Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Backward Is the New Forward

[[S C I E N C E]] * The pseudo-scientific/quasi-religious theory of “intelligent design,” endorsed recently by George W. Bush, is gaining the upper hand in a Kansas fight over the teaching of evolution in public schools. On Tuesday, the state’s Board of Education voted by a 6-4 margin to feature more criticism of evolution in its school science standards and to allow for the teaching of “alternative explanations” of mankind’s creation. Those revised standards now go to a Denver-based think tank for external review.

The conservative Sunflower State has been the butt of ridicule ever since 1999, when its Board of Education voted to abandon the recommendations of its own science panel, and announced that students would no longer be tested on their knowledge of evolution (“Studies of data regarding fossils, geologic tables, cosmological information are encouraged. But standards regarding origins are not mandated.”). In 2001, that policy was overturned, following the election of new board members. However, the divisive issue was sparked back into life earlier this summer, when the Kansas State Board of Education (once more dominated by conservatives) conducted what turned out to be acrimonious courtroom-style hearings on the teaching of evolution, complete with “expert witnesses” and attorneys on both sides of the argument. “Part of our overall goal is to remove the bias against religion that is currently in schools,” declared William Harris of the Kansas-based Intelligent Design Network. Those hearings devolved into name-calling and charges that the Darwinian concept of evolution is “a flawed theory with atheistic overtones.” Perhaps unfortunately, scientists and educators who endorse evolution chose to boycott these hearings, pronouncing them a “sham and publicity stunt” by creationists hoping to subvert a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the teaching of creationism in public-school science classes. Those scientists say “any change that criticizes evolution or promotes alternative ideas could make it harder for Kansas to attract bioscience companies, university students and researchers,” according to The Kansas City Star.

Despite such objections, polls show that Kansans aren’t adverse to adopting science standards that accommodate intelligent-design theories. A Kansas City Star /Wichita Eagle survey from June 2005 found that 31 percent of respondents endorsed offering explanations other than evolution for the origin of life on Earth; 24 percent were willing to allow criticism of evolution in science classes, while 25 percent said that only evolution should be taught. (Another 20 percent weren’t sure what the hell to do.) Asked about their own views on mankind’s roots, 39 percent said they believed in creationism; 26 percent sided with evolution, and 16 percent favored intelligent design.

A final vote on Kansas’ revised science-teaching standards could come as early as September, though October or November may be more likely.

READ MORE:Creations,” by Leon Wieseltier (The New Republic); “Evolution vs. Religion: Quit Pretending They’re Compatible,” by Jacob Weisberg (Slate); “Inferior Design,” the 39-year-history of intelligent design, by Chris Mooney (The American Prospect); “The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” by Jerry Coyne (The New Republic); An Open Letter to the Kansas State Board of Education, by Bill Diamond (The Huffington Post).

ADDENDUM: Anyone who doubts that Christian theocrats are trying to demolish the wall between church and state, and exert increasing authority over every aspect of American life, should read this column from today’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It looks at the struggle by “palpitating proselytizers” to change the controversial central premise of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel, The DaVinci Code--“that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene”--as the book is adapted for the silver screen. Remind me again: which century is this?

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