Back to the drawing board?

7 minute read

I'm from Kansas, and proud of it. I am therefore one of the select few products of public education in Kansas who studies evolution, and in particular the evolution of humans. For this reason, I follow events in Kansas very closely, although from a distance. The intelligent design movement in Kansas is well-organized, and has had considerable success in advancing its agenda.

Reuters reports on the new evolution hearings before the Kansas Board of Education.

The Kansas Board of Education has scheduled six days of courtroom-style hearings to begin on Thursday in the capitol Topeka. More than two dozen witnesses will give testimony and be subject to cross-examination, with the majority expected to argue against teaching evolution.
Many prominent U.S. scientific groups have denounced the debate as founded on fallacy and have promised to boycott the hearings, which opponents say are part of a larger nationwide effort by religious interests to gain control over government.

What is the best thing to do? Some might argue that a boycott is a bad idea; that it is best to confront evolution's opponents at every opportunity with the truth. On the other hand, certain venues are clearly formulated to decrease the credibility of the scientific process by promoting nonexperts as scientific equals. Thus, the statement from the Kansas Citizens for Science:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that 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 arent 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.

It is a delicate balance. The initiators of these hearings clearly have no intention of finding the facts for themselves. After all, anybody in the world can get compelling information about the nature of ID theory and its status relative to evolutionary theory. The second ranked link on a Google search for "intelligent design" is this debate from Natural History magazine, featuring three exchanges between proponents of intelligent design and prominent evolutionists. provides a rundown of most "irreducible complexity" arguments for ID and the evolutionary understanding of such cases. The National Center for Science Education has a comprehensive set of reviews of ID literature, videos, and arguments. Evolutionary biologists have a long public record of writing and speaking on this issue, and anyone sincerely interested in their opinions can find them easily. So the hearings will uncover nothing new, and are reasonably interpreted as an effort to lend the appearance that ID advocates on the board have given their opponents a hearing. </p>

On the other hand, the Board of Education is far from the most important audience for a public hearing. The people of Kansas deserve to know the importance of the decisions that are being made for them in Topeka. We cannot expect the voting public to read our websites or follow the issue closely. The best we can hope for is that people will read newspaper accounts of the hearings. To date, many of the major newspapers in Kansas have done a good job of presenting the point of view of mainstream biology. This editorial in the Wichita Eagle is a case in point.

But evolutionists must know this is a difficult battle. Nonspecialists who follow science have trouble finding good information about evolution. "Science-oriented" television ranges from good (but often wrong) accounts of recent fossil discoveries like the Flores hominids to programs about the search for Noah's ark or the Bimini roads as evidence for ancient Atlantis. There is no filter to tell what is generally right and what is complete garbage. A lot of scientists underestimate the extent to which sources like these are the core of many people's scientific knowledge. After 13 years in the classroom, I can attest that even for some of the most engaged students, real evolutionary theory is only one voice amid the noise of pseudoscience.

Kansas received a lot of bad press in 1999 over the debate about the science curriculum. This reputation was exploited by a recent book, What's the Matter with Kansas, focused on the issues of job loss and population loss in the Midwest and their interaction with religious and political conservatism. It seems clear that East Coast elites see Kansas as an uneducated backwater.

I think it is important to put this stereotype out to pasture. I'm a Kansan, and I'm not a rube. Nobody will make any headway with me as long as they begin with the attitude that they can teach me the error of my ways. Most scientists are not typically known for their ability to communicate tactfully. Pit an often haughty-sounding scientific establishment against a stubborn, independent-minded Midwesterner, and it is not hard to predict the result. The people of Kansas are far from alone in facing this issue: it has made news within the past year in Ohio, California, Georgia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and probably other parts of the country I haven't heard about.

The evidence for the evolution of life on Earth is overwhelming and convincing to any reasonable person. Even so, the evidence has weaknesses, which the ID movement has repeatedly pointed out with workmanlike precision. These weaknesses do not show that evolutionary theory is false; instead, they present cases of features or systems of natural organisms that are not yet well explained by evolutionary hypotheses. The ID movement proposes that an intelligent designer could explain these cases. While certainly this is true--an intelligent designer could explain anything--it does not mean that evolutionary theory cannot explain them, or that it will not. Science is an unfinished process. This is why we need to teach students to do science, because they will solve these problems in the future, along with others we have not yet found.

The "scientific establishment" is hardly a unified set of people. Most scientists are quite conservative when it comes to accepting established ideas, but prestige in science often comes from attacking those ideas. This makes the "establishment" more like a Hydra with many heads snapping at each other. It is easy for a concerted group to pick and choose the words of different scientists to make it appear that there is significant controversy over evolutionary theory where there is actually none. The misleading use of quotes and articles in this way has been documented by both the NCSE and by But the point remains: scientists have often not been their own best advocates.

The task before us is far from a simple one. In my experience, my most engaged students reflexively believe that ID is wrong and shouldn't be part of science curricula. But they believe this because they perceive it to be a religious doctrine in disguise. With a little background, most students understand the religious intent behind ID theory and why it constitutes a violation of First Amendment rights.

It is much more difficult to get students to understand the logical reasons that ID is not science. When I present other issues to students that do not have hidden religious content, like the Aquatic Ape Theory, and ask them to find the logical weaknesses, they find it very challenging. Yet the fact that ID is not science is -- at least for the scientist -- by far the best reason not to teach it in science classes.

I give all the credit in the world to the tireless scientists defending the teaching of evolutionary theory today, and I am happy to do whatever part I can as well. In particular, the staff of NCSE and Eugenie Scott deserve accolades for their time and effort in speaking publicly and appearing in the media on the issue. They can use your support.

But so far the fire appears to be spreading. We need to find better ways to bring real evolutionary theory into schools. We need to find better ways to speak to people about biology and the history of people and life.

There is a reason that Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan both went to Dayton, Tennessee. The Kansas hearings may not be the right place to focus public attention on the problem. But I fear that the ID movement will continue to grow until the scientific establishment gets a voice as powerful as these.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Kansas hearings, or even in attending them, you should check out the Thoughts from Kansas blog, which gives some directions and contact information.