As the nation’s high-tech sector calls on U.S. schools to improve science education or risk forfeiting America’s position as a global leader in science and technology, the Kansas Board of Education on May 12 concluded hearings that will determine how evolution will be taught in that state’s classrooms.

Education experts look at Kansas as a national test bed for a debate that is sharply dividing the country: To what degree should science education be influenced by religious doctrine?

Three conservative board members presiding at the hearings sought information to justify adopting proposed science standards encouraging more criticism of evolution in the classroom.

“I absolutely am getting more than enough information to be armed, to respond when I get the question, ‘Are you getting evidence to refute Darwinian evolution?'” said board member Connie Morris.

Topeka attorney Pedro Irigonegaray, defending the evolution theory, sought to gather material he or another lawyer could use in a federal lawsuit if the board adopts language promoted by advocates of intelligent design.

“We’re building a record so that, depending on what the board does, we will be able to use it if the board crosses the line between church and state and introduces faith-based studies into the Kansas curriculum,” Irigonegaray said.

The hearings concluded May 12 with the case for evolution-friendly standards, though Irigonegaray did not have scientists testify. State and national science groups are boycotting the hearings, viewing them as rigged against evolution.

The board expects to consider changes this summer in standards determining how students are tested on science statewide.

It has two competing proposals. One would continue the current policy of describing evolution as a key concept for students to learn. The other, favored by intelligent-design advocates, would encourage more criticism of the theory attributed to 19th-century British scientist Charles Darwin.

In three days of testimony, witnesses called by intelligent-design advocates attacked evolutionary theory that natural processes can develop life from nonliving chemicals, that all life has a common source, and that man and apes had a common ancestor.

Intelligent design says an intelligent cause is the best way to explain some features of the natural world, because they are well-ordered and complex.

One witness, Stephen Meyer, said the standards should reflect a robust debate over evolution. Meyer is a senior fellow and director of the Center on Science and Culture at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which supports intelligent-design research.

“You’re on a fact-finding mission to determine whether there is significant criticism,” Meyer told the board members. “There is significant dissent from Darwinism.”

Kansas scientists watching the hearings said nearly all the science presented during the testimony was incorrect. They said only a few scholars and researchers doubt evolution, and they’re on the very fringes of science.

But the presiding board members were sympathetic to the intelligent-design advocates’ case. At one point, Morris told a witness: “I wish I had you in my office to answer all the eMails I got from all over the country.”

The three board members are part of a conservative majority, making adoption of language supported by intelligent-design advocates likely.

That’s why Irigonegaray spent so much time asking questions about witnesses’ views on the age of the Earth, and whether they believed in a common source for all life and that man evolved from a lower species.

Witnesses said they doubted common origins for all life and common ancestors for apes and man, and two said they believe the Earth is between 5,000 and 100,000 years old, not the 4.6 billion years accepted by most scientists.

Bill Rich, a law professor at Washburn University of Topeka, said intelligent-design advocates have sought only to have more criticism of evolution taught, because they don’t want to cross the legal line of impermissibly promoting a particular religious view.

“As soon as it becomes clear that an underlying purpose is to teach religion and that their views are shaped by religion and not science, they seem to be falling to the other side of that line,” Rich said. “I’m sure that was what Pedro was doing with his cross-examination.”

But Mathew Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel, an Orlando, Fla., group that often represents socially conservative positions in litigation, said critics of whatever standards the board adopts would have to show those standards had only a religious purpose, not a secular one.

“It’s almost inconceivable that the only purpose would be religious,” Staver said. “It is important to foster academic debate and thinking and reasoning.”

Links:

Kansas Board of Education
http://www.ksde.org/commiss/board.html

Discovery Institute
http://www.discovery.org