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Geotimes
 Published by the American Geological Institute
December 2000
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences

Feature



The Politics of Education in Kansas

   By M. Lee Allison
 

Evolution will soon be back in the school curriculum in Kansas! In the November election, Kansas voters ensured that come January 2001, the State Board of Education will be dominated by members who support restoring to the school curriculum an accurate definition of science and the teaching of evolution, the age of Earth and the “big bang” theory. These subjects were dropped or effectively barred last year when the board of education eliminated such topics from the state’s science curriculum. The 1999 board’s so-called “compromise” science standards were ghost-authored by the Creation Science Association of Mid-America, according to claims in the association’s account of last year’s events, Kansas Tornado.
 
The board’s vote put Kansas into the international media spotlight and gave this year’s school board elections a high profile. Half of the 10 seats on the board come up for election every two years. Of the six board members who voted last year for the controversial standards, four were up for re-election this year, as was one “pro-science” board member.
 
Even more important were the August primaries for the Republican Party. All four of the “anti-science” board members were Republicans. Two of them were defeated in the primary. Another moved out of state and by gubernatorial appointment was replaced with a moderate, pro-science supporter who won his primary race. Only two anti-science candidates, one incumbent and one challenger, made it to the November general election, in effect guaranteeing a pro-science victory.
 
The election took on a partisan air as members of the conservative wing of the Republican Party vowed to use the primary as a stepping stone to reclaim party control from the moderate wing. This led to such symbolic actions as Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a conservative, endorsing Linda Holloway, the Kansas City area incumbent and chairwoman of the board of education, who led the board in its decision last year to adopt the revised science standards. Her challenger, Sue Gamble, garnered the support of Gov. Bill Graves, a moderate Republican. Holloway raised enough campaign money in the primary to run television ads — a first for a school board race in Kansas.
 
Holloway still lost, with Gamble getting 60 percent of the votes. The new board members intend to replace the standards as soon as they take office.
 
It is tempting to believe that this entire episode was an aberration and the world will shortly be set right again. The truth is more sobering and ominous. The religion-as-science advocates are dedicated, well organized, well funded and tenacious. Although the Kansas fight garnered attention, anti-science mandates were already in place in a variety of states. After their victory in Kansas last year, the young-Earth creationists launched similar efforts in at least 44 other states, according to the National Center for Science Education and the Kansas Citizens for Science.
 
The fight is a political one — one that scientists are ill-suited to win. Over the past year I watched scientist after scientist destroy the logic and assumptions of young-Earth creationists and Intelligent Design debaters with complex repartee and reasoning, not realizing they had lost the hearts and minds of their audience. The anti-evolutionists were effective at using scientific disagreements over how evolution works to make it sound as if scientists are in great disagreement over whether evolution is valid at all.
 
Even when scientists easily refute the pseudo-science, the other side confuses the issues with complex jargon, specious but compelling arguments, and obscure references or distortions.
 
The result is that people perceive two warring scientific factions and buy into the demand for fairness: Why not teach “both” theories, evolution and creation, as part of the science curriculum, people ask. Informed citizens and scientists may defeat creationists in a debate at one location, only to have them make the same discredited claims to a new audience the next day. The fight is not about science but about political control.
 
Too often scientists refuse to use the most effective avenue for getting a message out to the public: the press. We turn up our noses because a reporter shortened our oh-so-precise, polysyllabic discourse. But the opposition is setting the agenda, pounding home their message in sound bites on every channel and newspaper, and talking on a level the viewers and readers understand.
 
Frankly, I am amazed that the pro-science side won August’s key primary elections in Kansas, essentially guaranteeing a victory in November. The other side had more money, a more focused message, and, traditionally, more committed loyalists who go to the polls. What may have helped us was the embarrassment that many Kansans felt after the board’s vote last year, as the state received national and international ridicule for a decision that seemed to embrace ignorance.
 
By demonizing science and scientists as, dare I say, “liberals” and worse, the young-Earth  and Intelligent Design creationists made the issue one of partisan politics. Even if the public did not understand the debates on science, religion, history and philosophy, they could identify who was supporting which camp and vote accordingly.
 
At the same time, some of the young-Earth creationists made outrageous claims that dinosaurs recently roamed the West, questioned whether Earth really circles the sun and challenged the theory of gravity. By making these assertions, along with using aggressively harsh rhetoric, they essentially marginalized themselves. The scientific community, conversely, consistently explained the compatibility most scientists and theologians find between science and religion.
 
We were lucky. Despite the fierce controversy, the issue did not engage the average voter. The scientific community, except for biologists, was largely missing in action in this battle. Oh, there was a lot of chest beating or righteous indignation, but much of the heavy lifting was done by political activists who correctly saw this as another skirmish in the ongoing culture wars.
 
A concern now is that, having declared victory, we will return our attention to our labs and classrooms until another crisis begins.
 
No geologists sat on the original writing team for the Kansas school science standards, although some teachers who taught high school geology contributed. Geologists are now working with that writing committee as the standards are rewritten.
 
We also must improve scientific literacy among the public and, surprisingly, among our own colleagues. It is disheartening how poorly many scientists explain the scientific process.
 
Scientists often do not get explicit training in the nature of science. Of four introductory geology textbooks I went through, only one included any discussion of science process and method. Similar statements can be made about texts for the other sciences.
 
Over the past year, I have been brushing up on my ability to talk about science to the layperson, as have many of my colleagues in a variety of fields. Only by speaking up to describe the nature of science and why it matters will we cease being an easy target as larger forces fight to control our future.
 

Allison is the state geologist of Kansas and director of the Kansas Geological Survey. E-mail: lallison@kgs.ukans.edu
 



 

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