In evolution debate, silent treatment won’t work

Sunday, May 29, 2005

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. At the close of the hearings, intelligent-design advocates were able to issue a press release with the devastating headline: “Darwinists Snub Kansas, Refuse to Answer Questions about Scientific Problems with Evolutionary Theory.”

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.

If the silent treatment isn’t a winning strategy on the state level, it’s even more problematic in a local community. Consider the current political battle over evolution in Dover, Pa. Last year, the Dover school board adopted a policy that requires science teachers read a statement informing students about challenges to evolution raised by intelligent-design arguments. Opponents of the policy want to keep all mention of the evolution-intelligent design controversy out of the science class, proposing instead that intelligent design be studied in an elective class about comparative religion or philosophy.

But shutting down the debate in the science classroom isn’t popular with many voters. In a primary election on May 17, the seven current board members who defended the intelligent-design mandate were nominated as the Republican slate for the November ballot. They received more votes than the seven opponents of the policy who were nominated to run as Democrats. Since the district is heavily Republican, the outcome isn’t hard to predict.

Proponents of evolution may be relying on the courts to save the day (the Dover school district is being sued). 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. According to a variety of polls in recent years, a majority of people do want evolution taught — but they also support teaching other theories.

Since only 35% of Americans think Darwin’s theory is supported by evidence (as reported by Gallup in November of last year), the current approach to teaching evolution is clearly not working. The anything-but-evolution camp seems to be growing.

Evolutionists may be right about the risks of opening up the debate. But what’s happening in Kansas, Dover and in many other places suggests that it may be even riskier to shut it down. Because the general public (including state and local board members) knows little or nothing about the actual science involved, decisions about what gets in the science classroom are often based on hostility to evolution — not on a scientifically sound discussion of the evidence.

That’s why science groups should abandon the silent treatment and begin promoting their own alternative for dealing with this controversy in standards and classrooms. That would require directly engaging the critics of evolution by developing classroom lessons that help kids understand some of the key voices in the debate — and provide them with the critical-thinking skills to sort out for themselves what is and isn’t science.

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.