Sunday, March 13, 2005

That Pesky Reporting

About two months ago, a federal judge in Georgia ruled that a sticker placed on science textbooks in a suburban county violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by unduly singling-out and dismissing evolution as a “mere theory.” The decision generated a lot of news coverage, as have a number of similar battles in recent months.

After doing some research, I noticed a glaring factual error in the way this story has been reported, and attempted to make a post on subject. However, I was convinced that this error indicated Something Profound and I spent over a week wracking my brain, trying to discover what this Something was. By the time I realized that there really wasn’t much to it beyond the identification of an error, everyone else had forgotten the story. I let it go.

But just this week, Lee at Right-Thinking made post on the subject:

There is, as we all know, a large creationist movement in the Southern states, specifically Georgia and Florida, who are working to get stickers placed on science textbooks stating that evolution is a theory and should be approached with a critical mind.

Lee has done an excellent job over the last few months of demonstrating that Intelligent Design and Creation Science are dogmatic while true Science—despite its limitations—is about a genuine search for the truth and has self-correcting mechanisms built into it. That doesn’t mean it’s always right; if it were there wouldn’t be any need for self-correction. Instead, Science is designed to react to new evidence and, if necessary, disregard old theories and assumptions.

Same goes for good bloggers, which brings me back to this business about stickers in Georgia, and the factual error that I had not been able to do anything with before. Lee has, unfortunately, fallen for the widely promulgated meme of this story: that the stickers represented an attempt by the School Board to denigrate Evolutionary Theory. Not so.

As reported by most of the Press—but not, to give credit, the New York Times—the basic gist of the sticker story was that the Cobb County School Board ordered stickers placed on all science textbooks in the district in response to pressure from their constituents. The stickers read “This textbook contains materials 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.” Five parents in the school district, however, objected to these stickers on the grounds that it unduly singled-out and denigrated evolution. In the lawsuit they filed, they argued that the county’s actions violated the establishment clause of the US Constitution. In January, Judge Clarence Cooper ruled against the School Board and in favor of the objecting parents. Enlightenment: 1; Forces of Darkness: 0.

Except, that’s not how Judge Cooper saw things. As described in his oft-quoted-but-seldom-read decision the School Board decided, in 2002, to reevaluate its science curriculum. At the time, their policy stated that no student could be required to take courses covering evolutionary theory, and that human origins could only be discussed in elective courses. After some discussion, they decided to get rid of this policy and replace it with one that taught more evolutionary theory in High School.

Some parents objected to this, saying that the new curriculum would not give adequate attention to "Alternative Theories” of the origin of life. "Alternative Theories" meaning everything from Intelligent Design to a literal interpretation of Genesis. One lady in particular, Marjorie Rogers, was so miffed at the prospect of her children being taught Godless Darwin without anything to counteract it, she organized a petition-signing operation and managed to accumulate over 2,000 signatures to urge the school board to reconsider. Badly wanting to avoid further controversy, someone at the School Board came up with the idea of the sticker, which they hoped would deflate the situation.

Unfortunately for the School Board, some parents thought the stickers went too far in dismissing evolution—and only evolution—as a “mere theory” and filed the law suit. The judge’s decision, in essence, stated the School Board threw too big of a bone to the opposition in their efforts to teach more evolution.

Now, I have my own feelings on the merits of the decision, but here’s a point implicit in the judge’s story, but wholly absent from the news coverage: we’re winning. The real story here is not that the judge ruled in favor of the parents who objected to the sticker, but that a school board in Georgia changed its curriculum to conform more closely to empirical science. That’s good news, and it’s a shame it’s been lost in all this.