By ZAC LOSEY
It’s no secret that recent studies all show that American students lag far behind other nations in science and math rankings. Scholars, educators and politicians have all brainstormed and offered solutions, none of which have made an immediate impact. While there is no single reason for our poor performance and there is certainly no simple solution, I believe that widespread religious opposition to science is a major factor. While not all religious people or organizations are hostile towards scientific ideas, a very large number of Christian fundamentalists have created a strong political influence that has undermined scientific literacy in this country.
Evidence of this can be found in several recent studies. A Gallup poll conducted last June showed that 46 percent of Americans believe in a literal interpretation of the Genesis account of creation—in other words, the universe including man and animals was created <10,000 years ago as they are now. No evolution, no old earth, no Big Bang. That means that roughly HALF of Americans have chosen to reject some of the most evidenced theories in science. And when I say theory I do not intend its lay meaning, but a scientific one in which a theory is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences and tested hypotheses” (from the National Academy of Sciences). This term is used to describe a plethora of ideas, including the Big Bang Theory, theory of evolution by natural selection, general and special relativity—all of which tend to spark some debate outside of scientific circles. It is also used to describe some less controversial ideas, such as cell theory, germ theory and theory of gravity. Scientists have amassed so much evidence for these ideas there is no debate about them (at least not inside of academic circles where people are actually familiar with evidence).
Unfortunately the fundamentalism that seems to be rampaging through our political system tends to either completely misunderstand these theories or disregard the massive amounts of evidence behind them. Many states have pushed for laws that allow non-scientific concepts to be discussed in classrooms. In 2008 Louisiana passed a horrendously misnamed Louisiana Science Education Act that allowed for creationism to be taught in public schools by veiling it as a supplemental “evidence-based critique.” While breaking the backbone of modern biology and allowing teachers to tout evolution as “just a theory,” it also promoted denial of climate change.
Tennessee followed suit when it modeled its own creationism law after Louisiana’s. Dozens of bills have been introduced across the country, including ones that were (thankfully) struck down in Arizona, Colorado, Montana and Oklahoma. Despite the fact that bills seeking to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act had the support of thousands of citizens, numerous major science and religious organizations AND 78 Nobel laureates, they have all failed. Politicians across the country are systematically tearing at the foundation of scientific literacy by creating controversy where it isn’t. Over and over these politicians will claim that we should “teach the controversy.” The problem? There is no controversy. The evidence for evolution by natural selection and the age of the earth is so strong that no one is arguing about whether or not species have evolved or whether the earth is much, much older than 10,000 years old. The only thing that scientists argue about is HOW these things happen—about the exact processes, mechanisms, stages and events that have taken place.
Scientifically ignorant politicians plague our government. Paul Broun, who is a member of the United States House Science Committee has called evolution and the Big Bang Theory “lies straight from the pit of hell.” A host of Texas politicians, led by Representative Sheila Lee, held a congressional briefing advocating for intelligent design. Congress is also cutting science funding despite the fact that scientific research is absolutely essential in creating new benefits for humanity and that it returns an investment “ranging from 30 to over 100 percent.”
Science has brought humanity many of its greatest gifts. Cures, vaccines and treatments for innumerable diseases have been found through the scientific method. I’m yet to find someone who objects to science when it brings them technologies like electricity, medicine and cell phones. Even though these things have all been discovered through the same rigorous process as theories like evolution they are not targeted because they don’t contradict the narrow-minded literal Biblical interpretation of fundamentalists.
Unless we turn around this abysmal situation we can no longer expect America to be at the front lines of scientific and technological endeavors. Other countries are readily embracing fundamental scientific ideas and have left us in the dust because of it. We must fight against the current atmosphere of opposition to science that is so prevalent. It is essential that our science classrooms only embrace the evidence-based ideas that have been so rigorously tested by scientists. This alone will not remedy America’s miserable performances in science. What it will do is ensure that we do not continue to hurdle backward and instead make progress toward our next great leap for mankind.
Science investment return from Federal Reserve: