Thursday, November 10, 2005

Is US becoming hostile to science?

It's certainly a reasonable question to ask:

Is US becoming hostile to science?
By Alan Elsner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bitter debate about how to teach evolution in U.S. high schools is prompting a crisis of confidence among scientists, and some senior academics warn that science itself is under assault.

In the past month, the interim president of Cornell University and the dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine have both spoken on this theme, warning in dramatic terms of the long-term consequences.

"Among the most significant forces is the rising tide of anti-science sentiment that seems to have its nucleus in Washington but which extends throughout the nation," said Stanford's Philip Pizzo in a letter posted on the school Web site on October 3.

Cornell acting President Hunter Rawlings, in his "state of the university" address last week, spoke about the challenge to science represented by "intelligent design" which holds that the theory of evolution accepted by the vast majority of scientists is fatally flawed.

Rawlings said the dispute was widening political, social, religious and philosophical rifts in U.S. society. "When ideological division replaces informed exchange, dogma is the result and education suffers," he said.

And things like this are pretty alarming:

Poll: Evolution rejected by most in survey
A CBS News public opinion survey indicates most respondents do not accept the theory of evolution.

The telephone poll conducted Oct. 3-5 suggests 51 percent of those asked believe God created humans in their present form. Three in 10 believed while humans evolved, that God guided the process, and 15 percent said humans evolved independently.

Those views were similar to a November 2004 CBS poll shortly after the presidential election. In that earlier survey, 55 percent said they believed God created humans in their present form; 27 percent believed humans evolved, but God guided that process; and 13 percent said humans evolved, but God was not involved in the process.

One might reasonably entertain the hypothesis that 51% of Americans are ignorant hicks.

Or maybe it's just that large parts of the country are like Kansas:

Kansas Education Board First to Back 'Intelligent Design'

TOPEKA, Kan., Nov. 8 -- The Kansas Board of Education voted Tuesday that students will be expected to study doubts about modern Darwinian theory, a move that defied the nation's scientific establishment even as it gave voice to religious conservatives and others who question the theory of evolution.

Kan. School Board OKs Evolution Approach

TOPEKA, Kan. -- Revisiting a topic that exposed Kansas to nationwide ridicule six years ago, the state Board of Education approved science standards for public schools Tuesday that cast doubt on the theory of evolution.

The 6-4 vote was a victory for intelligent design advocates who helped draft the standards. Intelligent design holds that the universe is so complex that it must have been created by a higher power.

Critics of the new language charged that it was an attempt to inject God and creationism into public schools in violation of the separation of church and state.

"This is a sad day. We're becoming a laughingstock of not only the nation, but of the world, and I hate that," said board member Janet Waugh, a Democrat.

Of course, a blanket negative judgment of American intelligence is too harsh when there are plenty of reactions to the above news along these lines:

Created in Our Own Image

Kudos to the Kansas Board of Education ["Kansas Education Board First to Back 'Intelligent Design,' " front page, Nov. 9].

At least now I know I have a higher power to blame for poverty, weapons of mass destruction and global warming, to name a few ills in the world. It's good to know that we humans didn't "evolve" into stupidity and ignorance; we were created that way.


(Other news stories on this: here)

But there's some grounds for hope, in that the voters of Dover, PA tossed out all of their school board which was up for re-election, though only by a small margin:

Dover school board booted out in elections

All eight Dover, Pennsylvania school board members up for re-election have been booted out after introducing intelligent design to the science classroom. In their place are a number of those who campaigned against the policy.

(Other news stories on this: here, here.)

However, according to Pat Robertson, poster boy for American religious imbecility, the whole town of Dover is gonna be sorry:

Robertson warns Pennsylvania voters of God's wrath

"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city," Robertson said on his daily television show broadcast from Virginia, "The 700 Club."

"And don't wonder why He hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for His help because he might not be there," he said.

But let's be charitable and assume that most Americans aren't so stupid as to believe this sort of thing. What's really the problem?

Next hypothesis: Perhaps "science" has simply fallen out of favor somehow, maybe because of religious propaganda from people like Robertson or maybe because of real failures in science itself. The evidence on the whole is against this hypothesis. It doesn't seem that science actually has fallen out of favor. Many large, expensive scientific projects -- such as the "war on cancer", the Hubble Space Telescope, and long-range programs to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars -- still seem to have enthusiastic public support.

Furthermore, when you stop to think about it, isn't it interesting that opponents of good science, like the "intelligent design" proponents, aren't bad-mouthing science itself? (Not much, anyway, as when they disparage it as being too "materialistic".) Instead, they want their vacuous theories accepted as real science, and they'll even go so far as the Kansas state school board has attempted, to redefine science so that bogus science like "intelligent design" is admissible -- even if it means that stuff like astrology has to be accepted under the new definition too.

It's interesting, and somewhat a source of hope, that science per se has such a good image on the whole that opponents of certain parts of it (e. g. evolution) want to usurp the "trademark" (speaking metaphorically) and to promote their own unscientific nonsense as if it were valid science. Like anyone who desires to hijack a well-established trademark, such people want to take advantage of the good reputation of the proper holders of the trademark, but to substitute inferior goods for selfish advantage.

So let's try another hypothesis: Our educational system is failing, either in general or specifically with respect to science. Maybe science is just taught so badly these days that students cannot evaluate scientific information and discriminate between good science and bad science.

Now there probably really is something to that. I think there definitely is a failure in public (and most private) schools to teach science and critical thinking skills adequately. One could go into a long discussion of how science education could be improved substantially, but let's put that aside for now.

Because I also think that our schools are only partly at fault, and we can make one additional hypothesis: In our culture (as in most) there is plenty of fear of what would happen if school children and adult citizens were actually taught, in an effective way, to think critically for themselves. They might well come to doubt the lies told by the government and the proponents of an economy dependent on unwise consumption of goods by poorly educated consumers. In other words, there are powerful forces that benefit from keeping the "mushrooms" in the dark -- about many things.

In the particular case of the clamor on the part of some in favor of "intelligent design", it's not that this is something kids would naturally favor over good science on their own. There would be no resistance to teaching of evolution were it not for the unscientific alternatives being part of a package of fundamentalist religion that took root in the U. S. many decades ago and which is used by an alliance of politicians and fundamentalist religious hucksters as a tool to motivate their supporters. Again, it's a case of certain powerful groups that benefit by promoting ignorance over science.

I've mentioned this "wedge strategy" before, here, and I'll probably keep writing about it.


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