Evolution of a Controversy

What happened in Kansas shows why scientists must defend the search for truth

BY: Robert Hemenway


Continued from page 1

At its August meeting, the board rejected the original committee's version of the standards and passed the newest version by a vote of 6 to 4, with one moderate member, a former superintendent of schools, joining the conservative bloc.

The most disturbing part of the board's debate on all of the versions was the clear suggestion from the majority of the board that one could not believe in both God and evolution-or, for that matter, in both God and science. Devout people-including many scientists-who find no conflict between their religion and their beliefs in evolution have been deeply offended by the board's action, feeling that it is an attempt to impose the religious views of the majority of the board on others. The fact that an incompatibility between science and religion has been rejected by Pope John Paul II, most Jewish theologians, and the majority of mainline Protestant denominations seemed not to affect the board's decision.

The repudiation of the board's standards has been international, and deeply humiliating to proud Kansans. Salman Rushdie, writing in Toronto's The Globe and Mail, summarized the argument: "Thus, in one pan of the scales we now have General Relativity, the Hubble telescope, and all the imperfect but painstakingly accumulated learning of the human race, and, in the other, the Book of Genesis. In Kansas, the scales balance." Stephen Jay Gould, writing in Time magazine, said the Kansas board "transported its jurisdiction to a never-never land where a Dorothy of the new millennium might exclaim, `They still call it Kansas, but I don't think we're in the real world anymore.'" Bill Graves, the governor of Kansas, called the board's actions "a terrible, tragic, embarrassing solution to a problem that did not exist." Wags say the board solved Kansas's Y2K problem by turning the clock back to Y1K.

What has been overlooked in all the commotion is the philosophical premise underlying the thinking of the majority of the board. I believe that it wishes to destroy the idea that the public schools should be a source of truth or certainty. Whereas educational institutions-especially colleges and universities-define their mission as the pursuit of truth, the majority of the board seems to believe that the only sources of truth or certainty are the church and the family. According to that view, family values are expressed as the family's right to determine what a child shall believe, and religious values are expressed as theological beliefs that schools must accommodate. If scientific evidence conflicts with those religious beliefs, science must be rejected, no matter the weight of the evidence.

The irony of this position is worth contemplating. By rejecting scientific facts, and using the term "theory" in its lay meaning of speculation, rather than in its scientific meaning of an understanding that develops from observation, experimentation, and reflection, the Kansas Board of Education is trying to use the integrity of science to destroy science. If all science is "theory," then its uncertainty demotes it, and there is no question of its inferiority to religious faith.

Most scientists, of course, believe that science is never fully certain and complete, and that new truths lie just around the corner, somewhere in the next experiment or observation. But that hardly means that scientific theories-incorporating facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses-are not truths that can be used to explain the natural world. Evolution is still the central unifying concept of biology-and that is an understanding that schools and universities must teach if education is to maintain its continuous search for biological truth.

When one reaches that level of abstraction, and sees what is at stake in the argument, one understands why the board has been willing to risk such notoriety. Its actions attack a basic premise of public schools and universities in the United States: that public education should be pursued in a secular setting, as the Constitution requires.

Philosophical disputes aside, what happens next? Most Kansans believe that the next election of members to the Board of Education, in the fall of 2000, will result in a new, moderate majority and a return to sound science and support for the teaching of evolution. That would take care of Kansas's problems. What about the rest of the nation? If we as academics believe in the Constitution, which says that church and state should be separate, and if we believe that the attempts to undermine the teaching of science grow from a misunderstanding of scientific principles, a mistaken notion that one must choose between God and science, and a desire to undermine public education's mission of teaching truth, then we should lead a crusade for science education across the country. We need to show support for science teachers, many of whom are feeling beleaguered, and we need to educate our students to understand the public role of science.

We live in an exceedingly complex world, one that is shaped in many ways by scientific knowledge. As citizens, we have to form opinions about the scientific issues that affect our lives, including advances in medicine and technology. If we don't, we undermine the democratic discourse that ultimately determines the nature and quality of our society. Science has given us a cure for polio, men on the moon, and the Internet-it is too important for us to shrug off by saying it's too technical. We must become scientifically literate. Being scientifically literate is not "doing science." Only gifted amateurs and highly educated professionals "do science," and of course our colleges and universities must work even harder to prepare good scientists. But we also must prepare scientifically literate citizens who can use science to understand the future.

Versions of the Kansas experience will almost certainly arise in many other states. Universities cannot duck the issue, and they must be prepared to fight long and hard against those who would denigrate all science as mere theory, despite millions of years of evidence. The long-term answer lies in marshaling the economic means, human resources, and political will to accomplish the following goals:

Prepare science students who are skilled in public discourse. Of course, major research universities have a special mission to educate scientists who will discover new knowledge, and to educate science teachers who will inspire young people to become scientists. But we must make the future scientists and science teachers on our campuses realize that they will need to take part in public debates. Additional courses in rhetoric and argument, political discourse, and the relationship of science and theology might help prepare young scientists and science teachers for a public role.

Educate all students, even those who are not majoring in science, to be scientifically literate. Every college graduate should be prepared to contribute to public debate over scientific issues. The science requirements in our general education programs may need rethinking. Instead of a basic, introductory course in a specific science-physics, biology, chemistry- why not a course about science in the modern world, which would illustrate how people's lives will be affected by such scientific projects as sequencing the human genome?

Do what we can to educate the rest of the public to be scientifically literate. Every college and university should make continuing scientific education for adult learners a high priority. Institutions should also reach out to members of their communities who are not students. Each institution should make teams of professors available to respond to requests for help whenever a state or local school board debates whether to teach evolution.

We need scientific literacy everywhere in the United States, not just in Kansas. If you were shocked by the Kansas Board of Education's action, if you care about young people's learning science, and if you are above the self-indulgence of making cheap jokes about the midwest, here is an educational crusade that needs your help.

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