A couple of weeks ago (May 4, 2006) I attended a panel discussion hosted by the Kansas City Press Club entitled “Intelligent Design, Intelligent Media: Is Coverage Accurate.” Panelists included Kansas Board of Education chair Steve Abrams, Kansas State Department of Education Director of Communications David Awbrey, and three reporters, Dave Hellings of the KC Star, Toby Cook of WDAF-TV and Ben Embry of KCUR-FM. Derek Donovan, Reader’s Representative for the KC Star, was the moderator.
To me, the most interesting aspect of the forum was listening to the comments of Awbrey. Awbrey is a conservative journalist who was recently hired by the state Board - the same Board that adopted ID creationist-influenced science standards last fall and who also hired Bob Corkins as Commissioner of Education, a rightwing lobbyist with no education experience whatsoever. I was interested in watching Awbrey in action, and I wasn’t disappointed. (For miscellaneous information on Awbrey, see Les Lane’s David Awbrey page.)
The two main things Awbrey said that bothered me were:
- Scientists and science educators were arrogantly refusing to participate in the democratic process because they wouldn’t “stand on the stage with Steve Abrams” at last May’s “science hearings,” and
- Scientists and science educators bring to the classroom their “religion” which holds that humans are meaningless cosmic accidents as opposed to being God’s creation.
I questioned Awbrey about both these issues during the Q&A period. He denied that he had said these things, and later apologized but said that I had confused what he said with a quote he had read. I believe he is wrong on both counts.
In this post, I am going to do the following
- Describe a bit more about the forum, especially the underlying tension about the fact that only conservative’s were invited to be on the panel.
- Describe my remarks to Awbrey
- Describe Awbrey’s denials/apologies
- Describe what Awbrey actually said
- Respond to Awbrey’s points
- And finally, draw some conclusions.
This post may seem a little excessive, but I think it is worth publicizing this example of Awbrey’s positions and style. He is the Kansas State Department of Education Director of Communications, and as such is responsible for communicating with the public in a way that represents the Board of Education and the Department of Education as a whole - a role he did not fulfill well at this forum, in my opinion.
In fact, the one other Board member in attendance, moderate Sue Gamble, did not think so also. During the Q&A, Ms. Gamble said,
One of my questions is about what’s going on tonight, and whether that is fair and unbiased. I question why Mr. Awbrey is a member of the panel, and quite frankly, as a member of the Board, I am quite unhappy with his conduct. I don’t think this is the type of information we expect of our Director of Communications - but we’ll do that as a separate issue.
There is being a dichotomy described between faith and science that I don’t think is there, and I hate to see that.
So I would have liked to have been represented on the panel in terms of Board representation as opposed to what appears to be an extremely biased Director of Communications.
Listen to all of Ms. Gamble’s comments at 29_Sue_Gamble.mp3
Note that complete sound files of the forum are at KCFS News., and a zipped set of files in shorter, more organized form is here. I will link to important segments in this post if you wish to listen. You might also want to read the following blog posts on the event:
- Pat Hayes at Red State Rabble here and here.
- Paul Decelles at The Force That Through…, and
- Dave Warren at KansasRealPolitik.
Some controversy about the makeup of the panel
It turns out that Intelligent Design (ID) leader John Calvert, Board member Sue Gamble, and myself had all contacted the event organizer and/or the panel moderator asking why just conservatives were invited. The explanation given was that the “two sides” of the panel were the conservatives, whom they assumed (correctly, as it turned out) would think that coverage was inadequate, and the reporters, who would think that coverage had been fair and balanced. Calvert protested that Abrams and Awbrey had nothing to do with Intelligent Design (because “ID isn’t in the standards”, he says), and therefore they shouldn’t have been on the panel: rather an expert in ID (obviously Calvert) should. I felt that a representative of the science standards committee and of mainstream science should have been represented (e.g., me), and as stated, Sue Gamble thought the moderate minority of the Board should have been represented.
I think it all turned out for the best though, because this way Abrams and Awbrey were in the spotlight, and the heat was not from us (the usual suspects), but rather from the reporters.
My challenges to Awbrey during the Q&A
1. Scientists and religion
Let’s look first at what Awbrey said about scientists and religion, and let’s begin by looking at my remarks to him during the Q&A:
Krebs: Mr. Awbrey presents a very divisive point of view that if you are for evolution you are against God.
Awbrey (interrupting): That is so wrong, that is a slander - I am a theistic evolutionist. I’m an Episcopalian - how the heck could I … Good grief, man.
Krebs: You quoted Gould and you associated evolution with people who think the world is a cosmic accident, and you accused the science education community of teaching that the world is a cosmic accident, and that is a slander on the scientific community.
Awbrey: I didn’t say that either.
Krebs: You did say those things. I have them right here [pointing to my computer which was recording the event], and will quote them at a later time.
Listen to all of my comments to Awbrey at 24_Krebs_Q.mp3
First notice that I didn’t say anything about Awbrey’s personal beliefs. I don’t care what Awbrey himself believes: what I care about is his false accusations about the implications of evolutionary theory and his false statements about the beliefs, and subsequent effects of those beliefs on students, of those in the science education community.
So what did Awbrey say? Did I “slander” him, or he us?
Here is Awbrey, earlier in the forum:
I think the whole thing here is a game. Both sides are playing religion because one side takes a look at the evidence and comes to the conclusion as Jay [sic] Gould has done, as Richard Dawkins has done - who are very neo-Darwinist …
For example, this is Jay [sic] Gould. [Note: Awbrey had obviously come prepared with this quote.]
Through no fault of our own, by dint of no cosmic plan or conscious purpose, we have become the power of a glorious evolutionary accident …
In other words, it is a glorious accident, the whole thing we are talking about. Other people can look at the same evidence and say, “I see some evidence - I see God’s hand at work.
But yet the Gould view that there is no purpose in the universe, it’s all meaningless, it’s all a glorious accident: that’s science. [my emphasis]
[Interruption from reporter Dave Hellings: “No, that’s metaphysics - that’s absolute metaphysics”]
And metaphysics is real close to religion because it’s faith - the definition of religion is that it is faith in what is unseen.
Anyone see the origin, anyone see the Big Bang, anyone see the dinosaurs? These are all metaphysical speculations by people who look at the same evidence and disagree with what they see.
If the scientists would take their religion out of the science classes, there would probably not be a problem. But when you look - if you can construct a world where, as the Declaration of Independence says, we are endowed by our Creator - our rights come from a God, and all of a sudden we substitute that by saying it’s just random accident, random mutation …
You see the philosophical problem here of wanting a purpose in life, and one without … I can’t arbitrate which is right, but both sides are practicing religion
Wow - where to begin?
Well, first let me note that even though Awbrey brought Gould’s quote with him, he did not read it completely or accurately. The correct quote, with the part Awbrey left out in bold, is
Through no fault of our own, by dint of no cosmic plan or conscious purpose, we have become by the power of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence the stewards of life’s continuity on earth.
(Gould, A Glorious Accident, 1997)
Notice the difference in meaning in Awbrey’s quote and what Gould actually wrote: Gould did not say that we have “become a power” but rather that by the power of evolution, we have developed intelligence that has made us stewards of life. Gould is not saying there is “no purpose” in life - he is in fact pointing to one of the purposes we now have because of the contingencies - glorious contingencies - that have made us who we are.
Why didn’t Awbrey quote, or interpret, Gould correctly?
Because he wanted to use this distorted quote-mine to segue into his main (pre-planned) point that there is a dichotomy between those who “see God’s hand at work” and the scientists and science educators who bring their “religion” that we are random accidents, products of random mutations, into the classroom.
Despite his denial, he said exactly what I said that he did when I said, “Mr. Awbrey presents a very divisive point of view that if you are for evolution you are against God.”
This disingenuity is disturbing. First Awbrey came prepared to make the point that underlies the Board’s attack on the science standards: that the world of science is aligned with atheism. However, then when he is called on this he denies it.
This is the key issue by which the Board and Calvert et al have applied the Wedge to Kansas - claiming that science inherently supports materialism and atheism, and therefore design (aka supernatural causation) must be allowed in scientific explanations.
Furthermore, as we have pointed out many times, the Board and its advocates reject the idea that a Christian, or a theist in general, can also accept the methodology and content of science, especially in regards to evolution. Many scientists are theists, or adherents of other religious views: Awbrey’s blanket condemnation of the science community as being materialists who do not “see God’s hand at work” in nature is an insult, if not a slander, to scientists and science educators all over the world.
[By the way, we shouldn’t leave this topic without pointing out, as several Kansas bloggers did, Awbrey’s comment that dinosaurs are metaphysical. When Dave Hellings pointed out that dinosaurs were in fact not metaphysical, Awbrey replied, “But we never saw them.” How much lack of understanding of both science and philosophy does this remark show?]
2. Scientists and democracy
The other thing Awbrey said that was disturbing was that scientists were refusing to engage in the democratic process both in general and specifically through their boycott of the May 2005 “Science Hearings.”
Let’s again work backwards. I called Awbrey on this during the Q&A, and later in the Q&A he appeared to apologize but in fact denied what he had said. Here’s his apology/denial:
I apologize if I’ve slandered you, but remember what I saying was really from Randy Olson - I mean, he’s from Lake Quivera, Flock of Dodos, very much pro-evolution - I mean, he’s the one saying what you are attributing to me.
My problem is that when any organization that has something essential to contribute holds back, I think that’s a slight against democracy.
Well, Awbrey again used a quote as a disguise for presenting his own views. Here, for the record, is some of what Awbrey had to say: see for yourself whether I mis-attributed any views to him, and whether what he was saying “was really from Randy Olson.”
The public generally favors a creationist point of view - divine involvement in creation. … A 26% minority in one of the polls (the Pew Foundation, I believe) believe the darwinist version.
But yet of course the public has one agenda on this issue - the public has one totally different view than the scientists. Science education …, the neo-Darwinists, refuse to engage this issue.
Steve Abrams has a standing invitation to any of you to appear in debate - to call up any of your supporters and lets’ have a debate, but they will not participate. They will not participate because they think it lends legitimacy.
They are not going to play the democratic process. [my emphasis]
Unfortunately, science education is at stake here. And the people who claim to care the most about it are not going to participate with the public in a public debate on the public schools.
The arrogance of that is just breath-taking to me, who believes very much in public education.
And shortly afterwards,
We have an attitude, the scientific community, that says they’re not involved in the public process…
[Awbrey then quoted Randy Olson from an article in the Times (presumably the New York Times) that concluded that scientist need to “get off their collective high horse” and take their case to the public.]
That to me is one of the untold stories - how the scientific community in this state has basically said we don’t care for the public process, [my emphasis] we don’t care about how the public perceives us, we don’t care to engage in intellectual debate with people who have a lot of letters behind their names too.
We are just going to insist on this, from our dogmatic point of view: we are the Vatican, we are the experts, we are KU, everyone else go away. That’s the attitude that’s out there.
And it’s the hostility, the arrogance, the elitism, that’s driving so much of this.
This is clearly Awbrey speaking, not Olson: trying to pass his remarks off as merely Olson’s is again disingenuous - dishonest. really. And slanderous to the scientific community.
Awbrey says that science educators “are not going to play the democratic process,” and that they “don’t care for the public process.” Well let’s review a bit:
- The state science standards writing committee was chosen by the state Board (a democratically elected body) following established procedures
- That committee elected a chairperson by majority vote
- the committee adopted rules requiring a 2/3 vote for revisions
- the committee submitted Draft 1 to the state Board in December, 2004
At that point, a minority of the committee worked outside the established process, under the leadership of John Calvert, who was not a member of the committee, to produce a Minority proposal, which they were allowed to present directly to the Board.
Subsequently, the committee
- voted on the Minority proposals, and rejected all but one
- solicited input from the K-12 science education community
- held public hearings, according to established procedures, in which we listened to over 200 people speak out of 800 who attended four public meetings around the state
- and finally presented their democratically produced Draft 2, the product of hundred’s of man-hours of work by dedicated members of the science education community (myself included), to the state Board for their consideration.
Pretty democratic, don’t you think: a committee appointed by an elected body followed established procedures, including democratic rules about voting, and then considered over 400 individual comments from the educational community and the general public.
So what did the Board do. Did they “play the democratic game” and follow established process?
Heck no. They collaborated with John Calvert to concoct the infamous “Science Hearings”, and later adopted wholesale the Minority report proposals.
So, speaking of “breath-taking arrogance”, I found it breath-taking to hear Awbrey accuse us of not participating in the democratic process.
Furthermore, as was pointed out during the forum, scientists participate all the time by doing the research and putting their work up for review. The scientific process is very much a democratic process by which theories have to earn their way in the marketplace of ideas. The Intelligent Design advocates, however, want to skip the marketplace of ideas and go straight to the government - getting a government hand-out by having their unestablished ideas placed into the science standards.
Whose being undemocratic here? It’s the ID advocates who don’t play the real democratic game - the one where you present your ideas to those qualified to judge them and let a consensus about what is wheat and what is chaff arise from the process.
And of course we shouldn’t forget, as Sue Gamble pointed out, the little event up in Dover recently. There we had a nice bit of democracy, called a trial - “both sides” got to make their case, and we know how that turned out.
And last, Awbrey said that “Abrams has a standing invitation to any of you to appear in debate.” It’s news to me that this invitation is still standing, but as I said at the forum, “I offer to stand and debate the following points [the two mentioned here in this post] with you guys in a public forum.” My offer stands also, with Abrams, Awbrey, or anyone else they want to choose.
But they don’t want to discuss the real issues, which are, among other things, their rejection of the methodology and validity of science for religious reasons, and their rejection of the beliefs of millions of religious people who do accept the methodology and validity of science and find that acceptance compatible with their beliefs about God.
David Awbrey is the Director of Communication for the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE). However, like Commissioner Bob Corkins, he does not have experience as an educator - he is a journalist known more his conservative rhetoric than anything else. Yet, as the spokesperson for the KSDE, I would think he would (should?) work to represent the Board as a whole as well as the education community. But instead we saw, as Sue Gamble said, an “extremely biased Director of Communications” - one whose biases, as I have shown, badly misrepresent scientists and science educators in regards to both their religious beliefs and their participation in the democratic process.
I have taken the time to dissect all this because I believe these views of Awbrey’s need to be well known. If he is going to be speaking for the Board (really the Board majority), then we (the public, the press, the scientific and education communities), need to know both his biases and his style.