that the minority report's suggestions cater to a narrow set of sectarian interests, Topeka attorney Pedro Irigonegaray, who grilled the witnesses testifying during the hearings, warned of a potential legal challenge, and commented, "It's just a sad day for Kansas education."

During the following week, the new minority report version was considered by the board. "Your adoption of these standards will ensure that you are not presenting to the students of Kansas the best that science has to offer," Kansas Citizens for Science president Harry McDonald reportedly told the board on June 14. "You will be presenting what you, the self-admittedly scientifically unqualified, wish to personally impose on our children." Supporters of evolution education also took issue with a recent newsletter (posted in PDF form on the Topeka Capital-Journal website) from Connie Morris, produced at state expense, that criticized evolution as an "age-old fairytale" and described the moderate members of the board as rude, disruptive and phony. The Lawrence Journal-World quoted the newsletter as saying that the testimony offered at the "kangaroo court" hearings showed that "Darwin's theory of evolution is biologically, genetically, mathematically, chemically, metaphysically and etc. 'wildly' and 'utterly impossible.'" Jack Krebs of Kansas Citizens for Science told the Wichita Eagle that while he was not surprised by her views, he found the newsletter "mind-boggling and scary."

Nevertheless, on June 15, the board voted 7-3 to send the standards, as revised by the subcommittee, to the original writing committee; both Connie Morris and her fellow school board member Kathy Martin indicated that they would propose additional revisions to the standards at a later date. The discussion leading to the vote was reportedly acrimonious: moderate board member Bill Wagnon told the conservative majority that they were "dupes" of the "intelligent design" movement and warned, "You have fallen into the trap of criticizing science based on misinformation," while conservative board member Connie Morris complained, "Each of you has said something this morning that was proven false in those hearings," and moderate board member Janet Waugh retorted by deploring Morris's personal attacks on her colleagues in her newsletter. The cochair of the original writing committee, Steve Case, expressed skepticism about the point of his committee's reviewing the standards, since it already considered and rejected the latest changes during the writing process. "I hesitate to waste people's time in the middle of summer for a day that's posture," he told the Eagle.

Editorial reaction in Kansas to the June 15 vote was muted, perhaps because the vote was only one further step in the process. On June 16, the Johnson County Sun's opinion page editor offered [Link broken] a summary -- "In recent months members of the 6-4 right-wing majority of the state board have made a mockery of the issue, notably by staging unneeded hearings that cost the state precious dollars -- dollars that could have been better spent on classroom teaching. And what purpose did the hearings serve? The six conservatives have the votes to shove through any changes they want in the way evolution is taught in Kansas schools." -- but was cautious not to predict a backlash at the next election, citing recent changes in the state's political landscape.

Meanwhile, the controversy in Kansas continued to receive national attention. On June 10, 2005, "Teaching Evolution Controversy" was the cover story on Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, broadcast on PBS. The story opened with Kansas biology teacher Ken Bingman, who, referring to the "kangaroo court" hearings, commented, "These hearings are not about science. ... This is about religion, and it's about their strict fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible." Of course, antievolutionists in Kansas are sometimes careful to avoid disclosing their religious motivations, taking their lead from such organizations as the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, whose Stephen Meyer was quoted as saying, "The public is starting to catch on that there's more to this debate than the stereotyped view of the enlightened scientist versus the backwoods Bible thumper."

But Meyer also conceded that "Many advocates of the theory of intelligent design happen to think that intelligence was likely to be God," and NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott explained, "So what intelligent design says is that if something is really, really complicated, and we can't explain it, God did it," adding, "That's a science stopper." Scott also said that "Science is neutral on whether or not God acts in nature. ... We cannot test for the influence of a supernatural creator." The sectarian bias of the proposed revisions was highlighted by Father Dirk Duffee, S.J., who commented, "I suppose a lot of Catholics would be surprised to learn that official Catholic teaching accepts the theory of evolution and recommends that it be taught in school because it's science," and by evangelical Christian and geology professor Keith Miller. Ken Bingman poignantly remarked that the effect of the manufactured controversy in Kansas over evolution would be to discourage teachers from teaching evolution, lamenting, "it's giving students less than a quality education when we do that."

And on June 21, 2005, Cornelia Dean's article "Opting Out in the Debate on Evolution" appeared in The New York Times. Beginning with NCSE Supporter Kenneth R. Miller -- described as "a good choice to speak for science. ... a professor of biology at Brown University, a co-author of widely used high school and college biology texts, an ardent advocate of the teaching of evolution -- and a person of faith" -- Dean explored why the scientific community refused to participate in the "kangaroo court" hearings in Kansas. "In general, they offered two reasons for the decision: that the outcome of the hearings was a foregone conclusion, and that participating in them would only strengthen the idea in some minds that there was a serious debate in science about the power of the theory of evolution." NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott was quoted as saying, "[W]e realized this was not a scientific exchange, it was a political show trial."

Scott also told the Times that engaging with proponents of "intelligent design" is a failed strategy. "I was one of the holdouts, saying yes, appear with these guys, yes, tell them what is wrong with their ideas, go to their conferences, treat them like scholars," she said. But eventually, "even I threw in the towel. ... Our willingness to engage their ideas ... was not being reciprocated." "Despite their decision to stay away from Kansas," the article continues, "scientists continue to make the case for evolution," citing Miller's serving as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in Kitzmiller v. Dover, the challenge [Link broken] to the constitutionality of the Dover Area School Board's policy requiring students to "be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's Theory [sic] and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design." Three people associated with the Discovery Institute -- John Angus Campbell, William A. Dembski, and Stephen C. Meyer -- who were to serve as expert witnesses for the defense in Kitzmiller have withdrawn [Link broken] from the case, although two more -- Michael J. Behe and Scott Minnich -- remain on board.

With the final vote on the Kansas science standards and the trial in Kitzmiller both scheduled for the same month, it should be a very interesting September.