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Fact-Check: The Atlantic Misrepresents Kansas Science Standards and Won’t Correct the Record

Sarah Chaffee


More than a decade later, news media still misrepresent the 2005 Kansas science standards. An article in the November 2016 issue of The Atlantic, “Big in Europe: The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster,”contains a significant factual error. Reporter and senior editor Kathy Gilsinan states:

In 2005, the Kansas Board of Education voted to let public schools teach the creationist theory of intelligent design alongside evolution, arguing, among other things, that you couldn’t prove a supernatural being hadn’t given rise to life.

Of course, intelligent design is not a creationist theory. But there is another issue here. The Kansas Board of Education did not adopt science standards that included intelligent design. In fact, they explicitly stated in the Rationale to the 2005 standards:

We also emphasize that the Science Curriculum Standards do not include Intelligent Design, the scientific disagreement with the claim of many evolutionary biologists that the apparent design of living systems is an illusion. While the testimony presented at the science hearings included many advocates of Intelligent Design, these standards neither mandate nor prohibit teaching about this scientific disagreement. [Emphasis added.]

I contacted The Atlantic, and asked for a correction. The article’s point that the Board of Education “voted to let” schools teach intelligent design demonstrates a misunderstanding of the decision. In one of my emails I noted to The Atlantic that:

As a matter of law and policy, this action left intelligent design in Kansas in exactly the same position as before the Board adopted its science standards.

The Board’s statement of neutrality on the topic was not a positive action permitting intelligent design (note that using this logic, every state Board of Education in America should be described as having voted to permit intelligent design because they have adopted science standards that do not contain an explicit prohibition on intelligent design). In the American educational system, a) statewide educational standards typically only state what should be covered and b) most decisions (including prohibitions of what can’t be covered) are left to local school boards. This is true not just in Kansas, but in every other state as well.

It seems to me that a truly accurate statement would say: “In response to claims that it was mandating intelligent design, the Kansas Board voted to make clear that it did not include intelligent design in its science standards and that it was neither mandating nor prohibiting intelligent design.”

My request for a correction was refused.

So on this issue, readers of The Atlantic will continue to have the wrong impression. It is concerning that such stubborn ignorance of how state boards of education work, and of the purview of science standards, persists in a national magazine.

Image source: Wikipedia.