Debate: Intelligent design in public schools – Part 3

Bill Wagnon

Kansas continues to be embroiled in ongoing skirmishes of the culture wars in America. The actions of the State Board of Education on Nov. 8 in approving new science curriculum standards that redefined science and faulted Darwinian evolution exhibit the Orwellian practices of the contemporary radical right wing of the American political spectrum. They discredit science, they promote a narrow segment of religious dogma, they breach the separation of church and state in America, but most of all, they weaken standards in education.

?Science curriculum standards are an important measure whereby Kansas schools are accountable to the public. They provide guidelines for local districts to devise curriculum and in turn serve as the basis for tests taken by students to determine whether they have learned basic knowledge. Schools in districts are expected to show improvement over time that their students are learning the materials based on the test results. Science is one of the core knowledge areas, together with reading, writing, math, and history/government.

?Periodically, the state board revises its curriculum standards by asking a group of teachers and scholars to review the latest ideas in curriculum and present the board with proposed revisions in standards. The science standards went through this process over the past year and half. The science standards committee held public hearings and reviewed various proposals for inclusion. The committee followed a consensus process that considered all proposals, rejecting some while adopting others, to produce a fresh set of recommendations for the state board. However, a distinct minority of that group, guided by Intelligent Design advocates, insisted the state board adopt their recommendations on the definition of science and alternative views on life origins and species development. When the issue reached the board, the minority view, Intelligent Design, was held by a majority of the state board members, and they adopted the minority report.

?As a minority member of the state board I objected to the board’s substituting the ideas of a fringe for the wisdom of the mainstream scientists. Scientific advancements since the Age of Enlightenment have depended on limiting inquiry to natural phenomena – energy and matter. The new definition erased that natural boundary, opening science to pronounce on supernatural issues. Moreover, Darwinian evolution has explained important questions in life sciences since Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species some 150 years ago. To single it out as fraught with controversy and a mere theory discredited by gaps in supporting evidence was to ignore the paleontologic record and immense research on the part of scientists. Even more troubling to me was the cloaking this action as teaching students critical thinking skills. This hypocrisy inverts the very notion of critical thinking. Students learning science need to know that conclusions are drawn from gathering data, not picking out certain data to support preconceived conclusions. Darwin used the scientific method to arrive at his evolutionary theories – theories that have been validated over and over again with new scientific discoveries.

?If questions remain, then scientists should find answers, not public officials. When there is compelling scientific data that evolutionary theory needs to be replaced with other explanations for species development, then curriculum standards ought to be modified to reflect that proof. No such evidence has been forthcoming to justify changes the state board made in its revised curriculum standards.

?What difference does it make?

?Plenty. Board actions mix scientific theory with religious beliefs. The board chairperson asserted that no one can believe in the Bible and subscribe to evolution. The board vice chairperson warned that while the Titanic was built by experts, the Ark was built by an amateur. These cavalier statements denigrate expertise. The board’s majority, insisting that biology teachers teach the controversy, replaces mastering the scientific process with diversionary issues. Board actions give the state a black eye for credibility in science and technology at a time when biotech investments are highly competitive and threaten to leave Kansas isolated and antiquated. Board actions need to be reversed as a consequence of a new majority following the elections in 2006.