To the editor:
Supporters of the Kansas Board of Education's vote on science standards argue that the curriculum should reflect public opinion. Survey data indicating that some 44 percent of Americans believe creationism should be taught alongside evolution is being used to justify significant undercutting of the quality of science education. However, this line of thinking is dangerous.
In the early 19th century, a large percentage of the American population refused to believe that mounds, pyramids, and sculptured earthworks had been built by Indians. Instead, structures like those found at Cahokia, an archaeological site just east of St. Louis, or the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio were attributed to wandering Egyptians, Israelites, Chinese, Polynesians, Vikings, or Phoenicians. The Indians were believed to have been too stupid and barbaric to have built these ruins. The popular belief was that they were made by a superior civilization of "Moundbuilders" who the Indians, in their savagery, had destroyed. This interpretation was used to justify the widespread genocide of indigenous populations.
In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, forcing thousands of Indians from their traditional territories, destroying their culture and making it impossible for them to protect sacred sites and burial grounds. As a result, most of the mounds erected by their ancestors were completely obliterated. Eventually, public opinion yielded to scientific evidence that yes, these structures had been made by the Indians. Unfortunately, by that time, much of Native American civilization in the U.S. had already been destroyed.
The best scientific theories always begin with minority support, gaining wider acceptance through research and education. If we allow public opinion, rather than expert opinion, to guide curriculum standards, we can expect students to be even more susceptible to pernicious racism and pseudoscientific beliefs. Even if the vast majority of the American public were to believe that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites, it would be repugnant to give this theory "equal time" in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. What the public thinks is irrelevant to good science. History demostrates that the general public is often (one might even say usually) dead wrong.
John W. Hoopes,