Topeka — The state's top public schools administrator argues no reasonable person who reads Kansas' new science standards would conclude that they are an attempt to teach students supernatural explanations for natural phenomena.
But that's exactly how Zack Warren sees them, as the aspiring physicist wraps up a class this semester on what he calls "life, the universe and everything" at Kansas State University.
Warren, only 18 months removed from high school, believes the State Board of Education has taken a step toward having public schools teach intelligent design, which says an unspecified intelligent cause is the best way to explain some orderly and complex features of the natural world.
But Education Commissioner Bob Corkins insists that there's nothing in the new definition of science that promotes intelligent design.
"That is not a part of anything here," he said during a recent interview. "Nor would we encourage the teaching of intelligent design. I do not believe that intelligent design rises to the level of a scientific theory."
The old definition said science is the search for natural explanations of what's observed in the universe.
The new definition says science is a systematic method for developing better explanations of natural phenomena by doing experiments, testing hypotheses, making measurements and building theories.
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"There is nothing in the science standards to encourage a search for supernatural phenomena," Corkins said. "It's just not there."
The state's new definition of science was a major reason behind the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's assessment this week that Kansas has the worst science standards in the nation. Another reason was the standards' treatment of evolution as a flawed theory.
The Washington-based education reform group was poised to give Kansas a solid "C" but dropped the grade to "F" after the state board approved new standards on a 6-4 vote last month.
Corkins argued criticism of the standards - and of the board, which has been accused of attacking science and damaging the state's image around the world - is unfair.
"The greatest response that we get, even from scientists in other states, is a concern over the perception," Corkins said. "That's what we're trying to correct right now, inaccurate public perception of what was actually passed."
But board member Sue Gamble, a Shawnee Republican who opposed the new standards, said the key is that the new definition doesn't limit science explicitly to seeking only natural explanations. That allows for supernatural - and religious - explanations, she said.
"I agree that specific religious terms are not used here. However, they are encouraged here," she said. "Many minds greater than mine have reached the same conclusion."
Among those minds is Paul Gross, a former University of Virginia provost who led the Fordham study.
"They said it's wrong to limit science to the discussion of study of natural processes," he said.
Warren is one of 22 students in a new Kansas State University class dealing with the origins of the universe and life, and evolution. University officials hoped it would bring scientists and philosophers together to help teach students about major scientific concepts, how scientists think and how science approaches problems.
A sophomore who hopes to get a doctorate in physics and embark on a research career, Warren said the class will help him discuss evolution and related issues more intelligently. He said he's been interested in those topics since junior high.
He views the board's work as politics, not science.
He said limiting science to the search for natural explanations strikes him as essential. Otherwise, he said, a person could look at data and conclude a natural phenomenon occurs because, "A demon and a gnome are having a fight."