By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 5, 2005
TOPEKA, Kan., May 4 -- Alarmed by proposals to change how evolution is taught, scientists and teachers are mobilizing to fight back, asserting that educational standards are being threatened by what they consider a stealth campaign to return creationism to public schools.
This week's battle is focused on Kansas, where State Board of Education hearings begin Thursday on evolution and intelligent design, a carefully marketed theory that challenges accepted understandings of Earth's origins in favor of the idea that a creator played a guiding role.
Scientists warn that introducing challenges to evolution in the public school curriculum would weaken education, harm the economy and, as one paleontologist put it, open Kansas to ridicule as "the hayseed state." Science organizations are boycotting the hearings but plan to offer daily critiques.
Teachers and trade groups around the country are working to build e-mail lists, lobby lawmakers and educate the public about the perceived perils of intelligent design. Lawyers are examining prospects for court challenges. Evolution's defenders would love to repeat the success of nuclear physicist Marshall Berman, who led a counterattack after winning a seat on the New Mexico education board.
The activism marks a tactical shift for scientists and educators who dismissed intelligent design as little more than a fad of the religious right, only to see the concept gain favor and media attention. Where experts previously treated the issue as a hyper-rational debate over evidence they consider beyond dispute, they are learning what their opponents long knew.
"It's a political battle. Education and evolution are hot-button items," said Jack Krebs, vice president of Kansas Citizens for Science. "Some scientists are starting to understand that this is a serious threat."
Krebs and like-minded people are looking for ways to mobilize adherents and persuade the public. "Partly because scientists like to talk to themselves and not the public, the word's not getting out," said Peter Folger, outreach director at the American Geophysical Union.
One goal is to show how few scientists around the world doubt evolutionary theory.
The Discovery Institute, the strongest voice behind intelligent design, at one point gathered the names of 356 scientists who questioned evolution. In response, the National Center for Science Education located 543 scientists named Steve -- including a few Stephanies -- who declared the evidence "overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry."
The NCSE was created to fight the dilution of evolutionary theory. With an annual budget of about $700,000, the California-based operation serves as a clearinghouse for worried teachers and citizen groups. Its Web site is stocked with news bulletins and teaching guides. Executive director Eugenie C. Scott rides the circuit, debating intelligent design proponents and giving speeches in what has become a growth industry.
"We know a phenomenal amount about evolution," Scott told hundreds of science teachers in Dallas last month. "The science in creationism is terrible."
Scott's opponents, who tend to be better funded, include the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that spends more than $1 million a year for research and multimedia efforts. Others are Liberty University in Virginia and Answers in Genesis, a Kentucky organization.
The science organizations concede that the anti-evolution forces have a catchier message. "Teach the controversy" and "Evolution is a theory, not a fact," resonate with many Americans who tell pollsters that God -- working alone or with evolutionary theory -- shaped the world. Discovery Institute geophysicist Stephen C. Meyer calls efforts to change standards "an academic freedom proposal."
"Intelligent design has no scientific credibility, but they very effectively market a controversy," said Steven B. Case, head of the Kansas science standards committee. "They speak well in sound bites. 'Intelligent design' is a good one. They never specify a designer."
"They appeal to this very nice social science notion of things: 'Oh, just give the kids the information and they'll decide.' There isn't a scientific debate and there's nothing for the kids to weigh. They say there's a controversy. We say there's not. So they say, 'See, we told you there's a controversy.' You get into these ridiculous rhetorical games."
Scientists have used tools including carbon dating and genomic maps to demonstrate how evolution works. Although pieces are missing, experts in such fields as paleontology, molecular biology and biochemistry consider the evidence undeniable. To critics who dismiss evolution as a "theory," scientists reply that a theory, in scientific parlance, is a unifying concept -- such as gravity or electricity -- repeatedly tested and affirmed.
Evolution's foes are united in suspicion of evolution's explanatory power even if they differ about how the world developed. Some favor the biblical version that God made Earth several thousand years ago. Others assert that science and evolutionary theory are simply inadequate to explain life's complexity.
"Allow criticism of Darwinian evolution. Definitely let kids know about biases and assumptions that can affect interpretations," said researcher and Kansas science standards committee member William Harris. He believes God "played a role at some defined point."
The NCSE is tracking challenges in nearly 20 states. The debate is often over wording.
At the national level, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) demonstrated political savvy envied by scientists when he proposed an addition to the No Child Left Behind education bill in 2001: "Where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions."
The measure seemed innocuous enough and a "sense of the Senate" action passed 91 to 8. Only later did science groups conclude that Santorum, working with the Discovery Institute, sought to create an opening in how evolution would be taught.
"When it was first introduced, we didn't really understand it. He did it at the eleventh hour, and we didn't know it was coming," said Jodi L. Peterson, legislative director of the National Science Teachers Association. Her group and others mobilized to quash it, but the language remained in the bill's nonbinding conference report.
In Albuquerque, Berman, a Sandia National Laboratories physicist, noted his opponents' determination in 1998 after the New Mexico education board removed evolution from its teaching standards. Appalled, he ran for office and helped reverse the decision, but the issue was soon back. Evolution's foes, he said, "interpreted any statement . . . as an opening to teach intelligent design."
In one closely fought duel, the Minnesota House last year agreed to place a benchmark in the life science section of the state standards saying that students must understand how new evidence and technology "can challenge portions or entire accepted theories and models, including but not limited to cell theory, theory of evolution and germ theory of disease."
Opponents forced a compromise in which the language was removed from life science and included in a section on the history of science. State officials and the NCSE's Scott said each side got enough to declare victory.
Here in Kansas, where the fight has raged for six years, the evolution forces won a round this year when a 26-member science standards committee refused to open the teaching of evolution to contrary views, which the majority considered unscientific. Steve Abrams, leader of the state board's conservative majority, then said the board intended to change the standards anyway, as the law allows.
He scheduled four days of courtroom-style hearings that will be boycotted by Kansas scientists, along with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest general science organization and publisher of the journal Science. The AAAS said the hearings "will most likely serve to confuse the public."
Scientists tested several arguments at an April 21 meeting in Lawrence, playing off the state decision to spend at least $500 million to develop the bioscience industry. They predicted that a change in the curriculum would cripple state firms in the exceedingly competitive bioscience field, holding back the Kansas economy.
Paleontologist Leonard Krishtalka called intelligent design "nothing more than creationism in a cheap tuxedo." He said the adoption of new standards would hurt the University of Kansas's ability to recruit faculty and students.
"There's a great deal of hesitancy. They don't see this as a nurturing academic environment for themselves or their kids," said Krishtalka, director of the university's Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center. "It is ridiculous to backtrack to the 1700s and subvert our education to superstition and religion."