Arizona Superintendent Diane Douglas tapped a young-earth creationist to serve last month on a committee tasked with revising the state's science curriculum standards on evolution.
Joseph Kezele, the president of the Arizona Origin Science Association, is a staunch believer in the idea that enough scientific evidence exists to back up the biblical story of creation. Douglas appointed him to an eight-member special working group at the Arizona Department of Education that completed a final review of the draft evolution teaching standards on August 30.
Kezele teaches biology at Arizona Christian University in Phoenix. He advocates teaching his version of "established, real science" in classrooms.
Evolution, he said, is a false explanation for life and should be taught so that students "can defend against it, if they want to."
"I'm not saying to put the Bible into the classroom, although the real science will confirm the Bible," Kezele told Phoenix New Times in an interview on Wednesday. "Students can draw their own conclusions when they see what the real science actually shows."
He argued that scientific evidence supports his creationist ideas, including the claims that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs were on board Noah's Ark.
ADE spokesperson Stefan Swiat said that Kezele was selected because of his position at Arizona Christian University. Swiat was unaware if Douglas knew that Kezele was a creationist when she selected him.
"One of the aims of the working group is to include a broad collection of contributors from the scientific community," Swiat wrote in an email. "Both the working group, as well as the head of ADE’s science standards, were completely unaware that Dr. Kezele was a creationist."
Kezele did not discuss his "personal creationist beliefs" with the working group, Swiat added.
Nevertheless, as the working group reviewed the evolution language, Kezele successfully convinced other members to de-emphasize evolution in at least one instance.
The committee signed off on changing a reference to evolution as "the explanation" for the unity and diversity of all living and extinct organisms to "an" explanation.
Another committee member, University of Arizona Associate Professor William Roth, said that the panelists didn't want to hold up the process for that detail, even though it is misleading to imply that there is an alternative explanation to life on Earth.
"In the context of science, evolution is the explanation," Roth said.
Under Douglas, the education department has sought to downplay evolution in the state science standards, which are meant to guide teachers as they develop the core ideas of their lessons.
Working groups composed of K-12 teachers, higher-education professionals, and community members revised the science standards this spring in the first such revision in over a decade.
Yet after the revisions went through the superintendent's office, a draft of the new science standards emerged that showed references to evolution had been edited out in favor of phrases such as "the theory of evolution" or "biological diversity."
"That irked us a bit," Roth said.
Kezele, 69, said that he does not support teaching creationism in Arizona schools, but he argued that students should be taught scientific evidence and led to form their own conclusions.
As examples of the science that should be taught in classrooms to disprove evolution, Kezele offered unintelligible explanations about the human appendix and the strength of Earth's magnetic field.
Students should be able to judge for themselves whether the creation model or the evolutionary model "actually is consistent with the real scientific evidence that we have," Kezele said. "And then the students can do some thinking and see which one holds up. In general, that's what education should be, not just indoctrination."
Kezele argued that evolution – universally accepted by the mainstream scientific community as the explanation for life on Earth – is based on mere assumptions.
He advocates for a literal interpretation of the history presented in the Bible, and claimed that all land animals, including humans and dinosaurs, were created on the sixth day when God created the universe.
Adolescent dinosaurs were present on Noah's Ark because adult dinosaurs would have been too big, Kezele said. "Plenty of space on the Ark for dinosaurs – no problem," Kezele said.
Roth, who teaches at UA's College of Education, sat across the table from Kezele during the meeting. He said that although Kezele never identified himself as a creationist, his beliefs were obvious.
Kezele was polite and thoughtful, Roth explained, and although he raised alternative scientific explanations, Kezele didn't try to "foist any kind of creationism" on the committee, Roth said.
"I never got the impression that he was really arguing for the inclusion of creationism in the standard," Roth said. "I think he was pretty aware of the court rulings that religion is not going to be taught in science class."
However, Roth found it strange that the Education Department would convene a special committee to only review the evolution standards – the reviews of the other curriculum standards were completed earlier in the summer, Roth said.
By creating a special committee with just eight members that included one creationist, Roth suggested that the Education Department gave Kezele's views outsized influence.
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Douglas was elected in 2014 and lost her re-election bid in the Republican primary to Frank Riggs on August 28. Riggs will soon face educator and political newcomer Kathy Hoffman in November's general election.
But Douglas will serve until the end of the year. She believes that evolution and creationism should be taught side by side in classrooms. Douglas must now evaluate the science standards and submit them to the State Board of Education with a recommendation.
Regarding Kezele's work on the committee, Swiat said that he was highly respected by his peers.
"He was a valued member of the working group, and his contributions were much appreciated by the group," Swiat wrote.