NCSE and the Case of the Missing Pepper

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A class action lawsuit over an ounce of pepper? Sounds crazy doesn’t it?

But if it’s wrong to steal a million dollars from one person, isn’t it also wrong to steal one dollar from a million people? Of course it is. But as NYU professor Arthur Miller told NPR reporter Jacob Goldstein last week, “No lawyer is going to represent one person who lost a tiny amount of money. It just wouldn’t make economic sense.” And that’s the point of a class action lawsuit—to address small injustices that affect a lot of people.

So here’s the story, in brief. (You can listen to the whole Planet Money report, which aired on NPR’s Morning Edition on April 21, here.)

It seems that the McCormick spice company, which has a 43% share of the U.S. black pepper market (or 73% if you count the pepper that McCormick sells to grocery chains as house brands), recently reduced the weight of the pepper contained in each of its three main packages by 25%. So the standard four ounce tin now contains 3 ounces, the eight ounce tin 6 ounces, and the two ounce tin 1.5 ounces. The new quantity is listed right on the tins, which otherwise look exactly like the old tins. Strictly speaking, there’s no false advertising, because the quantity is accurate. That’s McCormick’s position, anyway. The lawyers filing the class action suit, however, say that using the identical tin is deceptive. And besides, non-functional slack fill­—i.e., “putting a little bit of product in a big package for no reason”—is illegal.

You may be wondering—what does this have to do with evolution and climate change education?

Well, I was thinking about that initial proposition—that even though it’s clearly wrong to steal a little bit from a lot of people, it’s hard for those slightly harmed to get justice. And I realized that here at the National Center for Science Education, we face the same kind of challenge. Whenever a student is taught creationism instead of evolution, or that human activities aren’t affecting the climate, that student is harmed a little bit. And when that small harm is multiplied over thousands of classrooms and millions of students, the cumulative harm to our society’s capacity to understand how science works and how it can be used to help solve important problems is tremendous. You could say that this kind of educational malpractice is a sort of non-functional slack fill: replacing some of the limited time students have to learn about science with useless non-science.

Sometimes we can respond to these injustices with something like a class action suit; the decision in the Dover v Kitzmiller case that promoting intelligent design in public school biology classes is unconstitutional is one example. But generally, we have to go about our business addressing these small injustices one classroom, one school, and one community at a time. We help teachers get the support and training they need to teach these societally contentious topics clearly and confidently. We organize communities to support their local science teachers and advocate for integrity in science education. We recruit scientists to partner with teachers in local classrooms, and we monitor textbooks and oppose anti-science legislation.

NCSE and its members believe that we have to fight for educational justice for all students. If you agree, become a member and help us keep non-functional slack fill out of our nation’s science classrooms.

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