A Disclaimer For Science

The latest fight over science in America's classrooms is taking place in Cobb County, Ga. Teachers in this Religious Right stronghold used to simply tear out pages in biology textbooks that referred to natural selection, but now they are employing an approach that might be called more evolved.

By order of the school board, the inside cover of each biology textbook is emblazoned with a sticker that says, among other things, "Evolution is a theory, not a fact."

School board officials embraced this solution to respond to some parents' discomfort at their children's exposure to evolution. Sticker opponents say the board is bowing to fundamentalists. Now the matter is in federal court.

Cell biologist Kenneth Miller is shocked that opponents of evolution continue criticize it as a theory. He and other evolution proponents assert that colloquial definitions of the word "theory" are used to denigrate the place of evolution in the pantheon of scientific knowledge. In science, an idea can be a theory and a fact at the same time, they point out.

"There is nothing special about evolution," said Miller, the co-author of the textbook and a biology professor at Brown University. "Evolution is as well grounded as our understanding of cell biology or human physiology."

Much like the famous 1925 Scopes "monkey trial," the case in Cobb County centers around a debate between the advocates of religious teaching and the defenders of science.

Marjorie Rogers, who organized a petition drive among local parents, admitted on the witness stand that she is a creationist who advocates "intelligent design." Like other ID advocates, she claims her ideas are supported by some scientists and that evolution is therefore suspect on a scientific basis.

Evolution defenders say that's not the whole story. The decision to use the disclaimer, they argue, was based on religious objections to evolution. Thus, they say, the board has breached the separation of church and state.

Maggie Garrett, a staff attorney for the Georgia American Civil Liberties Union and a former AU Madison Fellow, is helping litigate the case. She reminded the court, "There are no other disclaimers for any other subjects taught in school." Science classrooms, she argued, should be no different.