Update on Georgia Evolution Disclaimer Trial

As some of you know, there is a trial going on in Georgia this week involving the Cobb County School District (CCSD) and their use of a disclaimer on all public school biology textbooks. The disclaimer 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.

It all sounds very rational. Who could be against studying any textbook with an open mind and careful consideration? The problem is that this is applied only to textbooks that deal with biological evolution and to no other subject. One could just as justifiably warn students to have an open mind and to think critically about any subject they are studying, but most of us would expect this to go without saying. If the students aren't already doing that, the schools have probably already failed at their job, since critical consideration is a key component of any education.

The motivation for this disclaimer and its exclusive application to textbooks that deal with evolution is simply that some people think that evolution conflicts with their religious views and they don't like that, so they seek to cast doubt on the science by calling it "just a theory". But of course that could be said of any number of other subjects as well. There are still geocentrists around who believe that the earth is the center of the universe (their numbers have actually been growing, particularly among hardcore Calvinists). There are still flat earthers as well, not to mention Raelians (who believe that life on earth was the product of alien intervention), Native American spiritualists, Hindus (who believe man has been on earth for hundreds of millions of years), and who knows how many other religions.

Anyway, there is a trial going on right now in Georgia over this disclaimer and the reports I'm getting from friends on the scene is that things are so far going pretty well for our side. Yesterday, Ken Miller, a cell biologist from Brown University, testified at the trial and apparently had the attorney for the Cobb County School District running in circles. According to my sources, the attorney made the mistake of asking open ended questions to which he did not know the answer, which would be a major mistake with a witness as eloquent and brilliant as Ken Miller.

The trial has gone badly enough to this point for the other side that the Discovery Institute, the pro-ID Creationism think tank in Seattle, has sent out a press release talking about the incompetence of the attorney on their side. It's always amusing seeing DI press releases, where they quote themselves, but this one is particularly amusing. They complain that the CCSD attorney is not calling any expert witnesses to rebut the plaintiff's expert witnesses, but in point of fact the judge has barred both sides from calling scientists to testify about the validity or invalidity of evolutionary theory (Ken Miller was allowed to testify only because he is the author of a high school biology textbook to which the disclaimer has been affixed).

This morning the school district only called one witness, the CCSD supervisor of science, who admitted on cross examination that evolution is true and that there is no good science to challenge it. That can't be good for the defense case. All in all, it sounds like things are going quite well. The folks of Cobb County may catch up with the Enlightenment after all.

Update to the Update: It seems the DI isn't done flogging the CCSD attorney yet. They've issued yet another press release hammering the poor guy and insinuating that he is dumping the case on purpose. Is it wrong to find that quite amusing?


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"...the Discovery Institute, the pro-ID Creationism think tank in Seattle." It's beauti...Oh sorry, I was thinking of the fish tank at the Seattle Aquarium.

According to my sources, the attorney made the mistake of asking open ended questions to which he did not know the answer, which would be a major mistake with a witness as eloquent and brilliant as Ken Miller.

First rule of cross: never ask the question unless you know the answer. Second rule of cross: never ask open-ended questions. Any second-year law student in a trial advocacy class (for that matter, most high school debaters) know better than to make these bush-league mistakes. It sounds like the school district's attorney is as incompetent at law as the creationists are at science. They deserve one another. What a bonehead.

Right Dan, but I'd phrase it another way. Never ask a question unless you know how the witness will respond. OR, if you can impeach him if he responds in a way that was different than he responded in a deposition. One wonders whether these DI lawyers didn't bother deposing Miller during pre-trial discovery.

The thing I find most objectionable about the textbook disclaimer is this sentance: "Evolution is a theory, not a fact, about the origin of living things."

Well, sorry, evolution IS a fact. Evolution has occurred, does occur, is occurring, and will occur. The factuality of evolution is all around us, like air and sunshine. Of course, there is a well established theory to explain evolution, just as there is for air and sunshine, but theories about air and sunshine cause the religious mind no distress.

A more factual textbook disclaimer would run as follows: "Warning: the facts contained in this textbook may be hazardous to your religious fantasies."

Anti-evolutionists want to be entitled to both their own opinions and their own facts. To me, the greatest irony about the current morality debate in this country is that so many religious people, who are so certain about so many things that are either unknown or unknowable, are so willfully ignorant of things that are known, like evolution, or the fact that the Bible is riddled with errors and gross fabrications. How can you presume to lecture anyone about morality when you have such a poor relationship with truth?

This is Christian relativism: "I accept facts, evidence, reason, logic, and science, when I find it comfortable to do so, but reject all of these things when I find it emotionally uncomfortable. Meanwhile, let ME tell you how YOU ought to live."

Stick it.

And for those who say I paint with too broad a brush because some Christians accept evolution and the errancy of the Bible, I repsond that those same Christians still have some work to do. They should use the intellectual tools that led them to accept evolution and the errancy of the Bible to examine the rest of the Christian story. Christianity is not a fact. It is not even a reasonable theory about a fact. It is simply untrue. And until people who are currently Christians get right with the truth they have no place in the morality debate -- the timbers sticking out of their eyes are simply too large for them to bother worrying about whether other people may have motes in their eyes. They really need to focus exclusively on their own vast moral and intellecutal failings.

By Perry Willis (not verified) on 10 Nov 2004 #permalink

I would love to see Bibles with the following disclaimer:

This textbook contains material on creationism. Creationism 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.

Indeed, I think this would settle all of my problems with the notice.

I really do think that's going too far. It's one thing to say "I don't think Christianity, even in its more liberal versions, is compelling and here are the reasons why". It's quite another thing to accuse all Christians of having "moral and intellectual failings". I would also note that not all Christians presume to tell others how to live, that seems to be the province of the more fundamentalist varieties, but even then there are many fundamentalists who are perfectly content to live their lives as they wish and allow you to do the same. While I think your words apply very well to the Falwells and Robertsons of the world, I don't think they apply very well to my many Christian friends who are brilliant, pro-science and quite opposed to any imposition of their religious views, or any others, on society as a whole.

Perhaps you're right Ed. Perhaps I'm just grouchy at the moment. Perhaps I've had one too many conversations with Christians, of all stripes, who just blank out, change the subject, or fillibuster, when I ask them to apply the same standards to their own beliefs that they apply to other religions and views. From what I've seen this applies to liberal Christians as much as it does to fundamentalists, though the emphasis is different. There's a limit to how much hyprocrisy I can take with a smile on my face.

There is also a large amount of co-dependency that occurs living in a world where a majority of the populace hold relativistic standards of truth. It's so much easier for friendships and family relationships to join in the pretense that religious thinking really does have a leg to stand on. We make excuses for our religious friends and family members to keep the peace. Should we?

Maybe I am just grouchy right now. Or maybe I'm beginning to overcome my co-dependency.

By Perry Willis (not verified) on 11 Nov 2004 #permalink