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Web Extra Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Kansas vote challenges evolution

The Kansas State Board of Education voted yesterday to approve science education standards that treat evolution with skepticism. Scientists say that the standards open the door for nonscientific beliefs such as intelligent design (ID), the idea that evolution is guided by an intelligent being, to enter science classrooms across the state.

The final vote was six to four in favor of the standards, which have undergone multiple reviews and revisions over the years. "Members of the school board announced that they were going to do this even before they were elected to office," says Lee Allison of the Kansas Geological Survey. "They're doing exactly what they said they were going to do."

In 1999, board members voted to remove evolution from the state standards, but when conservative board members were voted out in 2001, the new board chose to reinstate the teaching of evolution. Last June, a subcommittee approved revised standards that included changes proposed by advocates of ID.

The new standards require students to learn evolution, but also allow teachers to question the Darwinian view that life has a common origin, and they encourage teachers to discuss alternatives. Also, the standards adopted a new definition of science, to include explanations that go beyond the natural world.

Those changes, Allison says, are part of a "very sophisticated political strategy" that open the door to ID. The new standards do not require that ID be presented to students; instead, they "demonize evolution, criticize it, weaken it, set it up so that alternative theories can be presented without saying what those are," Allison says.

Board member Steve Abrams said that the science standards "are not about faith. It shouldn't be about faith," according to the Wichita Eagle. Rather, he said in an Oct. 9 Associated Press report that the new standards are about teaching "good science."

Another board member Janet Waugh, who voted against the changes, said that she believes in the biblical version of creation, "but I don't believe my belief should be taught in a science class," according to the Wichita Eagle.

Exactly how the new standards will affect science education remains to be seen. One teacher at Blue Valley West High School in Overland Park, Kan., says that he does not plan to change his teaching of evolution, according to a Nov. 7 Associated Press report. But the issue of concern, Allison says, is not so much the significance of whether or not schools teach ID, but that the standards authorize teachers to bring their personal belief system into the science classroom.

The standards are still undergoing rewording, however, after the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Teachers Association revoked copyright privileges on materials originally included in Kansas' standards. The move to deny use of materials was in protest of the change, which the two groups say "inappropriately singles out evolution as a controversial theory despite the strength of the scientific evidence supporting evolution as an explanation for the diversity of life on Earth and its acceptance by an overwhelming majority of scientists," according to a joint statement released by the groups on Oct. 27. Lawyers will carefully review the standards approved by the board to ensure that language from the two groups' material is not used, according to an Oct. 27 Associated Press story.

More revisions are possible when the standards become available for review in future years. And with four conservative board members up for reelection next year, many scientists say that they are hopeful for a changing of the guard, similar to what happened in 1999 and 2001, returning the focus to evolution. According to Allison, however, the damage is done. "This is not only significant for Kansas; this is significant for the entire nation," Allison says. "Kansas is the testing ground for the first formal assault by the intelligent design movement on the science education system of the nation."

Meanwhile, the jury is still out as to whether or not students at schools in Dover, Pa., will be required to learn about ID alongside evolution. A judge's decision is pending in a court case that will determine the legality of including ID in Dover schools' curriculum. In Tuesday's election, voters booted out all eight school board members who spearheaded the inclusion of ID in the curriculum, replacing them with candidates who say ID does not belong in the classroom, the Associated Press reported Nov. 9. A final ruling on the Dover case is expected by the end of the year.

Kathryn Hansen

Links:
"Evolution battles continue," Geotimes, Web Extra, Oct. 21, 2005
"Evolution and Intelligent Design: Understanding Public Opinion," Geotimes, September 2005
"More challenges to evolution," Geotimes, Web Extra, Nov. 12, 2004
"Kansas rejects evolution," Geotimes, October 1999
Kansas Associated Press report Nov. 7, 2005
Dover Associated Press report Nov. 9, 2005
Wichita Eagle evolution coverage

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