Wednesday, August 02, 2006


So I've been feeling pretty good. Sure, I've got a creationist infestation, but it seems relatively contained. And I've been sitting back from that particular sort of arguing, so it's nice to stretch the old muscles.

It feels good to win, and I've spent the day pretty much basking in the glow. It's a great victory for Kansas, for science, and of course, for children. There's still a fight in November, of course, but we can all afford to catch our breath.

But then we have to dig back in. When the election is over, I expect that donations to Kansas Citizens for Science, to the Kansas Alliance for Education, and to the MAINstream Coalition will all slow to a trickle. And that's a problem.

The biggest two most unexpected results last night were Harry McDonald's loss to John Bacon and Sally Cauble's victory over Connie Morris.

Harry lost by 1,900 votes out of 20,000 cast, and David Oliphant took 2,146 votes in a pro-science, anti-immigrant campaign. If those votes went to Harry, or if 2000 more science supporters made it to the polls, we'd be guaranteed 7 moderates on the Board next year.

In the big 5th, Sally Cauble won with 2,000 more votes than the kooky incumbent, out of 25,000 cast. If Connie had done a little more, called in a few more favors from friendly pastors, wrangled a few more radio ads out of the Discovery Institute, or been slightly less nefarious in her handling of the people's money, we'd be guaranteed nothing more than a tied Board, one that couldn't roll back the science standards.

Two thousand people is a pittance. If the weather were a little cooler, 2,000 more people might have turned out. If it were raining, 2,000 fewer might have. With 4,000 more votes, we'd have won the race in the 7th district. With 3,500 fewer, we'd have lost in the 9th, the place where the pro-science candidate got the best percentage.

After 1999, people forgot how important the work of groups like KCFS can be. And I wonder whether KCFS itself didn't relax a bit. My sense as an outsider was that the group was playing catch-up when a creationist Board was elected. That could have been a result of too little funding or too vague a mission in the absence of a creationist Board. I couldn't say, but I hope to do some interviews to suss that out a bit more clearly.

The fight for school boards is a holding action, one that helps maintain the status quo. But the status quo sucks.

In NSF surveys of public knowledge of science and the scientific method, a quarter of Americans think the Sun rotates the Earth, half of Americans don't know that electrons are smaller than atoms, and one in 5 don't know that the center of the Earth is very hot. They ask a question about probability and a couple questions about how science is practiced, including a question about the use of controls in experiments and a request for a general description of a scientific study. The National Science Foundation reports that "39% of Americans surveyed in 2004 correctly answered all three questions about the nature of scientific inquiry, 61% did not. This lack of understanding may explain why a substantial portion of the population believes in various forms of pseudoscience."

While creationism is not counted as one of the forms of pseudoscience, fully three quarters of the population believes in one of the ten categories they do count: "extrasensory perception (ESP), that houses can be haunted, ghosts/that spirits of dead people can come back in certain places/situations, telepathy/communication between minds without using traditional senses, clairvoyance/the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future, astrology/that the position of the stars and planets can affect people's lives, that people can communicate mentally with someone who has died, witches, reincarnation/the rebirth of the soul in a new body after death, and channeling/allowing a 'spirit-being' to temporarily assume control of a body."

Majorities of Americans consistently reject the scientific evidence of evolution and of the big bang, despite evidence that they are familiar with the content of the theories. Whether they reject them on principle or simply haven't been exposed to the evidence for them is unclear.

This is a fight that can't just happen in elementary and high schools, and not just in states where and when creationism pops up. Parents have to be better informed, since science changes fast and parents have to be able to support and help their kids.

I hope you'll all give your money, but more importantly your expertise and time to your local science advocates. Many states have a "______ Citizens for Science" and if yours doesn't, maybe you should start one! Get in touch and I'll help you along. Start a Cafe Scientifique, start a book club to discuss science books or popular science magazines. Talk to your friends and your co-workers not just about evolution, but about how science works. Just because you aren't a scientist doesn't mean you can't help out. Scientists, to be frank, suck at organizing. Help them arrange a place to talk informally to the public, help make sure people show up, make sure the conversation doesn't get to abstract or technical. Work with public officials to celebrate your local scientific heritage, whether it be meteorites, butterflies or beaches.

Remember, the standards in Kansas didn't just attack evolution and biology, they redefined science, and the stated goals of the Discovery Institute are to "replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and hurnan beings are created by God," and to force "the influence of design theory in spheres other than natural science."

Today it's Kansas and evolution. Tomorrow it could be your neighborhood, and it could be any science. We won't beat this by holding it back and worrying only about school kids, we'll beat it by reaching out to the public and continuing to educate and inform everyone.