Science on Kansas

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Science Magazine has the following News of the Week item on the Kansas Board of Education decision (subscription probably required):

The Kansas Board of Education last week endorsed science standards that would allow for the teaching of alternatives to evolutionary theory. Scientists say the new draft standards are a thinly disguised attempt to slip intelligent design (ID) into the curriculum by highlighting uncertainty and gaps in current scientific thinking. But it's an open question whether they will translate into changes in the classroom.
The 6-4 vote by the deeply divided board represents the latest skirmish in a long-running battle that has attracted national attention. The new standards follow May hearings that were boycotted by national scientific organizations, which saw them as a way to confer scientific legitimacy upon ID. The hearings were scheduled after an advisory panel set up by the board to revise the standards voted against including alternatives to evolution. The board is expected to adopt the standards this fall after an external review.

The 123-page draft document* calls on students "to learn about the best evidence for modern evolutionary theory, but also to learn about areas where scientists are raising scientific criticisms of the theory." Board member Kathy Martin, who voted with the majority, says that "these standards will ensure that our students learn to analyze scientific evidence critically. ... They are the best thing to have happened to education in Kansas."

That's not what most scientists think, however. Although the standards do not mention ID--the idea that some features of living systems are best explained by an intelligent cause--the draft "is littered with language that is routinely used by intelligent design advocates," says Steven Case, committee chair and a biologist at the University of Kansas (KU) in Lawrence. The Kansas draft standards, he and others say, contain distorted definitions of evolutionary concepts and misstatements about biology. Biological evolution, for example, is described as "postulat[ing] an unguided natural process that has no discernable (sic) direction or goal"--a statement that Case says introduces the false idea that science addresses the purpose and meaning of natural phenomena. And Case says the statement that "the sequence of the nucleotide bases within genes is not dictated by any known chemical or physical law" deliberately ignores the fact that scientists are still exploring the organization of nucleotide bases. "If you say the sequences are not dictated by any known chemical or physical law, which is itself untrue, you could go one step further and ask if the sequences are dictated by a divine law," says Case.

The new standards may not represent anything more than a moral victory for ID proponents, however. None of the controversial items in the standards has been marked for assessment, which means they won't show up in state assessment tests, says John Poggio, co-director of KU's Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation, which designs and coordinates those examinations. And because most school districts tailor their curriculums to the tests, he adds, the revisions may have little impact on the classroom.

Even so, Poggio says test designers might drop some evolution-related questions from the tests. Martin sees that as an ideal solution, arguing that "some students have deeply held convictions about this topic, which puts them at a disadvantage while answering questions on a test."

Apart from battling the standards, many scientists have also targeted a statewide election in November 2006 involving the seats of five board members, including four conservatives. Sue Gamble, one of the four board members who opposed the standards, says that a wholesale reshuffling is the only way to stop "this assault" on science education. But she worries that a debate over evolution might "polarize the state further" and overshadow the bigger issue of how best to train Kansas students for the workplace.

One issue that Case brings up is this: "Biological evolution, for example, is described as "postulat[ing] an unguided natural process that has no discernable (sic) direction or goal"". Some people do claim that this is what biological evolution says, but Case rightly recognizes that this claim "introduces the false idea that science addresses the purpose and meaning of natural phenomena". I would note, however, that it isn't only opponents of Darwinism who talk about it being purposeless. Some proponents do so, as well.

This, I think, is a reminder that people always need to be careful to explain what they mean when discussing these issues. And if Case (and biologists generally) are going to claim that language like this is misrepresenting evolutionary theory, they should be equally outspoken against proponents of Darwinism and universal common descent who say that evolution is a purposeless process. Such people exist, and, in my opinion, it looks rather silly to claim that language like this, when associated with intelligent design or objections to Darwinism, is a distortion and a problem, but to ignore it when it's coming from scientists who support Darwinism.

In other words, Case's statement that I mention cuts both ways, but I don't see a lot of scientists standing up to speak against scientists who speak at a popular level about how evolution is a purposeless process.

I also would quibble a bit with his remarks about the sequence of nucleotides, but I won't bother to do that here. I wanted to alert you to the story.

2 Comments

Can't one say that the process itself has no purpose while remaining neutral on whether some agent has put it to some purpose of theirs? It strikes me that there is a difference here and if the scientists say that such and such a process itself has no purpose, they may well still be within the bounds of things we can come to know through the empirical methods proper for science while remaining agnostic or neutral on the question as to whether some person or agent has put those processes to some purpose it has.

If God exists and is anything like the traditional God of theism, then everything falls under God's sovereignty, which means it wouldjn't just be God putting it to some purpose that isn't already there. It wouldn't exist without God, so its existence could only be maintained if God has some purpose for its remaining. This is the only reason there's a problem of evil, because very single event falls under God's providence according to standard theism. You could say something like that, but it wouldn't be standard theism. I don't see how science could tell us that it has no purpose if science couldn't tell us that it has a purpose.

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