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Op-ed columns on the Cobb County disclaimer


A trio of op-ed columns greeted the January 13, 2005, ruling in Selman et al. v. Cobb County School District et al., in which U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper deemed that the evolution disclaimer required in the Cobb County School District violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Although the board decided (on January 17) to appeal the decision to the 11th U.S. District Court of Appeals, the discussions in these columns are still worthwhile and timely. And a humor column in Scientific American looks on the lighter side.

NCSE's Eugenie C. Scott, Glenn Branch, and Nicholas Matzke teamed up to write "Creation sticker shock" [Link broken] for United Press International. In their column (which appeared on January 18), they reviewed the use of disclaimers to undermine evolution education. In science, they observe, "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." The description of evolution as "a theory, not a fact," in the Cobb County disclaimer, however, exploits the colloquial sense of "theory" as something speculative or conjectural, and -- as Judge Cooper recognized -- thus "appears to be endorsing the well-known prevailing alternative theory, creationism or variations thereof." Neither disclaimers in particular nor attempts to dilute evolution education in general is going to disappear in the wake of the Selman decision, but neither is the need to teach students about evolution "uncompromised by disclaimers or phony evidence against evolution." Scott (whose first name was unfortunately misspelled in the byline) is the executive director of NCSE, where Branch and Matzke also work.

In "Remove stickers, open minds," published in the Boston Globe on January 22, Kenneth R. Miller applauds the Selman decision from a unique standpoint: he is the coauthor (with Joseph Levine) of the high school biology textbook used in the Cobb County School District. Miller comments, "So what's wrong with telling students that evolution is a theory? Nothing. But the textbook they were using already described evolution as a theory, and I ought to know." Challenging the misuse of "theory" in the disclaimer, he writes, "Theories in science don't become facts -- rather, theories explain facts," explaining, "Evolutionary theory is a comprehensive explanation of change supported by the facts of natural history, genetics, and molecular biology." Isolating evolution for special attention, as in the disclaimer, is unwarranted: as Miller ironically comments, "The sticker told students that there was just one subject in their textbooks that had to be approached with an open mind and critically considered. Apparently, we are certain of everything in biology except evolution. That is nonsense." Removing the disclaimer is what truly promotes critical thinking, Miller writes, by letting "students see a science of biology in which all theories, not just one, are the result of constant, vigorous, critical analysis." Miller, who teaches biology at Brown University, is a Supporter of NCSE.

Published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on January 21, Edward J. Larson's "Sticker shock" is accompanied by a wry disclaimer of its own: "This article contains material on evolution. It warns that the Cobb County school board's fight to keep its evolution stickers on textbooks is neither isolated nor over." Larson, whose book on the Scopes trial Summer for the Gods won the Pulitzer Prize, notes that the antievolutionist tactic of describing evolution as "just a theory" goes back to William Jennings Bryan and continues to flourish today within the conservative Christian community. For Henry Morris and Ken Ham, for Phillip Johnson and Charles Colson, evolution is "just a theory ... and not a very good one." But "Judge Cooper belled this particular cat. Of course evolution is a theory, but it's not just a hunch or guess. ... In science, evolution is the dominant theory of origins accepted by virtually all biologists." Larson also notes that it is only a subgroup of American Christians who object to evolution: "In Atlanta and across America, many deeply religious people are profoundly troubled by the assault on evolution teaching by a subgroup of conservative Christians." The column concludes by warning, plausibly, of continued controversy across the country. Larson teaches history and law at the University of Georgia.

Finally, on the lighter side, Steve Mirsky's Antigravity humor column in the February 2005 issue of Scientific American rejoices in the now familiar title "Sticker shock." Evidently writing before the order in Selman was issued, Mirsky begins by noting that "[b]rushfires are raging all across America over the teaching of evolution, as various antievolution interests attempt to give religiously based views equal footing in science classes," fomented by creation scientists and their "co-conspirators, the 'intelligent design' crowd." The latter, Mirsky quips, "don't mention you-know-who by name as the designer, but you know who you-know-who is, and it isn't Brahma." Turning to the Cobb County disclaimer, he proposes a revised version that reads in part, "Evidence for evolution itself is so overwhelming that those who deny its reality can do so only through nonscientific arguments. They have every right to hold such views. They just can't teach them as science in this science class," and then goes on to propose similar stickers for cosmology, geography, earth science, chemistry, and other science textbooks. Mirsky is a regular columnist for Scientific American.