Friday, December 16, 2005

Critical Thinking May Be Constitutional After All

There are several news stories on the oral arguments in the Selman v. Cobb County textbook sticker case. The impression you get from reading all the reports is that it was not a great day for the Darwinian fundamentalists.

The Washington Post AP article is here:
A federal appeals panel Thursday questioned the accuracy of a judge's ruling that a disclaimer in school textbooks describing evolution as "a theory, not a fact" represents an endorsement of religion.

"I don't think you all can contest any of the sentences" on the disclaimer sticker, Judge Ed Carnes of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals told an attorney arguing for parents who sued.

"It is a theory, not a fact; the book supports that," Carnes said.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's article is here:

Federal appeals court judges gave a hostile reception Thursday to a lower court decision that ordered Cobb County to scrape off evolution disclaimer stickers from almost 35,000 science textbooks.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is not expected to rule until next year, but the three judges' skeptical questioning indicated they may be poised to side with the Cobb school board in the now-famous sticker case. Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper found that the stickers, which say evolution is a "theory, not a fact," improperly endorsed religion.

This article notes that even the Clinton appointee (a woman named Frank) on the three judge panel may vote to approve the stickers:

And Judge Frank Hull wondered how Cooper could have found that the sticker's language misleads biology students when there was no evidence to support that view. "The order's problematic," said Hull, who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton.

The LA Times article is here:

A federal appeals court panel appeared sharply critical Thursday of a ruling this year that ordered the removal of stickers in science textbooks stating, "Evolution is a theory, not a fact."

Judge Ed Carnes of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals said that the lower court judge had misstated facts in his ruling, overstating the influence religious protests had on the school board's actions. He also said the words on the sticker are "technically accurate," and that the Cobb County school board was justified in singling out the theory of evolution for comment.

"From nonlife to life is the greatest gap in scientific theory," Carnes said. "There is less evidence supporting it than there is for other theories. It sounds to me like evolution is more vulnerable and deserves more critical thinking" than other subjects.

This article includes a quote from John West:
"They found pretty serious sloppiness on the part of the judge and on the part of the ACLU," West said of the appellate panel. "Finally, we have a group of federal judges who are being properly skeptical of what we regard as overreaching claims."

An AJC article with background on the judges is here, and commentary from the Evolution News blog is here.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Is Critical Thinking Unconstitutional?

We have already seen that the Washington Post apparently thinks that the fossils of the Cambrian era are unconstitutional. Now the Selman v. Cobb County textbook sticker case will be argued on appeal this Thursday, and this article from the Post discussing it appeared on Sunday.

As you sift through the media bluster, remember the key facts. The text on the sticker simply says:
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 passage from the article gives the remarkable rationale of the trial court judge:
An "informed, reasonable observer would interpret the Sticker to convey a message of endorsement of religion," he wrote. The sticker "sends a message to those who believe in evolution that they are political outsiders."

How do you go from encouraging kids to keep an open mind, study evolution carefully and critically consider its claims, to "endorsement of religion"? Anyone see any big logical leaps there?

If you want to try to follow the leaps of logic, you can find the full opinion here. The discussion of the effects of the sticker begins on page 30.

There is a funny quote in the article from Jeffrey Selman, the named plaintiff, about Marjorie Rogers, who supports the stickers. Even though Rogers supports stickers that encourage kids to study evolution and think critically, he has this criticism of her:
"Marjorie believes and follows blindly," Selman says over a meal at his favorite Chinese vegetarian restaurant. "I question. It's part of my culture. . ."

Well, I guess there is one thing that Selman thinks should not be questioned. Does he not see the irony in attacks like this?

I am not a big fan of the "sticker solution." The best solution is to teach good science, which would include some of the problems with macroevolutionary theory. But are the stickers unconstitutional? Hardly.

More background on the case can be found here. A blog post with other links can be found here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Mirecki Attack: What Happened?

Given the contents of Prof. Mirecki's press release, it now seems likely that he is not going to provide any more details on the alleged attack to the general public and is not going to answer reporters' questions. Given the seriousness of the event he describes and his allegations, and the amount of speculation in the blogosphere, this seems irresponsible to me. In order to evaluate the events reasonably, we would need to know more details. Even if Mirecki's account is 100% accurate, more details are essential to evaluating the events fairly.

My main question when I first heard about the story was why he got out of his car. That is not what I would do if I had just been tailgated by a pickup truck containing two strange men in predawn darkness. I cannot imagine a reasonable person doing so. But what if only one person got out of the truck initially? What if words were exchanged, and Mirecki said some of the insulting and offensive things he said in his emails? What if Mirecki threw the first punch? What if the second man in the truck only came out to help his friend after Mirecki started a fight?

The harsh rhetoric condemning the "Christian" thugs who did this are inappropriate at this juncture, as are the assertions that Mirecki made the whole thing up. I think we all need to reserve judgment until more details are known. I hope more details will be forthcoming.

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If you are interested in more detail on Mirecki's background, there is a biographical article here. Some might be surprised to learn that he attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which I understand is a mainstream evangelical school, before going to Harvard.

A more recent article can be found here, his full press release is here, and the recent Kansas University statement can be found here.