Sabotaging Science: Creationist Strategies in the '90's

What Happened in Kansas?

Kansas State Science Standards Revisions:

In August 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education voted 6-4 in favor of state science standards from which several topics, including virtually all references to evolution, had been deleted. Students will no longer be tested on these topics in statewide tests, giving local districts the option of not teaching these subjects without fear that students will suffer on state assessment exams. Opponents of the revised standards believe the adopted standards promote bad science and include statements that invite the teaching of creationism in science classes.5

Although the press focused most of its attention on the Board’s removal of evolution, these other revisions are equally as serious. The Big Bang theory—as central to modern astronomy and cosmology as evolution is to biology—no longer appears in the standards. The sentence explaining that the Big Bang theory “places the origin between 10 and 20 billion years ago” was stripped from the document along with a reference to the formation of the universe. There is no mention of geologic time and the standards downplay any reference to the age of the earth, in one case even substituting the words “in the past” for “long ago.”6 Examples of patterns of cumulative change (of which evolution is just one example) such as plate tectonics, fossilization and erosion are also gone.

Deleted also are such environmental science concepts as the sustainability of populations and a question asking students to evaluate “the benefits of burning fossil fuels to meet energy needs against the risks of global warming.” In the latter example, the Board substituted a question asking students about the temporary changes in atmosphere caused by cars and trees. Also deleted was the statement that “sexuality is basic to healthy human development.”7

These revisions endanger the integrity of science itself. Eliminating such unifying theoretical frameworks as evolution and the Big Bang theory renders science education a rote exercise in memorizing unconnected facts. As the National Science Teachers Association has noted, “Scientific disciplines with a historical component such as astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology, cannot be taught with integrity if evolution is not emphasized.”8

History of the Controversy:

The controversy that culminated in these standards began when a 27-member committee of scientists and educators was appointed to upgrade the state’s science standards. Committee members—some appointed by the State Board of Education itself—spent over a year developing standards, utilizing the National Science Education Standards as a framework, and incorporating input from educators, scientists, citizens and Board members. After numerous revisions and months of public hearings at which creationists attacked the proposed standards, State School Board member Steve Abrams escalated the controversy when he proposed his own revisions, among them his definition of creation as “the idea that the design and complexity of the design of the cosmos requires an intelligent designer.”9 While this language did not make it into the final version, it ignited the statewide battle.

Abrams was aided in his proposed revisions by Tom Willis, president of the Creation Science Association of Mid-America.10 Willis, a “Young Earth” creationist, cites Genesis as the authority for his contention that the world was created just 6,000 years ago. Young Earthers take exception to Big Bang theory as well as evolution, because it posits a universe 10 to 20 billion years old. Willis also asserts that, contrary to popular belief, dinosaurs lived into the 20th century and were even documented in the 1800s by U.S. Government employees because “they just didn’t know it was politically incorrect to report them.”11 The standards reflect his skepticism in a biased insertion that asks students to identify the assumptions and demonstrate the weaknesses in the hypotheses about dinosaur extinction.12

The 27-member committee was unanimous in its recommendation that the Board reject the proposed revisions. Republican Governor Bill Graves strongly and repeatedly urged the Board to keep evolution in the standards.13 The presidents of all of Kansas’ public universities wrote to State Board Chairperson Linda Holloway, asking her to reject Abrams’ proposed revisions because they “will set Kansas back a century.”14 The Board heard testimony demonstrating that removing evolution from the state assessment list would hurt the performance of Kansas students on the SAT and ACT college entrance exams and thereby undermine their ability to enter college.15

The Board nevertheless ignored the recommendations of its own handpicked science committee, the Governor, nationally-renowned scientists, and the leaders of their higher education system, voting 6-4 to remove evolution, big bang theory and more from the list of mandated state-assessed science concepts.

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