Evolving textbook stickers

Yet another school board is contemplating defacing science textbooks with warning stickers (Memphis Commercial Appeal, free reg. req.). Yet again, it's driven by religious interests rather than any desire to improve the quality of science teaching.

The same school board member who helped establish a Bible class in Shelby County Schools is pushing for a creation message on high school biology books.

County school board member Wyatt Bunker, who believes the Bible is the inerrant word of God, said he's concerned that students are being taught only scientific theories such as evolution and the Big Bang.

I'm sure it's very nice for Wyatt Bunker that he believes in God, but that is an issue that is completely irrelevant to what should be taught in a science class. It seems to me to be perfectly reasonable to expect that only scientific theories would be taught in a science class. But that's already been settled in the courts, and what's interesting about this case is the way it has evolved.

It is good to note, though, that the newspaper has clearly recognized the religious motivation behind this effort, and hasn't been shy about saying it up front.

Bunker wants to slap warning stickers on the biology textbooks, and he has borrowed heavily from the stickers that were proposed in Cobb County, Georgia. The use of those stickers was struck down by the courts, which ruled that "encouraging the teaching of evolution as a theory rather than as a fact is one of the latest strategies to dilute evolution instruction employed by anti-evolutionists with religious motivations." Bunker seems to think his changes to the sticker will rescue it. But do they? Look at the differences:

Cobb County, GAShelby County, TN

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.

This textbook contains material on scientific theories about creation. There are many scientific and religious theories about the nature and diversity of living things. All theories should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.

There are three changes to the three sentences of the disclaimer. They don't impress me.

  • Changing "evolution" to "scientific theories about creation." Bunker is actually trying to widen the net—he doesn't just object to evolution, he dislikes the Big Bang theory. Let's teach physics with a religious bent!
  • Mentioning "scientific and religious theories." This has the same problem the original sticker had: it muddles up the scientific definition of theory with the colloquial understanding. There are no religious theories. There are religious ideas, sure enough, but lets not confuse everything by treating them as equivalent to scientific theories.
  • Saying "all" theories, not just the theory of evolution, should be studied critically. This was empty noise in the original, and it's still empty noise. Of course we teach science critically and with an open mind.

The Shelby County board has sensibly deferred action on the proposal, and is reviewing it in light of the Cobb County decision. They are understandably reluctant to do something that will prompt expensive legal action and will probably go down in flames, anyway, and we can at least hope that they are also motivated by a desire to do what's best for their students, and this proposed sticker does not contribute to that. If anyone wants to encourage the Shelby County Schools board of education to continue to support good science teaching by rejecting Bunker's proposal, they have some contact information online, and a list of board members. Be nice, everyone, they're doing the right thing so far. But we will be keeping an eye on them.