Archive for Thursday, December 2, 2004

Textbook sticker shock

December 2, 2004


In 2002, the Board of Education in Cobb County, Ga., mandated that a sticker bearing the following message be placed in biology textbooks. "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 is science by disclaimer, as if evolution was akin to a stock offering, a weight loss pill or a sex enhancement potion. They all come with claims that what you are about to buy is the greatest thing since Adam was a cowboy and with disclaimers that they might not pan out or might have unwanted side effects.

I expected the Cobb County board to have a second sticker that hawked the scientific alternative to evolution. It didn't. There are no other scientific explanations for the history and diversity of life on Earth. Are there nonscientific explanations for life on earth? You bet: Raelianism, biblical creationism/intelligent design, the Tlingit Raven, the Greek Cosmic Egg, the Norse Ymir and more than a hundred others.

As the sticker would say, these explanations were approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered 200 years ago during the Enlightenment. They were found to be myth, not theory, not fact and not science. I wondered why the Cobb County board didn't put stickers in other science textbooks. Why stop with biology, as suggested by a biology professor at Swarthmore College. If we're to have science by disclaimer, let's give equal time to chemistry, physics, astronomy, geography and geology.

Here is what sticker science would look like for physics, astronomy and geography: This textbook maintains that the Earth is round and orbits the sun. The Round Earth and Orbiting Earth are theories, not facts and not accepted by many people who want students taught that the Earth is flat, immobile, and the center of the solar system. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

Is it fair to compare belief in seven-day creation/intelligent design to belief in a flat earth at the center of the solar system? You bet. Both beliefs are based on the same literal reading of scripture as science. If you think I'm kidding, check out "The Scriptural Basis for a Geocentric Cosmology" (at and the claims for the "mobility of the sun," the "stability of the earth" and the "edge of the earth." These folks maintain that the solar system is geocentric, with the earth -- yes, a flat earth -- at the center, rather than circling half-cocked around the sun.

Charles K. Johnson, president of The International Flat Earth Research Society, said "The facts are simple. Reasonable, intelligent people have always recognized that the earth is flat. People of common sense ... don't believe idiotic things such as the earth spinning around the sun." According to Johnson, Moses founded the Flat Earth Society in 1492 BC when he led the Israelites out of Egypt, which flips nicely to 1492 AD and another flat-earth trekker, Columbus.

Geology and chemistry could do with a sticker or two. This textbook contains material on the age of the earth (4.5 billion years), continental drift, the 3.5 billion-year-fossil record of animals and plants, and the radioactive elements used to date rocks, fossils and archeological artifacts. These are theories, not facts, and therefore should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered. Why? Because many people believe and want students taught that the earth is young, no older than 10,000 years, for which there is no more scientific basis than believing in creationism/intelligent design. For young earth calculations and creationism, check out the Institute for Creation Research (at

The upshot is that sticker science can't sticker over just evolution. Kansas, I think, is smarter than Cobb County, Ga. It has grand aspirations to become a leader in bioscience and biotechnology. Its Board of Education realized in 2000 the folly of masquerading myth as science in the curriculum. I trust Kansas will avoid science by disclaimer and the sticker shock it would bring to our deeply rooted sense of reason for the common good.

-- Leonard Krishtalka is director of Kansas University's Natural History Museum & Biodiversity Research Center.

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