Archive for Sunday, September 26, 2004

Evolution defenders anticipate new fight

September 26, 2004


For supporters of teaching evolution in Kansas public schools, the best defense is a good offense.

In January, the balance of power on the state Board of Education is expected to shift to social conservatives who want to include creation science and intelligent design among the theories taught in science classes, or remove evolution from the classroom.

In 1999, when the school board last voted to de-emphasize evolution, it took evolutionists months to organize and respond to the action. The board later reversed its decision in 2000.

This time around, evolution supporters are hoping to head off changes in state science standards before the new school board convenes early next year. The effort will start Tuesday, when Kansas University's science department will play host to a speech by Jack Krebs, an Oskaloosa high school teacher and vice-president of Kansas Citizens for Science.

"This speech is meant to be a rallying cry," Krebs said. "Last time, the rallying cry happened after the fact. This time, it needs to happen beforehand."

Shift in power

It's still unclear whether that rallying cry is necessary.

Kansas State Board of Education board members point out that the science standards remain under review by a special committee. Some board members said it would be presumptuous to say there are going to be changes in the standards.

However, at least one current board member and a newly elected board member told the Journal-World she would want to see theories, such as intelligent design and creation science, taught alongside evolution.

Science advocate Jack Krebs will speak at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union. The title of his talk is "Kansas Science Standards 2004: Will It Be 1999 All Over Again?"Krebs is a member of the state science standards review committee and vice-president for Kansas Citizens for Science.The event is free and open to the public.

"The last time I checked it was called education," board member Connie Morris said. "We need to give the students the information, send them into life as informed, individualistic thinking, productive citizens."

Based on previous votes and comments made by other board members, the balance of power on the state school board has shifted to a 6-4 vote with conservative Republicans having the edge from the 5-5 split between conservative Republicans and Democrats and moderate Republicans.

If Robert Meissner defeats Bill Wagnon in the general election, the split could be 7-3 in favor of de-emphasizing evolution.

The last time the conservative Republicans held the majority on the board was in 1999, which is when the science standards left the extent of teaching of evolution up to the local school boards and eliminated questions regarding matters like the age of the earth from standardized tests.

The next year, the board reversed its decision, opting for science standards that included evolution.

The upcoming review of science standards will be the first time since 2000 that the matter has been before the state school board.

"I don't know for sure when it will come up on the agenda," Morris said. "But I'm sure it will be a vigorous debate."

The board probably will have a preliminary report for the board later this year, said board member Sue Gamble, who represents District 2.

"I understand that there is struggle again along the line of what is science and whether or not creation/intelligent design should be a part of science standards," she said.

Gamble, who ran in 2000 on the platform that evolution should be part of science standards and that creation would be more appropriately taught in a humanities setting, said she was not interested in making changes to the standards. Wagnon also said he was fine with the science standards as they are.

Board member Steve Abrams, who had a role in changing the science standards in 1999, declined to comment on the matter until the science standards were before the board. Board member Iris Van Meter, who was elected in 2002, declined to comment and referred all questions to fellow board members Abrams, John Bacon and Morris.

Conservative Republican Kathy Martin won the District 6 board seat in the August primary against incumbent and moderate Republican Bruce Wyatt. Martin, who will be sworn in this January, said as far as she knew, the changes in the science standards would be "minor."

The teaching of creation science and intelligent design theories should be included in the science standards or evolution shouldn't be taught, she said. They are all theories, said Martin, who is a retired elementary school teacher with an emphasis in science.

"I know we have no empirical evidence to, you know, guarantee any one of them." Martin said. "But there's evidence for each different theory out there and there's quite a few good ones now that are scientifically based. You know, there's some gaps. Some of it has to be a little bit of a faith, or a little bit of a story, some kind of imagination. ... So, I think some of those other theories of origin will be written in, that they are going to be allowed to be discussed and I really don't know how it will come out yet but I know they (the science committee) are working on it."

Which theory?

But the idea of moving other theories into science classes has other board members concerned. Gamble said she questioned which version would be taught if creation science was studied. There are subtle differences between Protestants' and Catholics' versions of creation and major differences between faiths, such as Buddhists and Christians.

"Whose view of creation are you going to teach?" Gamble questioned.

Martin said just one can't be studied.

"You let all of the theories be brought in so long as they're relevant," she said. "You're not going to bring in something that's way off base, but as long as it has some scientific basis. I mean, this is a science class. If you're in religion and philosophy class then you might bring in some things that are pretty far out."

Mobilizing the troops

For Hume Feldman, associate professor of physics and astronomy at KU, and other evolution supporters, the arguments are likely to mirror those they made in 1999 and 2000.

"These people say, 'Two and two is five, and I want to teach this to students,'" Feldman said. "You can say that's another point of view. But I say it's not another point of view; it's wrong.

"Science has proven itself for 300 or 400 years of building things, fixing things, curing things. These (intelligent design) ideas, you can't do anything with them. You can't cure with them, build anything with them. You can talk about them."

One major change between 1999 and now, Feldman said, is that the state now is trying to build a bioscience industry. The Legislature this year approved the Kansas Economic Growth Act, which is expected to pump more than $500 million into the life sciences in the next 10 years.

As part of the act, the state is expected to hire research faculty at universities and provide incentives for biotech companies to locate in Kansas.

"How can you possibly come to a bioscience company and say, 'Come and we'll give you tax breaks, but your kids will not be able to learn about evolutionary biology in class,'" Feldman said. "How can you possibly attract anybody to come here? They don't want to live in a place like that. Kansas has been the butt of jokes for a long time."

Krebs is hoping his speech -- at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union -- will inspire evolution supporters to write letters to the editor, attend school board meetings and call board members.

"The board has a precedent of changing the standards on their own," he said. "They have the votes; they've expressed the desire and the motivation, and there's a national campaign to tie into to rationalize this. It's reasonable to assume a rallying cry is necessary, and we're not putting the cart before the horse."

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