In a landmark vote Tuesday, the Kansas State Board of Education once again adopted science standards regarding instruction in evolution.
The new guidelines reflect an overturn of previous standards, written in part by advocates of “intelligent design,” that earned Kansas international ridicule in 2005. Advocates of intelligent design believe that life is too complex to have been created by anything other than a higher authority, and they reject most concepts of evolution.
The state has had five sets of standards in eight years, including both pro- and anti-evolution versions. In the 2006 elections, moderate Republicans won two seats away from conservatives, setting the stage for the recent 6-4 vote.
A New Definition
As a result, the board has removed language suggesting that key evolutionary concepts, such as the notion of a common origin for all life on Earth, are controversial and being challenged by new research. It also accepted a new definition of science limiting it to the search for natural explanations of what is observed in the universe.
The state uses its standards to develop tests that measure how well students are learning science.
“I was a member of the committee that wrote the new standards,” Jack Krebs, a Kansas math and technology teacher who is also president of Kansas Citizens for Science, told TechNewsWorld.
“We were appointed to revise the standards back in 2004, but the process got taken over by intelligent design advocates and was subverted. Some of those conservatives were defeated in the last election — this was a campaign issue — and [on Tuesday], the proper product was finally put in place,” he added.
“I doubt if any schools ever took intelligent design ideas seriously,” Krebs continued, adding that the mainstream ideas accepted by most scientists have now been made official in the state.
Just Another Religion?
Of course, not everyone agrees. “Basically, they did what’s done in every state in the union: They established atheism as the Kansas state religion,” countered Tom Willis, president of the Creation Science Association for Mid America.
“They’re just using the word ‘science’ to decorate their religion. Evolution is a belief system imposed by the government. These guys are religious zealots — or you might say anti-religious zealots — and they hover around science classrooms because they’re paid by the state to evangelize,” Willis told TechNewsWorld.
The question of whether science and religion can coexist is central to the debate.
Contrary to what creationists claim, the newly incorporated definition of science does not mean that one needs to be an atheist in order to accept it, Massimo Pigliucci, a professor of Ecology & Evolution and Philosophy at SUNY-Stony Brook, told TechNewsWorld.
“It simply means that science does not (and cannot) deal with supernatural phenomena. It’s a bit like what would happen if your computer broke down: You would assume a natural explanation and bring it to a hardware store — you wouldn’t seek a supernatural explanation and ask your preacher to fix it,” he said.
“There is an extremely false idea that evolution and science are atheist,” Krebs claimed. “Creationists use that idea to fuel divisive arguments that science and religion are incompatible.”
“In reality, no more biologists deny evolution than, say, physicists reject quantum mechanics,” Pigliucci noted. “They are both among the best established scientific theories to date. This doesn’t mean that they are unchanging truths, of course, since it is in the nature of science to change and improve our understanding of the world. But to represent evolution as controversial is intellectually dishonest.”
Given the issue’s history in Kansas, it remains to be seen whether the new science standards will last.
An Ongoing Battle
“I wouldn’t bet on the current standards to stay in place past the next election,” Pigliucci predicted. “However, I do think they ought to stay in place, simply because they accurately reflect both our understanding of science and the nature of the scientific process itself.”
“We have a large educational project ahead of us in this country,” Krebs concluded. “It’s heartening to see creationists keep losing in the courts and at the ballot box, but they keep upping the ante from a cultural viewpoint, and that’s potentially dangerous.”