Curriculum Reporter's Notebook

Kansas Hearings Draw Media, But Few Protesters

By Sean Cavanagh — May 09, 2005 7 min read
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In a cramped, second-floor auditorium in a state office building only steps from the Kansas Capitol, evolution’s detractors were offered a prime venue May 5-7 to lay out their case before the public—and a swollen assembly of the national and worldwide media.

One floor beneath them, scientists boycotting those state hearings had set up a makeshift camp of their own: a small booth, from which they passed out fliers and folders and described the proceedings upstairs as a politically calculated farce to reporters, passers-by, anybody willing to listen.

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That two-story standoff symbolized the divide that has re-emerged across the country in recent months over calls to allow views such as “intelligent design” a place in the science classroom alongside Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Here in Kansas, the issue received its most prominent stage in recent years, as a three-member subcommittee of the state board of education held a series of hearings to review what place evolution—accepted by the vast majority of scientists as a fully valid explanation of how life on Earth developed—should have in the state’s science standards.

In Kansas and elsewhere, observers have drawn parallels (sometimes disparagingly) between the Topeka hearings and the 1925 “monkey trial” of John Scopes, the high school teacher who was found guilty of introducing students in Dayton, Tenn., to the theory of evolution, in violation of state law.

On the opening day of the hearings, the hometown Topeka Capital-Journal’s front page displayed a color graphic of planet Earth. It included a timeline stretching from the 1859 publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, followed by the Scopes trial, Kansas’ previous wranglings over evolution during the past six years, and concluding with the May hearings.

Dead center on that globe, highlighted with a bullet-point, was the city of Topeka.

Yet the hearings in east-central Kansas proved an odd descendant of that Tennessee showdown 80 years ago this summer. Several scientific organizations refused to participate, believing it was wrong for a well-established theory like evolution to be debated on a par with what they see as religion-based assertions not testable by scientists.

Business as Usual

“The American public is very fair-minded, and they look for two sides to every issue. That’s very laudable,” Robert Hagen, a researcher for the Kansas Biological Survey at the University of Kansas, who was working the first-floor scientists’ booth, said in explaining the boycott. “But science doesn’t work that way. Scientists test ideas and discard ones that are proven wrong.”

The booth occupied by the KU researcher was emblazoned with a logo across the top reading “Citizens for Science,” in what amounted to the hearings’ most visible protest. There were no picketers. State employees in the building and outside went about their business, as oblivious to the origin-of-life debates as if they were hearings on highway litter or fish-license fees.

For the first two days of hearings, in fact, the most intensely loyal audience was the phalanx of reporters, who arrived from as far away as Britain and France, and included such big U.S. big dailies as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. TV crews from ABC and CNN crowded the auditorium aisles alongside those from Kansas stations, who rushed forward to get shots of state board of education members the first time they spoke from behind their small table in front.

By noon on the first day, the subcommittee’s chairman, Steve Abrams, told the packed audience that a metal detector was being set up for security reasons, and to expect delays. But that warning hardly seemed necessary by day two, when the number of visitors turning over loose change and passing through the device had slowed to a trickle, and about half the audience members were disguised as empty seats. Those who remained watched John Calvert, a lawyer and the managing director of the Intelligent Design Network, an advocacy group based in Shawnee Mission, Kan., call up a succession of witnesses, many bearing Ph.D.s, and one coming from as far away as Italy, to the front of the auditorium to offer criticisms of evolution.

Those speakers consistently picked apart a proposed draft of the state science standards authored by a 26-member science committee—dubbed the “majority report”—which generally gives a thorough treatment to evolution. A second, “minority” report, authored by eight members of that committee, is much more skeptical of evolution’s legitimacy. (The state board of education called hearings last week to study the disagreements between the two reports.)

The side representing the majority report refused to call any speakers, however—instead relying on a Topeka lawyer, Pedro Irigonegary, who cross-examined the witnesses the way a trial lawyer might.

While Mr. Calvert’s probing of the witnesses was consistently collegial, they received noticeably rougher treatment from Mr. Irigonegary, who peppered the speakers with questions , cut them off when he thought they were pontificating extraneously, and repeatedly voiced skepticism that their opinions of evolution amounted to legitimate science.

Each of Mr. Irigonegary’s cross-examinations began with the same question: How old did the witness believe Earth is? (Most scientists think the planet is billions of years old—probably about 4.5 billion. Many creationists, who adhere to a more literal interpretation of the Bible, believe it dates back only thousands of years.)

Earth’s Age?

Many of the witnesses told Mr. Irigonegary they believed that Earth was, in fact, billions of years old. Not so with John C. Sanford, who was identified on the witness list as a “courtesy” associate professor of horticultural sciences at Cornell University. Mr. Sanford, who testified on the second day, estimated that Earth was “much younger” than many people believe.

Less than 10,000 years old? Mr. Irigonegary asked, in a tone of disbelief. Somewhere between 5,000 and 100,000 years old, Mr. Sanford responded.

When Mr. Irigonegary, his voice rising, pressed him further, asking for a more exact date, Mr. Sanford retorted, “I’m not playing that game.”

Mr. Irigonegary then asked witnesses if they believed in common descent—the widely accepted principle that all human and animal life originated from a common ancestor or common gene pool. Several witnesses told the lawyer they did not believe that principle. Mr. Irigonegary then asked the witnesses individually if they believed that humans descended from hominids, or ape-like proto-humans, as has been detailed by years of scientific research. Many of the witnesses called by Mr. Calvert said they rejected that view. How then, Mr. Irigonegary inquired, did human life originate? Witnesses offered no opinions on that subject.

A number of the witnesses during the first two days of hearings also said they had not read the majority’s proposed draft of the science standards, which supports the teaching of evolution—an admission that was greeted with incredulity by Mr. Irigonegary. After one such witness, Russell W. Carlson, a biochemistry and molecular-biology professor at the University of Georgia, conceded as much, he received assurances from a surprising source.

“Please don’t feel bad. I haven’t read it word for word, either,” said board member Kathy Martin, drawing audible titters from the crowd.

The fact that so many scientists steered clear of the hearings was no surprise to the critics of evolution. The convictions of those scientists would not hold up under scrutiny, they contended.

“The other side has had plenty of chances to bring in people to give their perspective,” Mr. Carlson said after testifying. He also dismissed the charge that promoting criticism of evolution was a backdoor attempt to introduce intelligent design or creationism into science classes. “I would hope that what’s [conveyed] here would be an effort to make the standards more objective and an effort to allow students to follow the evidence.”

In the lobby below, the first-floor scientists continued to hand out scientific reading materials and position papers to the remaining reporters, and arrange press conferences to give their spin on the events upstairs. One of them, Matthew Buechner, wasn’t sure if his side was winning. Laying out scientific data and research in a journal is one thing, he said. Being able to translate that serve up that information into quote-ready form to the public is something else entirely.

“A lot of scientists are bad communicators,” said Mr. Buechner, a professor of molecular biochemistry at the University of Kansas. “There’s always going to be a conflict between what scientists discover and how it leaks out to the public.”


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