“You are all a bunch of Ayatollahs!” shouted the citizen during open forum—and he stormed out the Board Room. It was 1999. Many folks on both the evolution and creationist sides were speaking to the Kansas State Board of Education (KSBE) open forum. In this case, it was a pro-evolution hothead.
If the Board had taken a vote at that emotionally-charged moment, we might very well have lost 10-to-0. I was a member of the Science Standards Committee that had submitted the new standards that included the concept of evolution. We were facing an attempt to pull the evolution wording. And the 10-member KSBE was split with five on each side.
Many citizens testified with dignity and civility on both sides, But two months later we had a university science professor step up to the open forum podium. He followed a citizen who spoke on the creationist side. The professor began by saying “Well, I guess I am the crap detector here.” And the tone of his three minute speech descended even lower.
I intercepted our “ally” in the hallway outside the Boardroom and asked him what he thought he was doing, because he certainly was not helping our cause!
Ultimately, we lost. A sixth Board member joined the anti-evolution side and passed the Kansas Science Standards with evolution minimized. That sixth vote came, not because that retired superintendent from Haven converted to an anti-evolution stand, but because he believed that too much of the scientists’ testimony revealed an arrogant attitude that promoted teachers ramming the theory down students’ throats.
This was a classic case of “WHAT you say is not as important as HOW you say it.” We lost the first evolution battle of 1999-2000 not because the creationists had better arguments, but because our side was perceived as arrogant and uncivil!
We learned another lesson in that year of debate. When the science committee was presenting the standards to the KSBE, one of our representatives stated that “I don’t think you have the best interest of Kansas students in mind.” This was addressed to Board member Scott Hill who brought the exchange to an immediate halt with “What did you say?”
You never question the intentions of an opponent. We had just committed another major sin in debate.
By the next KSBE meeting, there was a new plaque on the wall of the KSBE Board Room asserting that the best interests of Kansas children come first in every Board decision. For the next decade, this plaque stood as a reminder of the arrogance of at least one advocate on the science side of that debate.
The evolution concepts lost in 2000 were fully restored after the next KSBE election. Then in 2005, there was another round of pro- and anti-evolution debate as the Kansas science standards were updated.
Some members of the press reported the debate with integrity. Unfortunately, others sought to generate confrontation. Both the 2000 and 2005 episodes painted Kansas as hayseeds in the press nationwide despite Kansas biology teachers having the highest rate of evolution belief of any state surveyed.
There were sensitive science professors who represented their discipline with enthusiasm and respect. But there were others who were arrogant. During Board meeting breaks, when an opposing Board member had a serious question about entropy (science) or irreducible complexity (non-science), some scientists folded their arms and waited out the question just so they could tell the Board member how stupid he or she was. It was a bad way to treat a Board member—or a student in a classroom.
Last year, the KSBE adopted nearly content-less national standards rather than return to state-revised science standards. I personally believe it was adopted, not because of its substance (it lacks little), but to avoid a return to uncivil Kansas science standards debates and the resulting press exposure. That is another price we pay for not having remained ladies and gentlemen.