Two weeks ago, Sen. Jerry Moran deservedly received the Champion of Science Award at Kansas University for being at the forefront of Congress in heralding basic scientific research and discovery. At the ceremony, both he and National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins hammered home how vital science literacy, education, training and research are to the future of the nation, from understanding our universe to curing cancer.
Sadly, two weeks earlier, an Associated Press-Gfk poll found that a majority of Americans don’t think that the universe began with a Big Bang billions of years ago — 13.8 billion to be exact. Evolution, climate change and the age of the Earth (4.5 billion years) fared as badly or worse. That was enough to make Randy Schekman, 2013 Nobel Prize winner in Medicine at the University of California, Berkeley, declare that “science ignorance is pervasive in our society,” blaming “some of our leaders (who) are openly antagonistic to established facts.”
Who are those leaders? Pay close attention between now and November to the candidates electioneering for congressional and state offices. Check out their views on education, state core curricula and funding for scientific research. And remember that six of eight Republican presidential candidates in 2012 shamefully pandered to the electorate by dumping modern physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology and biology in denying evolution, climate change and an ancient universe and Earth. As with the majority of the people polled, religious and political beliefs trumped the facts.
The Big Bang, the age of the Earth and evolution are each as much a fact as any fact can be. They’re established by the same physics and astronomy that puts technology on earth and humans in space, by the same chemistry and biology that grows our agriculture and cures our diseases and by the same geology that unearths the dinosaurs of the past and the oil and gas of the future. Our food, fuel, fiber and pharmaceuticals come from the very same scientific research that tells us when and how our universe, our planet and its life came to be. This body of knowledge is, well, a body. It’s not made up of isolated parts open to piecemeal referendum and amputation according to one’s politics or personal beliefs, blithely blessing what we like and cutting off what we don’t.
Unfortunately, our educational system mutates knowledge into this sort of pick-and-choose farce. As Slate Magazine reported, science-by-faith is the curriculum for many tax-supported charter, religious and private schools across the nation. Some schools just avoid critical subjects that counter literal beliefs, such as evolution or the age of the Earth. Others teach, as science, what we know to be wrong: that our universe dates to 5,000 years ago, that humans and dinosaurs romped together, and that the millions of species of animals, plants and microbes appeared on Earth instantaneously and supernaturally.
To paraphrase the comedian Louis Black, these schools might as well be televising the Flintstones as a documentary. Trouble is, this isn’t a laughing matter. One big loser is the student and, ultimately, not having an informed society. Another is our respect for knowledge, religion and politics when we willfully choose ignorance.