Archive for Tuesday, June 8, 1999


June 8, 1999


The Kansas Board of Education will have an opportunity to make history this month if it decides to vote on science education standards for K-12 students in Kansas. The board is faced with two sets of draft standards that could not be more different.

One set, drafted by a 27-member committee appointed by the board, draws heavily on national science standards established by the premiere scientific organizations in the nation -- the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. An alternative version championed by board member Steve Abrams, was drafted by a Missouri Creation Research Assn. and turns science and science education into the proverbial pillar of salt -- deaf, dumb and mute.

If the Kansas Board of Education rejects the committee's standards in favor of the creationists' ones, Kansas will instantly make yokel history, much as Tennessee did during the Scopes trial. We will announce to the nation that the Enlightenment never made it to Ozland, where science standards will call the Theory of Gravity "speculation." We will toss our economic future into the dumpster, because no high-tech company or even low-tech company will invest in a state with a workforce educated to dismiss "theoretical science" as speculations having no application to technological progress.

Corporate employees and their families who intend to relocate to Kansas will keep the accelerator floored across I-70 when they learn that their children will be taught that "virtually the entire 'industrial revolution,' was based on technology, not on theoretical science." Worse than preposterous, this is history (and science) for simpletons.

Investments in basic scientific research and the Kansas economy should also dry up. Why? According to the creationist standards, government and corporate funding of theoretical research are useless because theoretical science is "now known to be very tentative," played "little positive role in the advance of technology," and is "seldom held accountable for the success or failure of " ideas." So much for 50 years of basic, theoretical research on chromosomes, genes, DNA and RNA that gave us the current revolution in biotechnology -- e.g., gene sequencing; resistant strains of wheat; cloned sheep; modern drugs from gene-altered bacteria; and the human genome project.

Under the creationists' notion of "theoretical science", corporate giants such as Sprint, Monsanto and Boeing, and federal agencies such as NASA, EPA, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health would be justified in yanking the tens of millions of dollars they invest yearly in basic, theoretical scientific research at Kansas universities -- dollars that are part of the state's economic base.

Also, tourists might as well skip Lawrence, Hays and the natural history museums at KU and Fort Hays State University. Given the creationists' science standards, our "historical science" exhibits on dinosaurs and the biology of other past life forms are neither credible nor "in the same category as statements about the biology of present life forms" because scientists cannot verify, falsify or repeat past events. Really? For 150 years geologists and paleontologists have repeatedly found dinosaur bones only in Mesozoic rocks, verifying (and not falsifying) that dinosaurs lived only during the Mesozoic, from 200 million to 65 million years ago. Every field expedition this summer and next will continue to test that conclusion.

Of course, the creationists' science standards don't care much about "the biology of present life forms" either. They toss out the section on life sciences that deals with the diversity of plants and animals on earth and their adaptations -- a surefire way of avoiding that ominous e-word, evolution. Gone from their earth science standards are references to an ancient earth, the geologic time scale or past ice ages, perhaps because this knowledge takes us back beyond 4004 B.C.

Evolution is usually the lightning rod with which creationists choose to abuse science. But their alternative science standards do a pretty good job of flogging Newton, Einstein, the theories of relativity and gravity and the second and third laws of motion. Knowledge gained during the past 300 years in anthropology, geology, paleontology, astronomy and areas of biology is demeaned as "historical science," less trustworthy or worthwhile than other science. Teachers are advised that tests in these subject areas do not have correct answers that can affirm theories about past events.

The creationists' science standards don't just dumb down science. They are openly disdainful of knowledge, knowledge discovery and intellectual achievement. They state without shame that Kansas students will not be interested in thinking -- "Employers of people trained in technology are seldom interested in philosophy or speculation about the ultimate nature of things." Having been smacked with that insult, perhaps all the thinking technologists out there should pen a thoughtful note to Mr. Abrams. Start by citing the workers at Bell Labs who made some of the most profound discoveries about the ultimate nature of things, such as the background radiation of the universe.

The choice facing the Kansas Board of Education could not be clearer. The science committee's standards present the knowledge of the universe, Earth and life that humans have gained from thousands of years of observation, experimentation, invention, testing and thought.

The creationists' standards promise yokel status for Kansas and its economy and scientific illiteracy for Kansas schoolchildren. They will not be prepared for science at any university in the nation. Science, in the end, is about grandiloquent thought. All Kansas schoolchildren deserve to learn it, enjoy it and employ it to grow knowledge and benefit society. Let's not deny them the pleasure or the future.

--Leonard Krishtalka is director of the National History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center at Kansas University.

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