In the game of politics, the side that doesn’t show up forfeits the match.
That’s why it’s hard to understand what science groups hoped to achieve by boycotting the recent Kansas State Board of Education hearings on how evolution is taught in public schools.
Hearings were held in early May to consider competing recommendations from a committee of educators appointed by the board last year: A majority report supports state science standards that focus on evolutionary theory alone. But a minority report advocates including more criticism of evolution in the science curriculum and redefining science to include explanations that go beyond natural causes.
For three days, a three-member subcommittee of the state board heard testimony from critics of evolution, mostly advocates of intelligent design a theory that claims natural evidence for life’s origins points to design (and thus a designer). How persuasive the opponents of evolution were in the hearings will be seen later this summer when the full board votes on proposed revisions to the science standards.
Mainstream scientists said nothing at all during the hearing. The lawyer representing science groups called no witnesses and waited until the last day to speak in defense of evolution. Even then, he refused to take questions, declaring that he wasn’t a witness.
Science organizations argued that the deck was stacked against evolution at the hearings since the three presiding board members had already signaled their hostility to evolutionary theory.
But leaving the field to critics of evolution may be a losing strategy.
Like it or not, much of the fight over teaching evolution in schools has always been less about science and more about politics and public opinion. Consider the seesaw debate in Kansas over the past six years: In 1999, a conservative state board struck most references to evolution in the standards. A backlash in the next election gave moderates a majority and evolution was restored. Then conservatives regained seats in subsequent elections, leading to the current effort to teach more criticism of evolution. Clearly, what the public thinks and how people vote matters.
Proponents of evolution may be relying on the courts to save the day. But past legal victories over creationists may be no guide to future court decisions. After all, expanding the curriculum to include more criticism of evolution may not be seen by courts as unconstitutional.
Science organizations worry that giving time in the science classroom to intelligent design or testifying at hearings like the one in Kansas only lends credibility to “alternative theories” that most scientists reject as unscientific. But refusing to engage the debate is increasingly hard to justify to the public at large.
Evolutionists may be right about the risks of opening up the debate. But what’s happening in Kansas and in many other places suggests that it may be even riskier to shut it down.
If evolutionists are convinced that criticisms of evolution are easily refuted and that intelligent design is not scientifically sound then why not let students in on the debate? Yes, it takes up time in the curriculum. And yes, teachers must be prepared to teach the controversy fairly and accurately. But surely open and honest examination of the issues can only help, not hurt, science education.
Contact Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, at firstname.lastname@example.org.