Kansas School Board Enshrines Anti-Science
Posted on revcom.us, November 12, 2005
"Meanwhile, Kansas turns back education to the year 1005"
"The Kansas school-board decision: the only thing I can think of is unprintable four-letter words"
- prominent biologist
Nov. 9 - The Kansas State School Board announced their decision that in Kansas public schools the new state standards for the teaching of science call for attacking evolution in science classrooms in the state. And, even more ominous, they called for changing the definition of science - they want to put religion into the very heart of science, to radically change what science is. The new science standards were forced by a faction on the school board that champions intelligent design, the latest form of creationism. The intelligent design movement is driven by Christian fundamentalists at its core - the attacks on science in Kansas are one part of the whole Christian fascist agenda which aims to make sweeping reactionary changes in every sphere of life in this country.
The new Kansas science standards raise questions and criticisms about the truth of evolution - which will reach into science classrooms throughout the state. Evolution is one of the most well-established theories in all of science and evolutionary thinking is a foundation not just of biology but of many other branches of science - including geology, astronomy, and much of physics. What is directly at stake in Kansas is whether students will learn about what science has discovered about the world through hundreds of years. And whether students will learn about how all this was learned - whether they will learn how to think scientifically.
Beyond that, the Kansas science standards have been an important focus of the national battle over evolution and science, and involves huge stakes in what goes on around the country. Some of the most important scientific organizations in the country have entered into the fray in Kansas and opposed the changes in the Kansas science standards, as have many, many prominent scientists, including a letter signed by 38 Nobel prize winners. To take just one example, last week, before the Board of Education formally announced the new standards, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Teachers Association jointly announced that they were refusing to let the Kansas School Board use materials that they had developed in the new Kansas science standards. They said that they want to clearly "dissociate our publications and our organizations" from the new Kansas standards - and they offered to work with the Board to change the standards.
The Board went ahead and announced the standards with their sweeping attack on evolution and science anyway.
The new science standards are the result of a long fight in Kansas. In 1999, creationist forces who had seized control of the Kansas school board introduced new standards for teaching evolution in the schools in Kansas. They essentially said that evolution could not be taught at all, and they went after not just biology but other fields of science which challenge a literal interpretation of the creation stories told in the Bible. This created a big controversy nationally. The creationist majority on the school board was thrown out in an election in 2000, and the new school board developed a new State Standard for teaching science in education. This was done in consultation with scientists and science educators, and it included evolution as an essential and integral part of teaching science in Kansas. But, in the 2004 elections, along with the election of Bush, a new creationist majority was elected to the State School Board (including some of the same people who had been thrown out in the election of 2000.)
The new creationist majority quickly went on the attack, and, they published criticisms and rewrote sections of the State Standards that uphold evolution, and they also changed the definition of science. They held rigged hearings last spring that were supposedly to help determine what will prevail in Kansas - the State Standards that uphold evolution, or those by the new creationist majority that attack it. Now they have announced the results of those hearings - that they are going ahead with their attacks on science and evolution.
This time around, instead of just banning evolution from the schools, the creationist forces on the school board came up with a different approach, based on so-called "intelligent design". This approach came from approaches developed nationally by intelligent design forces, who apparently did a lot of the writing for the Kansas school board creationists. Intelligent design doesn't attack evolution outright and openly deny that there is a long, long process to the development of life. Instead, it argues that life, and in particular some aspects like the biochemistry of cells, or the human eye, is too complex to have just evolved without a conscious plan, and so there must have been a conscious designer, who directed the whole process. They play a game and try to claim that this is a scientific theory, but the reality is that this is a slightly more sophisticated way of smuggling the same old creationism into the minds of students and society overall. And it is part of the larger agenda of wielding political power to force religion into the center of American life, culture, politics, and thought. (See the article "'Intelligent Design: Stealth War on Science" in Revolution #21.)
One thing that became a big point of debate in all of this is the definition of science. The 2002 Kansas State science standards, developed by scientists, used this definition of science as a framework for the whole approach to teaching science: "Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us". The creationists want to put this in in its place: "Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation, that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building, to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena". What the creationists have cut out out is "natural explanations". They did this because they are on a mission to radically change what science is as a critical part of the much larger battle in society over how to understand and change the world. Science develops its understanding of the motion and development of the world through experiment and repeated testing of the real causes of things; building on everything that has been learned of the natural world through history; and then repeatedly testing the new theories and subjecting them to review and criticism by the scientific community. Instead of this, the creationists on the Kansas school board want to change science to include supernatural explanations.
One biologist, Ken Miller, wrote a criticism of this, as part of the public hearings on the science standards:
"Why one would want to change the description of how science works by deleting the word "natural" from "natural explanations"? The answer is straightforward - even though the minority didn't seem to have the courage to state it plainly. They seek to turn science on its head by telling students that non-natural ( supernatural) explanations are a legitimate part of science. Why does this matter? Imagine an earth science class discussing tsunamis and applying "non-natural" explanations to the tragedy under the new guidelines. Plate tectonics are now just one of the explanations on the blackboard. They are joined by "non-naturalistic" ones like bad global karma, divine punishment for the sins of Indonesia, or evil spirits disturbed by ethnic warfare in Sri Lanka."
Another scientist, E.O. Wiley, wrote on the same point:
"Imagine if I went to my auto mechanic and he said: "Well, it might be the brakes or it might be an evil spirit." Should I give equal weight to the "evil spirit" hypothesis? After all, someone probably believes it, this mechanic for one. Of course not, I would probably just take my car and drive down the street to the next mechanic."
These scientists are getting at something really important. The creationists on the Kansas Board of Education (and their backers in the intelligent design movement nationally) have fought for and now implemented this change in the definition of science in the face of ridicule and sharp criticism by an extremely broad range of scientists and scientific organizations, as well as many others throughout society. Why are they so determined to throw out the few words "natural explanation" from the definition of science? This shows that underlying their attack on evolution is an extremely aggressive and determined attack on scientific thinking and method - they are on the warpath and aiming to overthrow the most basic foundations of science - they want to turn science into something that actively promotes religion. They want to cripple scientific thinking and turn science itself into its opposite - as part of making even more sweeping changes in all of society and culture.
A small but revealing example of the method of understanding the world that is championed by the creationists on the Kansas Board of Education (and the intelligent design movement more broadly) came in the course of the hearings last spring on the science standards. In the course of the rigged hearings, State education board member Kathy Martin admitted that she hadn't even read the 2002 science guidelines that she was attacking, and which the hearings were supposed to be about! Drawing conclusions from evidence and facts? No way. An entirely different method and outlook was at work - the method of: 'the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it.' Martin said of the hearings: "Of course this is a Christian agenda. We are a Christian nation. Our country is made up of Christian conservatives."
What was revealed by Martin in relation to those hearings in a small way is precisely the approach that these people are taking to science as a whole - they do not want to look at the enormous accumulation of evidence, involving tens of thousands of scientists over many generations, which fully supports evolution. Instead, while they claim to be scientific, they actually want to overturn fundamental points of scientific method. They don't want to look at evidence of the nature of real things in the material world, and they don't want theories drawn from and based on that evidence that give people a deeper understanding of reality. Instead, they want to put supernatural causes into science.
The intelligent design movement tries to keep itself publically distanced from the theocratic politics that Kathy Martin blurted out. But the truth is that their movement is not about opening the door for just any supernatural causes. The intelligent design movement is driven by Christian fundamentalism and it is part of and draws its strength from the powerful forces pushing for a theocracy in this country - including of course George Bush, with his open call in support of discussing intelligent design in the schools. These forces are powerfully backed, and are deadly serious about imposing their Dark Age mentality on all of society.