What is going on in Kansas

A couple of months ago, I was called by a staff member at the Kansas Board of Education. He said that I was being invited to testify to speak about the nature of science before a committee of their state Board of Education. Since I feel, like most academics, a sense of responsibility to share my thoughts on the topics that I study, I agreed to go to Kansas, thinking that it would be a real sharing of ideas.

I subsequently heard from members of the Kansas Citizens for Science (KCFS) about what was really going on there, and as a result I withdrew my acceptance. Here is the story of the happenings in Kansas.

On May 6th2005, the Washington Post had an article that gives some background:

In 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education, with a conservative majority…deleted most references to evolution in the science standards. The next election led to a less conservative board, which adopted the current standards describing evolution as a key concept for students to learn before graduating high school.

Last year, conservatives captured a majority again [6-4], and many scientists fear the board will adopt revisions supported by intelligent design advocates.

Those fears were well-founded. Stan Cox, writing for Alternet continues the story. “In 2004, voters once more gave conservative religious members a majority on the state’s Board of Education; as a result, science standards are to be rewritten yet again, in a way that deprecates evolution and permits discussion of intelligent design.”

Cox continues: “In March, a 26-member writing committee assigned by the Board submitted a new draft of science standards that was, well, standard stuff. But eight dissenters on the committee submitted an alternative version that included anti-evolution language. Board members who liked the alternative version decided to schedule hearings for early May in Topeka, to weigh the relative merits of the competing drafts.”

I was told by KCFS that three members of the majority, who had already decided to include ID in the standards, had scheduled these hearings before just the three of them to make it look as if these three members were carefully weighing the competing testimony presented to them and had been convinced that the ID arguments were better. It was these hearings to which I had been invited. KCFS felt that these were essentially show trials before a kangaroo court and passed the following resolution:

KCFS calls on the entire science and science education community of Kansas to refuse to participate in the hearing proceedings. Science has its own validity and has made its position on these matters perfectly clear and unambiguous. ID and other forms of creationism aren’t science. The specific proposals in the minority report have been rejected by the writing committee and by the science community at large. The science community should not put itself in the position of participating in a rigged hearing where non-scientists will appear to sit in judgment and find science lacking. Science should not give the anti-evolution members of the board the veneer of respectability when they take their predictable action. Let the board take responsibility for its actions without dignifying those actions with the appearance of academic rigor.

The scientific community totally supported the stand taken by KCFS and not a single scientist agreed to debate evolution in Kansas, although the board members tried very hard to find even one scientist nationwide who would be willing to come and provide their desperately sought veneer of respectability to the hearings. (The fact that they invited me shows that they were willing to really scrape the bottom of the barrel in their efforts.) This is actually a pretty impressive boycott since scientists are a notoriously difficult group to get to agree on any kind of concerted action.

The advocates of ID did go to the hearings and repeated all the same arguments that the scientist community has rejected many times before. The only pro-evolution person involved was an attorney Pedro Irongeray who cross-examined the pro-ID witnesses.

Is such a boycott a good idea? As I said before, my first instinct is always to engage in dialogue but even I have limits to my willingness to re-hash the same things over and over again, especially with people who are not really interested in what you have to say. As I said in my earlier posting concerning the “demon theory of friction,” there comes a time when one realizes that a discussion has ceased to be fruitful and you need to walk away.

The scientific community has come out overwhelmingly against including ID in science curricula, and made its case over and over again. The “hearings” in Kansas had no educational or scientific purpose. They were purely political theater. Showing up at such venues to say the same thing over and over again is a waste of time. I think a boycott in this case was justified.

As I stated in the earlier posting, when you walk away from this kind of fruitless pseudo-debate, you do allow the other side to charge that you are afraid to debate them, however illogical the charge, and the pro-ID people in Kansas did exactly that. It reminds me of the duel scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which King Arthur chops off the arms and legs of the Black Knight, leaving just his torso and attached head on the ground. The Black Knight first offers a compromise: “Oh? All right, we’ll call it a draw.” When Arthur walks away from this offer, the Black Knight starts taunting him saying “Oh. Oh, I see. Running away, eh? You yellow bastards! Come back here and take what’s coming to you. I’ll bite your legs off!”

After I debated the ID advocates in Kansas in 2002, a very earnest woman came up to me. She was clearly disturbed by my (unanswered) challenge to the ID members on the panel to provide the kind of predictions that scientists expect of any theory, and my conclusion that ID did not belong in science. She wanted very badly to have God as part of science so she had carefully written out what she felt was a definition of science that irrefutably included God. Her definition said that everything that had ever occurred and would occur was due to God and so everything in the world was due to God’s action and thus science could not refute it.

There is nothing that one can say in response to this. I just thanked her and let it go.


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