Information on Cobb County (GA) Suit

The suit against Cobb County (GA) school district to remove anti-evolution disclaimers from biology textbooks is going well. I was able to attend part of the trial today and saw most of the testimony of CCSD’s lone witness, Dr. George Stickle, who oversees science education for the county. The Discovery Institute is apparently unhappy with the way things are going (Why Isn’t Cobb Co. School District’s Attorney Mounting More Vigorous Defense? and Can Cobb Co. Attorney Overcome Trial Mistakes in Time to Save School District?).

First some background. A little over two years ago, Cobb County, a suburb of Atlanta and the most affluent county in the state, began to issue newly adopted high school and middle school biology textbooks to students. Due to a petition drive by creationist parents, the school district affixed a disclaimer to the books that stated

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.

The superintendent did not want a disclaimer, but proposed an alternate wording in which students were encouraged to critically examine all ideas. The board overruled it and went with the above language, which they developed themselves. Six parents and the ACLU filed suit in federal court to remove the disclaimers as violating of the establishment clause of the US Constitution. (The main issue is quality science education, but there is little constitutional regress for that.)

In constitutional law, there is what is called the “three-pronged” Lemon Test. This standard holds that for a government action to satisfy the establishment clause it must

  1. have a secular purpose,
  2. have a primary effect that neither advances nor hinders religion,
  3. and not foster excessive entanglement of government with religion.

In pre-trial hearings, the judge ruled that religious motivations of parents could not implicate the school board as violating the first prong. The judge did find that there were substantial questions about the others and sent them on to trial. Thus only the latter two prongs are issues before the court in this week’s proceedings. This means that the plaintiffs are tasked with demonstrating that the disclaimers primarily advance religion and/or entangle public biology education with religion. Their strategy involves demonstrating that the disclaimers are wrong scientifically and hurt biology education in a way that appeases people with certain religious beliefs. CCSD’s strategy is to demonstrate that the disclaimers are scientifically acceptable and improve biology education.

Now Seth Cooper, the DI lawyer who prepared an amicus brief supporting the disclaimer, is upset at the way the lawyer for CCSD is handling the case. Cooper’s main complaint is that the defense never called any expert witnesses to cast doubt on evolution. Apparently Cooper is unaware that no expert witness testimony was presented at the trial. Last Friday the judge used a procedural technicality to disqualify all expert testimony. It is suspected that this was done to streamline the trial. Ken Miller, a well known biologist from Brown University, did not testify as an expert witness, but as coauthor of the most popular biology textbook used in Cobb schools. Carlos Moreno, a pathologist from Emory University, testified as a Cobb resident. Although scientists did testify for the plaintiffs, none did so as an expert.

Like I said earlier, I attended the trial today. The purpose of my drive to Atlanta was to assist in cross-examining a potential defense witness, Cobb resident Leon L. Combs, who was expected to testify against evolution and for alternatives. Combs is a chemistry professor at Kennesaw State University. He is a biblical literalist who thinks that “True Science” must agree with God’s “Absolute Truth” and that only Christians can make significant scientific progress. He also is planning on becoming a minister after he retires. However, from what I was told, Combs backed out of testifying this morning. Perhaps he learned that the plaintiffs were extremely well prepared to cross-examine him and got cold feet. (It’s not like you can’t predict what an anti-evolutionist will say and be ready for it.) It’s a shame, since I know y’all would enjoy reading the brutal cross examination that I helped prepare.

With Combs out, Stickle was left as the only witness for the defense. The lawyer for the school district tried to use Stickle to establish that evolutionary theory is questionable and should be questioned by the students. This was to support the strategy that the disclaimer helped education, thus satisfying the Lemon Test. Long story short, on cross the plaintiffs’ attorney got Stickle to admit that evolution was a fact and that new findings have not questioned evolution, only improved our understanding of it. Stickle even said that creationism can sound convincing, but looking into it reveals the distortions of real science. He cited two quote-mines by Strobel for this. I heard that one journalist remarked that Stickle, the defense’s only witness, was the plaintiffs’ best witness.

With nothing left but closing statements, the atmosphere does seem to favor the plaintiffs.

Sent by The Panda's Thumb on November 11, 2004 2:59 AM

The suit against Cobb County (GA) school district to remove anti-evolution disclaimers from biology textbooks is going well.  I was able to attend part of the trial today and saw most of the testimony of CCSD’s lone witness, Dr. George... [Read More]

Posted by Hiero5ant on November 11, 2004 9:51 AM

Wow. Any chance you remembered what the quote mines from Strobel were?

Funny how the creationists are willing to lie through their teeth when they’re preaching to the choir, but when you put them on the stand and make them swear on a Bible they start to get the fear of God in them…

Posted by no name on November 11, 2004 11:36 AM

The DI releases are preemptive. They are looking for a fall guy in the likelihood that this case turns sour. But what will the appeal be based on? ‘Sorry, Your Honor, our lawyer was simply incompetent. This should’ve open-shut for us.’

Posted by VoiceOfReason on November 11, 2004 3:51 PM

This is good to hear. Not too surprising though, since in every Federal court case I know of (?) Creationists got their hats handed to them. This is a good reminder to the nation that we DO have a Constitution that applies to ALL of us.

Posted by Sparrow on November 11, 2004 4:26 PM

I for one would like to see the information prepared for cross examination if there is a way it could be posted or shared. I wonder if it were prepared ala Strobel’s books if it could kick some creationist booty. That does assume of course that creationists can actually read.

Posted by Jeremy Mohn on November 11, 2004 5:09 PM

The question that comes to my mind is:

“When would a disclaimer like this one ever be appropriate for affixing to a scientific textbook?”

Of course, the answer is “never,” because of the inherent uncertainty of all scientific knowledge. In the first chapter of Miller’s textbook the authors make this very clear:

“A useful theory may become the dominant view among the majority of scientists, but no theory is considered absolute truth. As new evidence is uncovered, a theory may be revised or replaced by a more useful explanation.” (p. 15)

This disclaimer singles out evolution because some parents see it as a threat to their religious beliefs. This effort can only be seen as an attempt to advance a particular religious viewpoint. In my opinion, it might also negatively influence the religious beliefs of those who accept both evolution and God.

Posted by Jeff L. on November 11, 2004 5:13 PM

Stickle must have heard about the evolution of ape ejaculate. :>

Posted by Reed on November 11, 2004 5:14 PM

Sparrow wrote:

I for one would like to see the information prepared for cross examination if there is a way it could be posted or shared.

Sorry, I’m not going to share it.

Posted by Ed Darrell on November 11, 2004 5:54 PM

The people at ICR were ticked for years that they were not called to testify at the Arkansas trial in 1981. Experts were not disqualified there. It never occurs to creationists and creationism advocates that they might not be able to establish themselves as experts under the local evidence rules.

DI is apoplectically sending out press material – and your explanation of the affair makes sense and explains exactly where their lawyers have got it wrong in this case.

Creationist lawyers appear to suffer from the same delusions their lab-coated counterparts do – it never occurs to them that creationism law isn’t real law, and that if a creationist finds a way to teach the stuff in public schools that appears to be inside the law, the legal analysis is riddled with error.

Perhaps at the hearings on textbooks in some obscure state in the near future we can capture a few creationists and take blood samples. Is this a virus that gets them? Is it congenital? Is it an auto-immune disorder that eats away their higher-level thinking skills?

Science might hold out hope for creationism after all – or at least, hope for a cure for the disease.

Posted by Reed on November 11, 2004 6:24 PM

Hiero5ant wrote:

Wow. Any chance you remembered what the quote mines from Strobel were?

One for Raup and another from on chaos theory that I didn’t recognize. They appeared in a Sunday School lesson plan.

Funny how the creationists are willing to lie through their teeth when they’re preaching to the choir, but when you put them on the stand and make them swear on a Bible they start to get the fear of God in them …

Stickle is not a creationist. I believe he is a theistic evolutionist. His background is in physical science education. He was testifying for CCSD because they write his paychecks.

Posted by freelunch on November 11, 2004 11:51 PM

Thanks for the report. I hope Seth Cooper reads it, too. Maybe it will help him make less of a fool of himself.

Posted by Lee on November 12, 2004 9:49 AM

Hi Reed,
I’m virgin at blogging, so please be gentle. While Googling I found an article from law.com claiming “more than two dozen scientists have come to the defense of the Cobb County BoE.” The article says that 12 of the signatories are Ph.D.s at Uni of Georgia and 6 at Georgia Inst of Tech. But only 5 are names in the article, including your illusive Combs. The others are Russell Carlson, Henry Schaefer, Eugene Ashby, and James Tumlin. Do you happen to know if they all share pastoral expectations upon retirement? If not, can you explain why they are being so recalcitrant and so blind to science and reason? Thanks. ps I’m an American who’s lived in the UK for 15 years and I’m shocked and saddened at what’s happening to America. And in terms of the latest anti-evolution campaigns in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere most here are baffled at how such a technologically advanced country like the USA could harbor such irrational ideas. Nevertheless, I’m keeping a watchful eye out for the ID meme in case it makes its way to this side of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, is there any thing I and others like me in the UK can do to help you fight the latest creationist horde?

Posted by Reed on November 12, 2004 9:58 AM

Lee,

The scientists on the list have no background in evolutionary biology. In fact, not a single Georgia scientist on the list is a biologist. (The closest they come to is an apiculturalist and a dairy scientist.) The majority are chemistist of one stripe or another. Noticing this, the DI added five out of state names who had “bio” somewhere in their PhD. Still no one with a background in evolutionary biology or science education. I don’t know of everyone on the list, but the ones I do know are all committed, evalgelical Christians. Their issues with evolution are not scientific in origin but religious.

Posted by Ed Darrell on November 12, 2004 2:51 PM

One of the really striking things about the Discovery Institute press releases for this trial, and for the past six months, is how completely they are ignored by all but the most wacky press. DI is at it again today, and again today the release is being ignored by everyone.

Not quite the voice crying in the wilderness, but a case where everyone – and I mean everyone – tells the crier that it would be better for all concerned were he to get to a wilderness to do the crying …

Posted by Jon H on November 13, 2004 9:13 AM

“He (Stickle) was testifying for  CCSD because they write his paychecks.”

Not for much longer, if the creationists have their way, I’d bet. They’ve got a man date now, and all that.

Posted by Kiteman on November 14, 2004 4:35 PM

I’ve just come across this story, thanks to the science messagebaords at BBC.co.uk - I am appalled!

It’s this kind of case, where creationists try and invegle their mythology onto the curriculum in the guise of science that is making the American education system the laughing stock of the planet.

(BTW, I am a science teacher in the UK)

Posted by Mark Bailey on November 19, 2004 9:04 AM

Hi,

I would like to echo the comments of “freelunch” among others. I am not American, but of UK origin living in the UK, although I have friends who are American or who are British, living in America. I am another who finds this anti-science leaning from otherwise intelligent people extremely difficult to believe, still less understand.

Best wishes for the remainder of this trial.

Posted by Brad Kramer on November 19, 2004 11:41 AM

This is crazy. You guys claim that the creationists are closed-minded, and you refuse to consider that evolution might not be as scientifically sound as you would like. You dont even LOOK at the evidence with an open mind. You will never accept that evolutionists dont have a monopoly on origins truth. You’re trying to strangle evolutionary dissent Inquisition-style. Shame on you.
Furthermore, there is nothing religious about saying that evolution is not a proven fact. I dont see the word god, or anything even remotely close to it. How is it that anything except evolution is branded as religious? Teaching that evolution is a proven fact is intellectually dishonest, and you know it.

Posted by Reed on November 19, 2004 5:28 PM

Kramer wrote:

You dont even LOOK at the evidence with an open mind.

Really, now? I’ve been dealing with creationists for a long time and have yet to encounter any evidence that questions evolution. If you want to give it a try, start with what you think is the one piece of evidence that questions evolution.

Teaching that evolution is a proven fact is intellectually dishonest, and you know it.

So you are one of those rare people who believes that populations of organisms don’t change?