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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mississippi's "Textbook Disclaimer" Act

A new bill introduced in the Mississippi House of Representatives by Republican Representative Gary Chism would require the state board of education to include a disclaimer saying that evolution is a "theory" on the inside front cover of every public school textbook that discusses evolution. The proposed disclaimer reads:

The word "theory" has many meanings, including: systematically organized knowledge; abstract reasoning; a speculative idea or plan; or a systematic statement of principles. Scientific theories are based on both observations of the natural world and assumptions about the natural world. They are always subject to change in view of new and confirmed observations.
This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things. No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered a theory.
Evolution refers to the unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced living things. There are many topics with unanswered questions about the origin of life which are not mentioned in your textbook, including: the sudden appearance of the major groups of animals in the fossil record (known as the Cambrian Explosion); the lack of new major groups of other living things appearing in the fossil record; the lack of transitional forms of major groups of plants and animals in the fossil record; and the complete and complex set of instructions for building a living body possessed by all living things.
Study hard and keep an open mind.
Keep in mind that that evolution is not a point of controversy or debate in the scientific community, and according to the National Center for Science Education, Alabama is the only state that currently requires a disclaimer (adopted in 2005) on textbooks that include information about evolution. That disclaimer reads: "The theory of evolution by natural selection, a theory included in this document, states that natural selection provides the basis for the modern scientific explanation for the diversity of living things."
The disclaimer, which previously called evolution a "controversial theory" was watered down after a legal challenge was brought against a similar disclaimer used in the Cobb County School District in Georgia. A sticker placed on the inside front cover of science textbooks there stated: "Evolution is a theory, not a fact, concerning the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered." The sticker was found to be unconstitutional, a decision that was later vacated by a court of appeals, and the parties settled out of court, with Cobb County school officials agreeing to remove the stickers and to not seek the inclusion of similar disclaimers or undermine the teaching of evolution in the future. —Heather Wax