Outside View: Creation sticker shock

By EUGENIA SCOTT, GLENN BRANCH and NICHOLAS MATZKE, Outside View Commentators  |  Jan. 18, 2005 at 1:54 AM
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OAKLAND, Calif., Jan. 18 (UPI) -- When biology students in Cobb County, Ga., open their textbooks, they find a small white sticker that says: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."

Next year, students looking at the same textbooks will find a blank space where the sticker was. On Jan. 13, U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Cooper in Atlanta ruled the disclaimer was unconstitutional and ordered it removed.

In 2002, Cobb County teachers selected a biology textbook that contained comprehensive coverage of evolution in order to comply with new state science education standards. To no one's surprise, parents protested. Cobb County has, for decades, had recurring tussles over the teaching of evolution, spearheaded by conservative Christians who make no bones about their religious motivation. The board of education tried to placate them by pasting the disclaimer -- rather like a cigarette warning label -- in textbooks.

Jeffery Selman, a Cobb County parent, sued the district because he felt that the disclaimer promoted creationism. He is right.

The Cobb County "theory not fact" disclaimer comes from a long line of creationist-inspired disclaimers and policies. A 1974 Texas textbook disclaimer proclaimed that "material on evolution included in the book is clearly presented as theory rather than verified." In 1996, the Tennessee Legislature barely defeated a bill stating, "any teacher or administrator teaching (the theory of evolution) as fact commits insubordination ... and shall be dismissed or suspended."

The most infamous and widely copied disclaimer is Alabama's 1995 "theory not fact" sticker which included bullet points of creationist junk science. Texas textbooks carried disclaimers for 10 years, until the attorney general declared such stickers were unconstitutional because school boards pass such disclaimers and policies to appease religious conservatives and to promote creationism, rather than to serve an educational purpose.

Cobb County could have saved itself a lot of trouble and expense if it had listened to what the Texas attorney wrote in 1984. Government-sponsored anti-evolution disclaimers are unconstitutional and bad science. They encourage a belief in special creation and mislead students about the nature of science and the solid position of evolution among scientific theories. One hears often in the debate that "evolution is only a theory" -- meaning that evolution is an unsubstantiated guess -- but the National Academy of Sciences defines theory as an "explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses."

Think about it: theories incorporate facts, laws and hypotheses. They are the central unifying backbones of disciplines. Just as relativity and quantum mechanics are the backbone of physics, and plate tectonics is the backbone of geology, evolution is the backbone of biology. We're glad evolution is a theory: it makes it much more important than a fact. But of course, "theory not fact" disclaimers assume very different definitions of these terms than those used by scientists.

Equating evolution with atheism, creationists believe that students taught evolution may abandon their faith, or at least find it weakened. Speaking of the creationism/evolution controversy, intelligent-design proponent Phillip Johnson said, "The subject is not just the theory of evolution, the subject is the reality of God."

Guided by law review articles tracing the history of creationism as well as testimony from scientists, Cooper wrote, "By denigrating evolution, the School Board appears to be endorsing the well-known prevailing alternative theory, creationism or variations thereof." Public school classrooms should be neutral on the subject of religion; the teaching of creationism in science class unconstitutionally promotes religion, violating this neutrality. Cooper made a good call.

What will happen next? It's easy to predict that school boards will abandon "theory not fact" wording, but not disclaimers, which are popular with school boards: they give the appearance that elected officials are "doing something about evolution," thus assuaging concerns of an important political constituency, and they don't cost much. Anticipate new disclaimers and other anti-evolution policies that don't use "theory not fact" language but which nonetheless will promote teaching that evolution is bad science.

Policies promoting teaching the evidence against evolution, or the strengths and weaknesses of evolution, or as in the Dover, Pa., school district policy next to be challenged in U.S. District Court, teaching the "gaps/problems in evolution" are already in evidence. Except that scientists don't know of any evidence against the inference that living things have common ancestry.

Evolution happened. There are unsolved problems in evolution, to be sure, but they are hardly weaknesses; every scientific theory has unsolved problems, and they keep scientists happily busy. Scientists argue about the details of evolution, not about whether living things had common ancestors. To be scientifically literate, students should learn evolution.

As President Bush's science adviser John H. Marburger III wrote last March, "Evolution is a cornerstone of modern biology"; students deserve to learn it uncompromised by disclaimers or phony evidence against evolution. We hope that in the next creationism trial, in Pennsylvania, another judge will see that evidence against evolution" policies, like "theory not fact" policies are also a manifestation of creationism.


(Eugenia Scott, Glenn Branch, and Nicholas Matzke are employed at the National Center for Science Education, Inc., which defends the teaching of evolution in public schools.)


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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