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What's Wrong with "Evolution Warning" Stickers?

A group of parents and the American Civil Liberties Union then filed a lawsuit over the stickers. "It's like saying everything that follows this sticker isn't true," said Jeffrey Selman, a parent who filed the lawsuit.

The sticker reads, "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."

from Trial Begins Over Ga. Evolution Disclaimer


Oftentimes, I'm fond the ACLU and what it does. But, being what it is, the ACLU is prone to the occasional bout of silliness.

So what's wrong with this pro-critical thinking sticker? Okay, so we all know the purpose behind it: some Bible Belt folk for whatever reason think (wrongly, no doubt) that that the theory of evolution poses some kind of threat to Christian beliefs. So of course they don't want their children being indoctrinated with such views. They'd rather their children grow up thinking God waved a magic wand 6,000 years ago and made the world pretty much the way it is now (if we're being less than generous), or they simply want their children to approach the material with an open mind and decide for themselves (slightly more generous version).

But, as a lawyer for the school district said of the sticker: "It doesn't say anything about faith. It doesn't say anything about religion," which is of course true. So U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper wants to know why the sticker is necessary, since evolution is already presented as a theory in the book. And that's a fair enough question.

Teacher Wes McCoy thinks the sticker "diminishes the status of evolution among all other theories". And this, I think, illustrates the really important issue here: many people, students in this school and their parents included, don't exactly understand what it is for something to be a theory.

I went to a not-so-great public school, and I know the kind of science education you get at many schools like these. You might memorize the steps to the idiots-version of the scientific method enough to copy it down on the test, or to select the right multiple choice answer about what a theory is. And you might understand that all the other fun science stuff you're learning is, almost without exception, no more than theory. But you never do any serious thinking about what this means - you just want to learn what you need for the test.

The teachers are often mostly concerned about preparing you for these tests, so their interest in teaching often only reaches the point where they prepare students to put down the correct answers. Fuller understanding of what the science is about? Critical evaluation of theories? Not in my high school.

Because of this lack of emphasis on any real understanding of the material in text books, it often is the case that scientific theories are simply presented as fact. It's easier that way - the teacher gets to feed students the content of the theory without explaining how someone came up with it, and how their hypothesis might be false even if it seems to explain the relevant data.

That is bad news indeed. Not just because the theories may eventually be replaced by newer, apparently better ones (if the history of science is any guide), but because this leaves out the really scientific part of science education. The method and reasoning involved are far more important than particular theories - most anyone can memorize those. But shouldn't we be teaching students how to do science?

If the sticker makes some people over in Georgia feel better, I say let them have it. It isn't hurting anything. If it does indeed cause some students to realize that evolution is "just a theory" (even if it is probably a true theory), then all the better for them. If it motivates their teachers to give a bit more explanation about what exactly scientific theory is and this helps them to understand that most of science is "just theories", then all the better. If it leads them to the mistaken belief that only evolution is "just a theory" but we can take the other theories as facts, then the problem is more their poor scientific education than the sticker.

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