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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Kansas science standards approved: Would permit questioning Darwinism

Yesterday, I was told that the controversial proposed reforms to the teaching of Darwinism in Kansas have mostly been accepted.

(Note: If this is not the story you are looking for, see the Blog service note below.)

Briefly, earlier this year, the state of Kansas attempted to hold hearings on their new science standards on the teaching of Darwinism. Proponents of the Darwin-only perspective boycotted the hearings. Opponents testified at them, and appear to have prevailed—until the litigation starts, of course.

The heart of the Kansas controversy over what should be taught in schools is a conflict between a naturalistic definition of science and an evidence-based one.
Naturalism is a type of philosophy that argues that nature is all there is, has been, or ever will be. It is opposed not only to theism but to any assumption that nature incorporates design or purpose. (A Buddhist or agnostic, for example, may not believe in gods/God, but may accept that there is design or purpose in nature.) However, many prominent scientists are naturalists, and they have a tendency to think that science is the handmaid of naturalism.

The original standards read,
"Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us."
This sounds fine and innocuous, until you run into the following problem:

In practice today, "natural explanations" is a code phrase for "explanations that rule out design or purpose." The chief glory of Darwinism is that it purports to explain how life could come into existence, grow, and change without any design or purpose. No other theory of evolution will do that for you.

Therefore — here's the kicker — objections to Darwinism, even when founded on impeccable science evidence, are treated as, by definition, objections to science itself.

From the naturalist's point of view, that makes sense. If the purpose of science is to defend naturalism, no objections to Darwinism can be allowed. Objecting would be like going to Mass and telling the priest that you doubt the divinity of Christ. The key difference is that the Catholic Church is not a publicly funded institution to which one is legally obligated to send one's children. The public school, as it happens, is. Hence the intractable controversy.

So the minority report, which has just been accepted, has changed the standard to read
"Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation, that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building, to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena."
Note that the new formulation does not allow for theories that are held only on account of personal faith, claims of divine revelation, sacred scriptures, therapy needs, tribal tradition, or any other non-science-based method of knowing. But the new formulation also clearly does not assume that naturalism must be defended. Therefore it would permit evidence-based critiques of Darwinism. For example, if the Cambrian explosion of life forms over a short period of time around 525 mya presents a problem for a strict Darwinian account of life (and Darwin himself thought it did), it would be okay for a teacher to say so.

For the most part, media coverage of the Kansas science standards controversy has been disappointing, partly because so few journalists had (or took) the time to study the underlying issues. However, you can read a series of four differing opinions about the merits of the proposed changes. You have to sign up with the Kansas City Star , but the opinions are worth reading.

By the way, one outcome of the fact that Cardinal Schonborn recently made it clear that the Catholic Church supports evolution (seen as common ancestry) but does not support Darwinism (evolution is an unguided purposeless event), is that teachers will have a strong defense against persecution if they legitimately discuss objections to Darwinism in Catholic schools. Here in Canada, that may be significant because Catholic schools receive whole or partial public funding in most provinces. Some publicly funded Catholic school boards are large and influential. The Toronto Catholic School Board has 95 000 students in 201 schools. It would be nice if large boards took the lead in providing teacher resources that promote a productive discussion of the issues.

(Note: A reader has pointed out that the Cardinal does not necessarily support common ancestry, but rather thinks that common ancestry is "'theologically and philosophically possible,' which is quite different." Perhaps so, but if the Cardinal thinks common ancestry is even possible, he is not in the camp of American fundamentalists who believe, on faith, that it is IMpossible. The fact that neither the Catholic Church nor the fundamentalists have any use for Darwinism seems to me to be the story here. From what I can see, both groups pay taxes to support a school system that is dominated by folk who are convinced that Darwinism is true.)

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.
Blog service note: Did you come here looking for any of the following stories?

- The op-ed by Catholic Cardinal Schonborn in the New York Times? Note also the Times's s tory on the subject, some interesting quotes from major Darwinists to compare with the Catholic Church's view, as expressed by the Cardinal, and an example of the kind of problem with Darwinian philosophy that the Cardinal is talking about.

- the Privileged Planet film shown at the Smithsonian, go here for an extended review. Please do not raise cain about an "anti-evolution" film without seeing it. If your doctor forbids you to see the film, in case you get too excited, at least read my detailed log of the actual subjects of the film. If you were one of the people who raised cain, ask yourself why you should continue to believe the people who so misled you about the film's actual content ...

- the showing of Privileged Planet at the Smithsonian, go here and here to start, and then this one and this one will bring you up to date.

- the California Academy of Sciences agreeing to correct potentially libellous statements about attorney Larry Caldwell, who thinks that students should know about weaknesses as well as strengths of Darwinian evolution theory, click on the posted link.

- Bill Dembski threatening to sue the Thomas More Law Center in the Dover, Pennsylvania ID case, click on the posted link and check the current daily post for updates. (Note: In breaking news, this dispute has apparently been settled. See the story for details. )

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