Sunday, March 7, 2004

Board violates its own standard

Lawrence M. Krauss
Guest columnist

Perhaps the time has come for Gov. Bob Taft to fight to maintain science standards in his state, because it doesn't appear as if the Ohio Board of Education will.

Deborah Owens Fink of the school board was remarkably frank when she referred to the disputed lesson plan that she helped push the board to accept. "Ohio has set a standard for the whole nation on how to deal with these issues,"she proclaimed.

The problem is, it's a lousy standard - one which actually violates the standard that the board itself set a year ago. After indicating that students should learn "how scientists continue to investigate and critically examine evolution," the board added: "The intent of this indicator does not mandate the teaching or testing of intelligent design."

Yet Fink helped supervise the drafting of both this lesson plan and four others which introduced young-earth creationist and other non-scientific ideas and which have been subsequently removed from consideration.

Fink and her colleagues Michael Cochran and James Turner also say that the group of scientists from Ohio universities, who, at the request of the board, had submitted a replacement lesson plan, are over-reacting to the board's effort to introduce what they argue are simply "scientific" objections to evolution. Actually, that doesn't capture the depth of their rhetoric. They used phrases during meetings like "whiny scientists," "arrogant" and "egotistical" "kooks" who "lack perspective." But since Fink has claimed we keep criticizing people and not the facts, let's look at the facts.

Why would the National Academy of Sciences weigh in on a lesson plan that is supposedly designed to encourage students to explore scientific controversies?

In the disputed lesson, students are encouraged to do Internet research on these controversies. Bruce Alberts, president of the academy, describes an NAS staff member's examination of the recommended Web sites in the lesson plan. The top five sites listed out of a total of seven sites include a broken link, an Intelligent Design website that also sells ID books, a site hosted by the National Association for Objectivity in Science, an anti-evolution group, and another site that features resources concerning intelligent design and "philosophical theism."

Many of the references in the proposed lesson plan in fact can be found in the book of Jonathan Wells, one of those who appeared at the debate. While these ID arguments still remain in the lesson plan, the reference to Wells' book has been removed.

"Please understand that the National Academy of Sciences and, I would contend, the vast majority of scientists, are not asking people to choose between science and religion," Alberts wrote. "What concerns us is that Intelligent Design is not scientific because its ultimate tenet that life on Earth is the result of the work of some intelligent being is scientifically untestable and therefore cannot be invalidated through scientific means."

Science is, in the end, what scientists do. It has been remarkably successful at changing the face of our civilization precisely because it has standards. Theories that survive the repeated test of experiment become part of the working toolkit of scientists who attempt to understand what has not yet been understood. To be used by the scientific community, and discussed and ultimately taught at universities and in high schools, theories must prove useful by confronting data and making useful predictions. This has nothing to do with one's religious leanings.

This is why we cannot simply throw up our arms and say, OK, just this once, let's relax our standards. It is also the reason that the academy argues against teaching Intelligent Design in science classes. The Supreme Court in 1987 ruled "the argument that life came from the action of an 'intelligent mind' " wasn't science. It is disingenuous to suggest that the Model Curriculum committee that proposed this lesson was maintaining the standards of science.

These board members have made it clear that they are unwilling to listen to the scientific community. It is time for the governor, who has publicly claimed be above the fray but who has privately exerted pressure, to come out and support scientists in their efforts to maintain scientific standards. If he weighs in on this issue, there is every reason to expect that the board, with eight of his appointees, will follow suit. If not, it will be hard for him to argue that his administration is actively working to raise Ohio's technological standard so that it can compete in a 21st century whose economy may be dominated by biotechnology - which, by the way, is based on a well-tested theory called evolutionary biology.


Lawrence M. Krauss is director of the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics and physics department chairman at Case Western Reserve University.

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