Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Nature on the hearings

Nature reports Biologists snub 'kangaroo court' for Darwin:

Kansas biologists are set to boycott upcoming board of education hearings on the future of science teaching in the state.

The researchers contend that the hearings are being set up to serve as a thinly veiled showcase for ‘intelligent design’— the theory that a god shaped the course of evolution.

Over six days in early May, the board hopes to hear arguments from proponents of intelligent design and scientists about whether there is evidence for the intervention of a deity in the process of evolution.

“We view this hearing as an opportunity to educate the committee and the public,” says Steve Abrams, a veterinarian in Arkansas City and chairman of the board of education. The hearings are part of a review of the state’s science curriculum.

But so far, no evolutionary biologists have agreed to participate in the hearings. They say that the board has already decided to include language that is friendly to intelligent design in the new science standards. “We will not participate in their kangaroo court,” says Harry McDonald, president of Kansas Citizens for Science.“We will lose and the creationists will win if we lend our credibility to these hearings,” he adds.

Kansas Citizens for Science is a group of pro-evolution researchers and science teachers that successfully opposed a 1999 drive to drop the teaching of evolution in the state (see Nature 400, 701; 1999). The attempt outraged researchers and embarrassed state officials; in 2001 a newly elected school board voted to reaffirm the requirement to teach Darwin’s theory.

But last November, conservatives regained a majority on the board, and are again considering revisions to the way evolution is taught. This time, however, the changes are more subtle. The revised plans were drawn up by a minority group on a 25-member panel that was appointed last June to write a science curriculum for Kansas.

The plan will introduce a definition of science that includes the possibility of the supernatural, and will point out several “weaknesses” of macroevolutionary theory, such as gaps in the fossil record, says John Calvert, managing director of the Intelligent Design Network based in Shawnee, Kansas. “The idea is simply to open up the discussion of evolution,” he says.

Abrams says the purpose of the hearings is to help educate board members about the proposed changes. But McDonald maintains that board members are not interested in hearing researchers’ opinions. “They’re just doing this as a political smokescreen,” he says.

The Kansas case comes amid a wave of efforts by religious conservatives to limit the teaching of evolution nationwide. In October last year a school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, passed a policy requiring teachers to describe evolution as “not a fact”. Other states, such as Alabama, are now revising their science standards to diminish the role of evolution.

McDonald says that Kansas Citizens for Science is planning a response to the May hearings. The board of education will decide on a final set of standards in June.
Nice press is a good thing.