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Kansas’ definition of science sparks debate

Kansas' revised education standards contain a new definition of science itself, which critics worry could open the doors of public schools wider to creationism.
/ Source: The Associated Press

With Kansas facing international scrutiny over new public-school science standards that challenge evolution, one key change is easy to miss.

In the introduction of the 111-page document, a new, longer definition of science replaces one that said, "Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us."

The new one talks about observing, measuring and testing hypotheses, but it doesn't say whether the explanations will be "natural." That fact is key to critics who believe the standards attempt to inject religion into science courses, as well as supporters who believe discourse will be unfettered.

But the change is so subtle that it can seem not worth fighting over, which favors the intelligent-design advocates who helped draft the new standards.

"It's bloody brilliant — there's no doubt about it," said Denis Lamoureux, professor of science and religion at the University of Alberta in Canada.

The new standards won't govern what is actually taught about evolution and other science in classrooms, because those decisions are left to the state's 300 local school boards.

The standards will merely decide what goes on the tests for students that measure how well schools teach science. One Department of Education official predicted only a few questions, if any, will be affected. Also, the first tests under the new standards won't be given until 2008, and then only to a quarter of the state's 445,000 students.

But critics say the standards could encourage creationist pressure in local communities.

‘Good science’ or ‘divine interventions’?
Supporters believe they could protect teachers who want to broach topics like intelligent design, which says an intelligent cause is the best way to explain some complex and orderly features of the natural world.

That makes the state's new definition of science important.

It says: "Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation that uses observations, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena."

"That's what science is about," said Board Chairman Steve Abrams, who supported the new standards. "This is about what's good science."

What are the backers of the standards attacking?

John Calvert, a retired Lake Quivira attorney who helped found the Intelligent Design Network, said the attack focuses on the idea that "you're just a collection of particles that have come together by chance and by natural selection."

The new definition allows scientists to pursue ideas that seem unscientific but might turn out to be correct, said Jonathan Wells, of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that backs intelligent-design research.

For example, he said, Isaac Newton's statements about gravity in the 17th century struck some of his contemporaries as mystical.

"It doesn't tell you what sort of answers you need to find," Wells said of the new definition. "It's open-ended."

Lamoureux acknowledges he has some empathy for intelligent-design advocates, describing himself as a born-again, evangelical Christian. But he doesn't see intelligent design as science, and he's working on a book that he hopes will help fellow Christians reconcile their faith with evolution.

As for Kansas' new definition, he said it promotes the idea that gaps in scientific knowledge are explained by God's involvement — a goal that will be obvious to scientists, he said.

"They have opened the door for divine interventions," he said in a telephone interview. "It's not fooling any of us."

Creationism or not?
Intelligent-design advocates object to being called creationists, saying the label is commonly understood to mean people who accept the Biblical account of creation literally.

But their critics say they've only repackaged old creationist ideas that the U.S. Supreme Court banned from public schools for promoting a narrow religious view.

And many scientists and advocacy groups are on guard for signs of policies that encroach on the separation of church and state. They see Kansas' new definition of science as suspect.

"This is not just sticking your toe into the water," said Joel Kaplan, president of B'nai B'rith International in Washington. "This is hurling your entire body into the water. No good can come from it."

But if the new definition promotes religion, it's not obvious from the text.

"It's extraordinarily sophisticated," said board member Bill Wagnon, who opposed the new standards. "It's a very clever approach."