I thank the Great Old Ones that I am not a lawyer

Because this letter from a lawyer complaining about the decision to have the anti-evolution sticker removed from textbooks makes my brain bleed. This was the sticker that said,

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.

That sticker was nothing but sneaky creationist propaganda—it strangely singles out evolution for critical thought, it implies an inappropriate meaning to the word “theory” (that it is the opposite of a fact), and it’s clearly an attempt to sow uncertainty and doubt in the minds of schoolchildren in an area where there shouldn’t be any. It was thrown out by a judge, but this creationist lawyer is now trying to say that decision was wrong.

The guy has 3 general arguments against the court decision.

The first issue of concern relates to the possibility that the trial court will assess
not the actual effect on actual people in Cobb County of the actual sequence of events
that led to adoption of the Sticker, but will instead assess the potential effect knowledge
of the sequence of events could have had on hypothetical individuals, had those
hypothetical individuals been exposed to information they could, perhaps, have learned
of but that, in reality, they never were exposed to.

If a policeman caught me in the act of picking your pocket, I could argue that any harm done was purely hypothetical; perhaps you would never have noticed your missing cash, except for the fact of the policeman alarming you. Therefore, the picking of pockets is perfectly legal unless you can actually demonstrate that the person picked was aware of my intent and was conscious of a material loss.

Do all lawyers think this way? It’s freaking me out, man.

There is a second profound problem in the Appellate decision. The Appellate
Court appears to accept that it is appropriate to analyze the “effect” of the Sticker by
itself, divorced from its essential context, namely, in the context of the adoption by the
School Board for the first time of a textbook teaching evolution, without removing the
evolution material. To ignore the School Board’s inclusion of pro-evolution material in
the curriculum as part of the “sequence of events” leading to the Sticker would be like
looking at the war between the U.S. and Japan War 1941-1945 but omitting the Japanese
attack on Pearl Harbor. Including the evolution material in the teaching curriculum sent
exactly the opposite message from the message condemned by the trial court: namely, it
sent the message that those who endorse evolution are now the political insiders, and
those who doubt evolution are now the political outsiders. The trial court must analyze
the entire sequence of events, including the inclusion of the evolution material for the
first time in the curriculum, to determine the “effect” of the Sticker. After all, the
inclusion of the pro-evolution material is the reason the dispute arose in the first place.
Plaintiffs are attempting implicitly to take this part of the sequence of events off the table,
as if the inclusion of the pro-evolution material were a constitutional requirement whose
effect should be ignored. So far, in the United States, it is not.

Well, that’s just lovely. We have a sticker inserted into a textbook with clear anti-science intent; he wants to turn the complaint around, and blame the original addition of scientific content to a science textbook. After all, what possible reason could a science textbook author have for including science, unless it was either a) religious motivation, or b) the Constitution tells him to do so?

So, when I’m caught picking your pocket, one of my lines of defense is to claim that just maybe your money was obtained by robbing a bank, and if it was, I’m not guilty.

A third fundamental problem with the Appellate decision is that it appears to
accept an implicit assumption that “those who endorse evolution” do so because they
have made a rational, independent evaluation of the scientific data offered as evidence for
its truth. But if, in fact, they endorse evolution because they have chosen to give
unquestioning deference to science experts, it may be appropriate to treat their position as
simply another religious position, rather than being a position divorced from religion.
This may affect the application of the constitutional test, if it appears that the plaintiffs
are in effect trying to support their own religious views by suppressing the Sticker. The
court should take evidence as to the reasons why, prior to filing the lawsuit, the particular
individual plaintiffs “endorsed” evolution, rather than simply presume that their reasons
for endorsing evolution were grounded in their science education. Surely plaintiffs who
did not experience formal academic instruction in evolution should be questioned as to
why they endorsed evolution prior to filing the lawsuit.

Archy has a good summary of why that particular argument is wacky—it appears to argue that anything anyone believes can be defined as a religion. This is going to be a useful defense at my trial: I’m going to show that the policeman’s unquestioning deference to the law means he was practicing a religion, and was therefore in violation of the separation of church and state, and that my belief that your wallet belonged to me was merely a tenet of my religion, and that the whole trial is therefore an attempt to suppress my right to express my profound faith in the oneness of everyone’s pockets. I’m also going to get the prosecuting attorney priest disbarred.

Until this silliness by Edward Sisson gets laughed out of a court somewhere, though, I recommend you stay away from ol’ Sticky Fingers Myers.


  1. PaulC says

    it strangely singles out evolution for critical thought

    I think this is the red flag. It doesn’t matter what the sticker says. Why is biology getting differential treatment? You could say that nearly any “material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered” but we’re not seeing it on history texts, which are filled with highly subjective analysis. We’re not seeing it on chemistry and physics textbooks.

    Suppose I landed here from Mars and am unaware of the creationist political agenda. On reading, I might conclude that all of the high school texts are flawed in various ways. Probably even the calculus text has some serious errors–maybe some careless assumptions about convergence in an explanation of Riemann sums, who knows. But I notice that just one set of textbooks has these government-mandated stickers on them. The statement on the sticker does not add very much to my understanding, but I could conclude that some group wants the stickers there and could ask what motivates them.

    Since I didn’t just land here from Mars, it isn’t very difficult to track down exactly who wants the stickers and why they want them. Fortunately, many of them are quite public about their motives. In short, it is a group that for religious reasons demands that evolution should be treated with greater skepticism than many other things taught as facts (e.g. some commonly held view on the effect of the Homestead Act on American expansion–an uncontrolled, unrepeatable experiment like everything else in history). Evolution is empirically established by over a century of data analysis using the scientific method. This is untrue of neither anything taught in school outside of science class. Even texts in “hard” sciences such as chemistry contain general principles that could conceivably be wrong, and in the case of chemistry actually are wrong in some exceptional cases. But nobody is demanding stickers on these books.

    There is no contesting the fact that the purpose of the stickers is religious. No one is demanding these stickers except for religious reasons. It requires public expenditure to put the stickers on the texts, and this amounts to government establishment of religion even if it is made to seem innocuous.

  2. Joe McFaul says

    This is Edward Sisson of the great one sided Kansas Hearing fame and former Phillip E. Johnson acolyte. A short stint at the Discovery Institute before getting a real job and then writing anti-evolution screeds for Tocuhstone Magazine with Johnson and Dembski.

  3. Fox1 says

    This ties in with something I’ve been extremely surprised to learn since joining the “real” adult working world: it’s apparently possible to get through law school (or Medical school) and still be really, really stupid.

    I’m talking both “unable to string a written english sentence together” stupid and “holding forth for 35 minutes and never making a lick of logical sense” stupid. I could have taken one or the other in stride without having my worldview rocked, but not both.

  4. PaulC says


    Archy has a good summary of why that particular argument is wacky–it appears to argue that anything anyone believes can be defined as a religion.

    It’s more the rule than the exception that we attach weight to statements by credentialed authorities. At some level, we accept judgments from doctors, plumbers, auto mechanics, and so forth. We don’t have the time to evaluation each independently. I don’t think anyone would call it a “religious belief” if you brought your car back to Jiffy Lube when the little sticker said to or even if you followed your owner’s manual and waited longer. Either way, you have probably relied on received wisdom (there is some reason to expect it’s backed by some empirical analysis). It’s only in the very rare instance that a working scientist uses a direct application of the scientific method to establish a result to his or her own satisfaction.

    This seems to be a clear case of a false dichotomy. There are beliefs that we hold for reasons of faith, and there are others we hold because we have done the analysis ourselves. There’s a wide middle ground in which we find most other beliefs. It’s just silly to paint them all with the broad brush of religion.

  5. says

    Of particular interest to me was this:

    “But if, in fact, they endorse evolution because they have chosen to give unquestioning deference to science experts, it may be appropriate to treat their position as simply another religious position, rather than being a position divorced from religion.”

    I’ll give the letter points for employing a less-than-subtle juxtaposition to connect religion with “unquestioning deference,” but using this criterion alone to parse the religious and non-religious (a) is too vague and (b) makes the behavior and attitudes of any purveyor of an idea all-important in defining what the idea is. Religion is not religion because its proponents adopt an “unquestioning deference” to its ideas. And even if everyone in Cobb County had an “unquestioning deference” for the ideas involved in evolution, this would not make evolution a religion.

    In short, the differences between science and religion have nothing to do with the differences in the behaviors or attitudes of their respective “followers.”

  6. Ed Darrell says

    Fox1 said:

    This ties in with something I’ve been extremely surprised to learn since joining the “real” adult working world: it’s apparently possible to get through law school (or Medical school) and still be really, really stupid.

    Right — which is why we have ethics canons for lawyers and physicians, and why we allow suits for malpractice against such professionals. Having survived law school or medical school and the licensing process is no guarantee of wisdom, or wit, or continuing sanity. Neither lawyers nor physicians are checked for sanity before licensing (though one hopes the truly insane are found out).

    But you saw what happened when such ineptitude met up with a willing guinea pig in the Dover, PA, school board. It would be gilding the lily, but it may well be that the lawyers who offered to defend the suit for free might be found liable for malpractice, were a board to sue. Generally, rationalists and scientists, and their adherents, are too polite to push the issue. Public humiliation is enough to slow a sane person.

    Which may explain why ID advocates soldier on . . .

  7. Unstable Isotope says

    You know, I never heard back from any lawmakers about my proposal for stickers to be placed in Bibles.

    “Creation is an article of faith. The are other, competing creation stories. Creation should be judged critically.”

  8. Patrick says

    For what its worth, I’m a law student (not a lawyer) and I read his letter slightly differently than PZ.

    I think the first quoted section is dealing with the issue of whether there’s entanglement with religion. One of the issues in a religious establishment case is whether there’s perceived government endorsement of religion. To decide whether there’s perceived government endorsement, I suppose you could evaluate whether actual people perceived endorsement, whether a hypothetical “man on the street” sort of person would perceive endorsement, or whether a hypothetical informed person would perceive endorsement.

    I think this guy is trying to argue that the court should use the first test, rather than the third. Its… not the strongest argument, and I don’t know if any cases support that view. It seems like that line of reasoning would create an odd situation where what wasn’t endorsement on tuesday could become endorsement on wednesday if the local newspaper wrote an article on the subject and the previously ignorant population suddenly became better informed. That’s… kinda dumb.

    As for the second paragraph, it looks like he’s completely flipping his point of view, and arguing that not only should we use a hypothetical informed person, we should use a hypothetical informed history professor who evaluates the sticker and the inclusion of evolution in terms of the broad historical context of religion slowly being removed from the classroom and replaced with science. I don’t really get why he thinks this argument helps his cause. Not to mention, I don’t see why the sticker sends the message that the supporters of evolution are *political* insiders. Politics didn’t get evolution into the science textbook, science did. Politics got the *sticker* into the textbook. The sticker clearly sends the message that evolution is the scientific insider, so to speak, and creationism the political one.

    And the last excerpt is just the usual, “its all religion so its all equal” crap. Interesting is his apparent presumption that we should treat even an objectively true scientific belief as if it were a religion if the people who support it do so for non scientific reasons.

  9. says

    PZ – I’m surprised that you would do the “tar and feather” all lawyers thing. We’ve got a lot of lawyers working on our side as well. And most other professions are not guilt free at all – consider the physicists who are racing to develop newer and better atomic weapons at Livermore and Los Alamos. And consider the chemists and biologists who eagerly help create unmentionable weapons.

    As a chemist, I’ve seen my share of premed students who should NEVER, EVER, become doctors, but I know that a number of them will achieve this goal. I have also encountered the same type of people who are licensed professionals, and wonder how they keep their positions.

    Think about it this way, though. Lawyers can only use words and language to injure you. Doctors have knives, radiation, and drugs….



  10. says

    Do all lawyers think this way? It’s freaking me out, man.

    Hey! I resemble that remark!

    No, we don’t all think like that. I, for one, can see the lunatic reasoning behind this:

    I note that there is a question of how could children who have not yet been taught evolution be characterized as “endorsing” it, since their endorsement would by definition be despite not yet having been taught any scientific reasons to endorse it.

    Without going into the whole thing (I just spent the evening responding to Casey Luskin’s latest and that is enough for any sane man — or one who aspires to it — for one night) but there are a few of his arguments that display a certain low cunning in ways that may not be obvious to the unitiated. Of course, lecturing Circuit Court judges in open public letters is not necessarily the best way to have that cunning pay off.

  11. says

    So if I take it on trust that driver of my bus is competent to drive my bus, that’s a religion? Spare me!

    Meanwhile, I saw another sticker for Bibles that I saw somewhere–I think it was the Legoland version (Brick Bible at http://www.thebricktestament.com/ ) of the Bible:

    I saw a warning elsewhere that was more complete:

    WARNING: This is a work of fiction. Do NOT take it literally.

    CONTENT ADVISORY: Contains verses descriptive of or advocating suicide, incest, bestiality, sadomasochism, sexual activity in a violent context, murder, morbid violence, use of drugs or alcohal, homosexuality, rape, voyeurism, mob violence, revenge, undermining of authority figures, lawlessness, invasion for conquest, human rights violations, and atrocities including wholesale murder of civilian populations.

    EXPOSURE WARNING: Exposure to contents for extended periods of time or during formative years in children may cause delusions, hallucinations, lowered cognitive abilities, decreased objective reasoning, and in extreme cases pathological disorders such as hatred, bigotry, and violence including, but not limited to, fanaticism, murder, torture, and genocide.

  12. Torbjörn Larsson says

    “Hey! I resemble that remark!”

    That would be a remarkable resemblance. ;-)

  13. bernarda says

    The NY Times article apparently is referring to a biology book by Ken Miller. To hear Miller’s response in video, go to his site.


    Miller explains that the sticker didn’t go far enough. He humorously applies it to other scientific theories. Miller goes on about his testimony at the Pennsylvania ID case.

    “What theories do is they explain facts; they unite them.”

    His sticker would say, “This textbook has material on science. Science is built around theories which are strongly supported by factual evidence. Everything in science should be approached with an open mind studied carefully and carefully considered.”

    Strangely, Miller claims to be a practicing Roman Catholic.

  14. gregorach says

    I find the false dichotomy between “those who endorse evolution” and the “science experts” they supposedly give unquestioning deference to intruiging… Who are these “science experts” and what separates them from “those who endorse evolution”? It seems that he’s trying to imply that “science experts” aren’t actually people as such but some mysterious other-worldly cabal, and that no real people actually have “made a rational, independent evaluation of the scientific data”. Does he think the theory of evolution was handed down by angels or demons or something?

  15. Caledonian says

    Does he think the theory of evolution was handed down by angels or demons or something? Very likely. I suspect a lot of people believe evolutionary theory was delivered to humans by demons, in the same way that many people believe that non-Christian religions were demonically inspired in an attempt to hide “The One True Faith” from their adherents.

  16. redstripe says

    Do all lawyers think this way?

    Nope. A lot of us possess the skill of critical thought, not just legal reasoning.

    Incidentally, my practice consists of a lot of reading, analyzing, and arguing (appellate work), and I found his letter wholly unpersuasive and, even worse, rather boring. To echo the comments of Mr. Pieret above, this letter will do nothing.

  17. says

    I found a snippet of poetry in a review of Kimberly Blaker’s “The Fundamentals of Extremism” on http://www.swans.com :

    A Humanist Manifesto

    In every age, the bigot’s rage requires another focus,
    Another devil forced on stage by hatred’s hocus pocus.
    The devil used to be a Jew and then it was the witches,
    And then it was the Negroes who were digging all the ditches.
    The devil once was colored pink and labeled Communistic,
    Now, all at once, in just a blink, the devil’s Humanistic.

    –Curt Systma (cited in Corliss Lamont, The Philosophy of Humanism and page 208 of The Fundamentals of Extremism.)

  18. David Harmon says

    “PZ – I’m surprised that you would do the “tar and feather” all lawyers thing. We’ve got a lot of lawyers working on our side as well. ”

    Actually, I think he was feeling sorry for the ones on our side. They actually have to discuss this stuff with a straight face!

  19. says

    But if, in fact, they endorse evolution because they have chosen to give unquestioning deference to science experts, it may be appropriate to treat their position as simply another religious position

    I don’t have the time to read everything that has been written on the subject of evolution, and I don’t have the training to understand a lot of what has been written, especially by scientists.

    I can, however, perform spot-checks. I can, and have, read both scientific and creationist papers. I can see whether the conclusions follow from the premises and the data presented. I can track down references and at least see whether the data goes back to an actual experiment, a quote-mine, or what. I can see whether the references are recent or not. I’ve tracked down my share of mined quotes.

    And, to no one’s surprise, I find that the lies, distortions, unquestioning dogma, and logical fallacies are overwhelmingly on one side of the “debate”, and the hard facts, experimental results, coherent explanations are overwhelmingly on the other.