All over but the shouting in Kansas


The Kansas Board of Education hearings on proposed revisions to the state science standards, which were widely condemned as a kangaroo court or show trial, commenced on May 5, 2005 in Topeka, Kansas. 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 call of the grassroots pro-science organization Kansas Citizens for Science. Kansas scientists, educators, and concerned citizens were not idle during the hearings, however, holding a separate event outside the hearings to provide informed commentary to the media and the public at large.

In the hearings, Topeka civil rights attorney Pedro Irigonegaray provided the only critical voice, asking pointed questions with the aim of documenting dubious motivations and lack of relevant expertise. The first major media story to appear after the first day of the hearings highlighted instances in which witnesses admitted under his probing that they rejected, or were ignorant about, such basic scientific facts as the age of the earth (approximately 4.5 billion years) and the common ancestry of humans and apes. According to a later story, although most of the witnesses accepted the correct age of the earth, most rejected common ancestry. A further embarrassment came when, after a witness admitted that he had not read the full draft standards, board member Kathy Martin consoled him by saying, according to the Wichita Eagle, "Please don't feel bad that you haven't read the whole thing because I haven't read it myself." The Associated Press reported "groans of disbelief" from the audience.

With the exception of such embarrassing moments for the witnesses and the boards, the proceedings were evidently dull. Writing for the Kansas City Star, David Klepper noted that "[a]lthough there was a full house at the start, most left well before the hearing ended." Apparently, lectures on "primordial soup, fruit fly mutations and whether humans are related to worms" did not hold the interest of the audience. Not even the prospect of the "intelligent design" luminaries testifying, including Michael Behe and Stephen C. Meyer, convinced the bulk of the media to stay for the third day of hearings. Afterward, with the antievolution testimony over, the media paused for analysis. Nationally, the highlight was the Washington Post's May 8 editorial "Kansas evolves back," which observed "[T]here is no serious scientific controversy over whether Darwinian evolution takes place. Intelligent design is not science. Whatever its rhetoric, the public questioning of evolution is fundamentally religious, not scientific, in nature."

Due to the scientific boycott of the hearings, the only person to speak on behalf of the draft science standards May 12 was Pedro Irigonegaray, who devoted his ninety minutes to criticizing the proceedings themselves. The Wichita Eagle reports that he described the hearings as "a gigantic waste of money" -- the costs are estimated to be in excess of $17,000 -- "and an insult to Kansas teachers with great potential for harm to teachers and students." He warned that if the board were to accept the so-called minority report version of the draft science standards, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the decision might result, since it embodies a "narrow, sectarian, theological view of science that conflicts with mainstream Christianity and many other faiths." And he questioned the impartiality of the three members of the board present, as well as their competence to assess the testimony of the witnesses. Irigonegaray further irritated the board members by declining to answer their questions on the grounds that he was not appearing as a witness; Kansas "intelligent design" activist John Calvert refused to shake his hand.

What's next for Kansas? Observers in the state say that it was clear even before the hearings that the sole point of the exercise was to provide political cover for the antievolution faction on the board to override the consensus of the committee of scientists, science educators, and citizens appointed to revise the science standards. Judging from the press coverage, it failed. State Board of Education Chairman Steve Abrams -- himself a creationist -- told the Lawrence Journal-World that he hopes for a set of revised standards to be approved in the later summer, but he did not specify whether it would be the draft version or the so-called minority report version. NCSE executive director Eugenie C. Scott commented, "The eyes of the nation will be on Kansas in the next few months. We hope that the board of education will do right by the children by adopting the scientifically accurate and pedagogically appropriate draft science standards as submitted by the writing committee." It may be all over for the shouting, but expect plenty of shouting.