Light-years apart on life's origins

Kansas: Scientists and biblical literalists spar over the state school board's challenge to theories on the universe's creation.

October 24, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Scientific lessons about the origins of life have long been challenged in public schools, but some Bible literalists are adding the reigning theory about the origin of the universe to their list of targets.

Nearly overlooked in the debate over the Kansas Board of Education's decision in August to remove evolution from its education standards was a decision on the much wider realm governed by the science of the cosmos.

Influenced by a handful of scientists whose literal faith in the Bible has helped convince them that the universe is only a few thousand years old, the board deleted from its standards a description of the Big Bang theory of cosmic origins, the central organizing principle of modern astronomy and cosmology.

The Big Bang theory, based on decades of astronomical observations and physics research, suggests that the universe originated in a colossal explosion of matter and radiation about 15 billion years ago.

But "young Earth creationists," as they are generally known, have come up with theories to explain how cosmic history could be condensed into mere thousands of years. They are making this case in books, pamphlets and lectures, as well as on a number of Web sites.

Mainstream scientists consider their theories to be wildly out of line with reality, though books describing them are often liberally sprinkled with references to authorities such as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

As a result, physical scientists find themselves in a fight in which they have seldom played a public role.

They have responded with a mixture of disdain, disbelief and consternation, and the reactions have not been limited to physicists and cosmologists in Kansas.

"It's the denial of what understanding we have of the origin of the universe in terms of modern science," said Jerome Friedman, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1990 for collaborating in the discovery of the subatomic particles called quarks and is the president of the American Physical Society. "That's a terrible loss," Friedman said.

Hume A. Feldman, a cosmologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who has worked at Princeton University and the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, called the issue "frightening."

Feldman said that developments in his state bore a distant resemblance to the difficulties of political scientists under communist regimes in Eastern Europe and that he feared that such pressures could impair the educational system.

But advocates of the creationist view say alarm over their theories is overblown. Steve Abrams, a member of the Kansas board and a veterinarian in Arkansas City who was among the leaders of the push to make the changes, said there are legitimate scientific doubts about whether the universe is more than several thousand years old.

"There is sufficient data to lend credibility to the idea that we do not have all the answers for teaching the origin of our universe," he said.

The change in the Kansas standards does not preclude the teaching of mainstream biology, physics or cosmology, allowing teachers to present alternative viewpoints if they choose to do so.

But because the standards are used as the basis for state tests, the changes will probably have a practical effect on what is taught, said Dr. Bill Wagnon, a professor of history at Washburn University in Topeka and a board member who voted in the minority. Students' scores on those tests help determine whether a school receives accreditation from the state.

"The curriculum standards describe that process of what needs to be covered," Wagnon said.

So radical were the Kansas board's recommendations that it has been unable to publish its standards or to display them on its Web site. That is because the standards include long extracts from a book on education standards that was published by the National Research Council. Because it disapproves of the board's revised standards, the council has refused permission for them to be reprinted.

Beyond the expunging of evolution, the board also took out references to the hundreds of millions of years of Earth's geologic ages.

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