Archive for Monday, May 9, 2005

Evolution proponents draw fire for boycotting hearings

Science curriculum debate to continue Thursday

May 9, 2005


— While state Board of Education members spent three days soaking up from critics of evolution about how the theory should be taught in public schools, many scientists refused to participate in the board's public hearings.

But evolution's defenders were hardly silent last week, nor are they likely to be Thursday, when the hearings are set to conclude. They've offered public rebuttals after each day's testimony.

Their tactics led the intelligent design advocates -- hoping to expose Kansas students to more criticism of evolution -- to accuse them of ducking the debate about the theory.

But Kansas scientists who defend evolution said the hearings were rigged against the theory. They also said they didn't see the need to cram their arguments into a few days of testimony, like out-of-state witnesses called by intelligent design advocates.

"They're in, they do their schtick, and they're out," said Keith Miller, a Kansas State University geologist. "I'm going to be here, and I'm not going to be quiet. We'll have the rest of our lives to make our points."

The scientists' boycott, led by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Kansas Citizens for Science, frustrated board members who viewed their hearings as an educational forum.

"I am profoundly disappointed that they've chosen to present their case in the shadows," said board member Connie Morris, of St. Francis. "I would have enjoyed hearing what they have to say in a professional, ethical manner."

Intelligent design advocates challenge evolutionary theory that natural chemical processes can create life, that all life on Earth had a common origin and that man and apes had a common ancestor. Intelligent design says some features of the natural world are best explained by an intelligent cause because they are well-ordered and complex.

Science groups' leaders said Morris and the other two members of the board subcommittee presiding at the hearings already had decided to support language backed by intelligent design advocates.

All three are part of a conservative board majority receptive to criticism of evolution. The entire board plans to consider changes this summer in standards that determine how students will be tested statewide in science.

'Political theater'

Alan Leshner, AAAS chief executive officer, dismissed the hearings as "political theater."

"There is no cause for debate, so why are they having them?" he said. "They're trying to imply that evolution is a controversial concept in science, and that's absolutely not true."

Intelligent design advocates argue they're trying to give students a balanced view of evolution.

Some Kansas scientists who support the evolutionary model contend that the real goal is trying to sneak intelligent design, which they criticize as repackaged creationism, into the classroom.

During the recent round of hearings, witnesses said repeatedly that the study of molecules, embryos and fossils challenges evolution. But other scientists said their arguments had been discredited repeatedly.

"These people are willfully ignorant, and they choose to ignore the facts," said Timothy Parker, a Kansas State University biologist.

Ongoing debate

Intelligent design advocates said questions about evolution weren't going to stop.

Edward Peltzer, a Monterey Bay, Calif., ocean chemist, said scientists and philosophers have debated for several thousand years whether life or features of the natural world were designed. He was a witness at the hearing.

"They think they're going to outlast us," Peltzer said of evolution's defenders. "It's one of the questions people keep struggling with."

Another witness, Charles Thaxton, who lives near Atlanta but is a visiting assistant professor of chemistry at the Charles University in the Czech Republic, said the boycott was a sign of weakness.

"They've lost so many debates over the years, even their own supporters say, 'Don't do it,"' he said.

But Leshner said scientists didn't fear having theories debunked.

Leshner, a neuroscientist, cited two examples. First, until the 1970s, he said, people believed newborns couldn't learn, and there's now evidence a fetus can learn in the womb. Ten years ago, he said, a prevailing view was that human brain development stopped around age 10, and when scientists theorized that it continued into early adulthood, colleagues were "hysterical," he said.

"Scientists love to fight, and they love to argue in public, and they love to refute each other's point of view," he said.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.