As yet another drama unfolds over the teaching of evolution in Kansas, highlighted this time by a series of upcoming public hearings on the topic, several groups from the mainstream scientific community say they will not participate.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, along with a number of Kansas advocacy organizations, will skip the hearings out of what they say is concern that the sessions will distort the nature of Charles Darwin’s theory—and the study of science itself.
In an April 11 letter, Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive officer of the AAAS, an international organization with headquarters in Washington, declined an invitation from the Kansas education department to take part or provide speakers. The hearings, scheduled for May 5-7, in Topeka, and possibly May 12-14, could mislead the public into thinking that “scientific conclusions are based on expert opinion, rather than on data,” he wrote.
The hearings, he argued, would also falsely promote the idea that religiously based views of life’s origins and development should be discussed in the same forum as evolution, a well-established scientific explanation of how human and other forms of life developed.
“Facts and faith both have the power to improve people’s lives, and they can and do coexist,” Mr. Leshner wrote. “But they should not be pitted against one another in science classrooms.”
Officials of the congressionally chartered National Academy of Sciences had not been contacted by Kansas officials about the meeting as of late last week, said Jay Labov, the senior adviser for education and communication for the National Research Council, the principal operating arm of the NAS. But Mr. Labov echoed Mr. Leshner’s concern that the hearings would put religious beliefs and science in the same forum.
Last month, NAS President Bruce Alberts wrote a letter to members of the academy asking for their help in combating attempts to weaken the teaching of evolution. (“Scientists Offer Ground-Level Support for Evolution,” April 6, 2005.)
Al Teich, the director of the AAAS’ science and policy programs, said his organization supported Mr. Alberts’ mission, too, but he doubted it could be served at the Kansas hearings, which are being arranged with “a particular outcome in mind,” he said.
Several Kansas groups that support the teaching of evolution, such as Kansas Citizens for Science, agree. They say the events are being orchestrated by conservative members of the state board. As of last week, 23 individuals believed to favor the inclusion of alternatives to Darwin’s theory in science classes had signed up to speak.
In 1999, Kansas drew worldwide attention when the state school board deleted most references to evolution from the state science standards. That decision was reversed by a new board two years later. But elections last year provided what is believed to be a new, 6-4 majority on the board in favor of offering more critical views of evolution.
The latest controversy emerged when a 26-member committee began a scheduled review of the science standards. The committee produced a draft document that gives full treatment to evolution, but an eight-member minority completed its own, dissenting document. State board members asked for the hearings to examine points of dispute between the two reports.
Robert A. DiSilvestro, a professor of nutrition at Ohio State University, in Columbus, who supports introducing students to alternatives to evolution and plans to speak at the Kansas hearings, said scientists who boycott the events unwittingly help their opposition.
“It’s a bad idea,” he said. The public, he predicted, will say, “ ‘If your ideas are so good, why aren’t you here to defend them?’ ”