Just a Theory Disclaimers

Another EAE approach is to denigrate evolution by requiring that it be distinguished from all other scientific explanations as a theory, by which they mean a guess or a hunch. Often such efforts are coupled with requirements that disclaimers ("evolution is just a theory") be included in textbooks or be read to students. As discussed in chapter 1, scientific theories are far from guesses: there are many explanations in science, and the best ones are elevated to theories. When school boards or state legislatures attempt to single out evolution as just a theory, it is clear that they are not using this term in its scientific sense. But such disclaimers and policies have the net effect of drawing attention to evolution as a particularly controversial subject, which makes it less likely that evolution will be taught.

Efforts to require disclaimers for evolution began in Texas, when in 1974 the state board of education required that all biology textbooks bought in the state treat evolution as a theory and not factually verifiable. "Furthermore, each textbook must carry a statement on an introductory page that any material on evolution included in the book is clearly presented as theory rather than verified" (Mattox, Green, Richards, and Gilpin 1984: 1). Although in 1984 the Texas attorney general opined that the Texas disclaimer was illegal (see chapter 10), other states and communities have regularly proposed and passed such evolution-only disclaimers.

The vast majority of theory, not fact, policies and disclaimers do not pass, but the publicity given to them contributes to the general perception that evolution is somehow less valid than other scientific subjects. A disclaimer that was passed by the board of education in Tangipahoa, Louisiana, in 1994 singled out evolution for special treatment. Teachers were directed to read the disclaimer to students before discussing evolution or assigning readings. The disclaimer read in part:

It is hereby recognized by the Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education, that the lesson to be presented, regarding the origin of life and matter, is known as the Scientific Theory of Evolution and should be presented to inform students of the scientific concept and not intended to influence or dissuade the Biblical version of Creation or any other concept.

It is further recognized by the Board of Education that it is the basic right and privilege of each student to form his/her own opinion or maintain beliefs taught by parents on this very important matter of the origin of life and matter. Students are urged to exercise critical thinking and gather all information possible and closely examine each alternative toward forming an opinion.

The Tangipahoa disclaimer was challenged in federal district court, which ruled in Freiler v. Tangipahoa (1997) that the purpose of the regulation was to promote religion and that the preceding paragraph's attempt to present the disclaimer as having the purpose of promoting critical thinking was a sham. This determination was made on the basis of the facts of the case, in which it was apparent from minutes and other reports of the board of education that the policy was intended to promote specific sectarian (biblical Christian) views. In 1999, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision, which noted that it was possible that some form of disclaimer could be constitutional—although the Tangipahoa disclaimer, with its specific mention of the Bible, was not.

In June 2000, the Supreme Court let the appeals court decision stand by refusing to hear the case. But as you will read in the next chapter, the Freiler case did not stop the effort to disclaim evolution.

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