published December 1, 2005

SENCER E-Newsletter, December 2005, Volume 5, Issue 4

Teaching Controversial Topics in Science: A Sequel

Jay Labov - National Research Council, Washington, DC


At the 2005 SENCER Summer Institute I gave a presentation (twice) about efforts across the country to challenge the teaching of evolution or to introduce "alternative explanations" for biological origins and the diversity of life on Earth. I pointed out how these efforts have taken form in a variety of states through attempts to:


1) Mandate that biology textbooks to be used in public school point out "weaknesses" in, or supposed "controversies" about, the theory of evolution

2) Attempts by local or state boards of education or state legislators to introduce bills that call for presenting alternate views such as intelligent design whenever evolution is discussed

3) Protecting the rights of high school and college faculty to teach such alternative explanations


Jay Labov


I also focused on two specific controversies that are extant in Kansas and Dover, PA and suggested that participants in these sessions might want to pay special attention to them because they could have profound implications for how science is taught and even how science is defined. There have been significant developments in both of these cases; this article provides an update with the proviso that events are still unfolding.


Kansas: When we met in August, the Kansas State Board of Education (KSBE) was considering a series of revisions to include concepts of intelligent design in the Kansas State Science Standards; the standards were being redrafted as a result of the regular cycle for revision that occurs in most states. The last revision occurred in 1999 and generated significant controversy when several members of the KSBE removed portions of the draft standards that discussed speciation through evolution [sometimes called "macroevolution"], the age of the earth or the universe being more than 10,000 years), the Big Bang, and related topics. These concepts were reinstated in the KSES following the election of 2000, when most of the members of the Board of Education who supported these modifications were not re-elected.


Steve Abrams


During the current revision cycle, most of the aforementioned concepts that had been returned to the KSES in 2001 were retained. However, several members of the KSBE decided that students in Kansas also should be taught about supposed weaknesses in the theory of evolution and asked to consider alternative explanations, including intelligent design. They organized hearings in May to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of both evolution and intelligent design. Because many in the scientific community sensed that the outcome of these hearings was predictable, individual scientists and scientific organizations that were invited to testify boycotted the hearings (AAAS Statement). In August these members of the State Board produced an alternate draft of the

Science Standards. Most of the controversial topics remained in the document. The draft stated specifically in the preface that the Board was not mandating the teaching of evolution. However, also inserted into the new draft were a series of statements that assert students need to understand weaknesses in the theory of evolution. And, equally importantly, the draft redefined "science" in a way that no longer specified that it is a means to determine "natural" explanations for phenomena.


Late in August, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Teachers Association were asked to review the revised document and indicate whether they were willing to provide copyright permission for the KSBE to use large portions of the Academies' National Science Education Standards and NSTA's Pathways to Science Standards in the Kansas document. After reviewing the standards and pointing out the aforementioned problems, both organizations decided to withhold copyright and notified the Board late in October. Although AAAS was not asked for such permission, it issued a statement supporting the decision by the Academies and NSTA to withhold permission. Both organizations emphasized their willingness to work with the KSBE to resolve these issues.


On November 8, the Board voted 6 to 4 to adopt these revised standards, which has resulted in an outpouring of statements from various scientific organizations and the Governor of Kansas expressing dismay about the decision. It remains to be seen what will happen next. The members of the Board will stand for re-election in November 2006.


Dover, PA: When we met in August, I reported to those attending my presentations that the first major legal challenge to including intelligent design in the science curriculum would occur in the case of Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover Area School District. Last year the Dover, PA school board passed the following resolution:


"Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of Life is not taught." (From the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, page 1 Intelligent Design Complaint). Further the school board mandated that science teachers read to their students the following statement anytime that evolution is taught:


Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.


Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves. As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind.

- From the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, page 2


In addition to mandating what the overwhelming majority of scientists maintain is non-scientific be taught in science classes, the statement that teachers are expected to read to their students contains a fundamental error about science itself. As used here, "theory" is employed as being synonymous with someone's educated guess, while in science, "theory" represents the highest level of understanding of natural phenomena. "Facts" are observations that are repeatable (I release an object from my hand, it falls toward the earth). Scientific theories offer comprehensive explanations for phenomena based upon available evidence and are able to predict as yet unobserved phenomena.


Every science teacher in Dover refused to read the statement; an associate superintendent did so instead in January 2005, when the evolution unit was scheduled to be taught. A group of parents, supported by the law offices of Pepper Hamilton, LLP, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Americans United, sued the board to overturn this regulation. The school board was defended by the Thomas More Law Center. The trial began in September 26, 2005 and testimony concluded on November 4. Judge John E. Jones III has indicated that he will rule by January 2006.


The one thing on which both sides agreed was that there would likely be an appeal by the losing party. However, in the November 2005 election, 8 of the 9 members who supported these actions were voted out of office and were replaced by people who support the teaching of evolution. Thus, it is unclear what will happen once the judge hands down his decision.


In an article in the November/December 2005 issue of The American Scientist, "Being Stalked by Intelligent Design," author Pat Shipman concluded with the following ideas: "As scientists, we must stop ignoring the ID movement. It won't go away. Each of us must learn to avoid jargon in order to communicate better with the public. Every scientist should become a mentor; share your experience of the wonder and beauty of science!"


I agree with these ideas and conclude by re-emphasizing several other suggestions that I offered during my presentation: It is becoming increasingly important for college and university faculty to actively help students understand the processes and nature of science. Such discussions also should include what lies beyond the realm of science. These ideas must become as much a part of science courses as what has traditionally been considered the content of a science course and needs to be infused throughout the course rather than being taught as a short topic about the "scientific method" (as if there is only one!).


Finally, teaching and learning about the processes and nature of science must take place in introductory science courses. Some 90% of students who attend college will never enroll in science courses beyond the introductory level. For those students, these courses are terminal, not introductory.


The infusion of these kinds of discussions into introductory courses involves asking and attempting to address "capacious questions." The model for doing so already exists. It is called SENCER.