Ensconced in the northeastern US, it’s sometimes easy to not see what passes for a normal school day in vast portions of the country, and it’s often hard to see how this impacts our economy and our future. But that makes it no less real.
To start, take a gander at the video below. It shows a glimpse of a high school science classroom in Dayton, TN. The teacher is an unabashed creationist. He rationalizes that he gives actual science a fair hearing, but also admits to giving equal weight to supernatural (i.e. non-scientific) explanations. His students are clearly young-Earth creationists, and he admits he would do nothing to dissuade that. The final student is perhaps the most shocking as he can’t fathom how an African-American person would evolve from a white person. The level of ignorance expressed in that one statement suggests these kids are actually exposed to frightfully little science.
It would be nice to dismiss this classroom as an anomaly, but that’s simply not the case. In general, kids on the coasts are mostly free of this sort of religious intrusion in schools. Still, some are taught “alternative science” in their churches that refutes the classroom science. But I suppose in these cases it at least creates a genuine two-sided debate. And while students may not “believe” in science, they can at least explain it. Yet in the country’s heartland, there is not even a 2-sided discussion. The students are graduating as science illiterate.
Where’s the harm in that, you might ask? After all, these students may be science illiterate, but they are God-fearing, moral, upright, and productive additions to their local communities. Isn’t that a good thing? Yes, but…
For the latter half of the 20th Century, the US was the undisputed economic powerhouse on the planet. Our middle class bloomed and the country enjoyed the most prosperous period of its history. What drove that? Science and technology. The US grew and attracted the brightest and most innovative minds. We generated the technology and the subsequent industry that was exported around the globe. It can be claimed without hyperbole that the economy was driven by our mastery of science.
Today we see our economy flagging. And I don’t mean just the latest disaster. Throughout most of the last decade our economy has been based on our ability to game the markets and banking system. Meanwhile, other countries have arisen to fill the technology void. Korea, China, Taiwan, India, and others have taken over the mantle of innovation and industry. They are ascending. Us, not so much.
It’s no coincidence that US students are now consistently ranked around 17th out of the top 30 industrial nations in science and math skills. We usually rank right about the same level as Turkey. It’s not that we don’t produce any bright geeky students. We do. But we don’t produce the volume required to compete effectively in global markets against countries who grow engineers like we grow corn.
The counter-argument is often that teaching creationism as science might stunt a student’s biology career, but it shouldn’t keep us from producing scads of software engineers and physicists. But I say that’s sophistry. First, a lot of the innovation space with our rapidly aging populace is in medicine and biology, so we do need people who really understand the life sciences. But moreover, when a child’s early exposure to science of any flavor is basically that a bunch of whackos in lab coats have this nutty idea, but really the way the world works is something else, they learn an inherent distrust of science in general. Why would a student want to pursue a career using the same fundamental techniques that yielded such “flawed theories” as evolution? It requires a pretty significant cognitive dissonance to believe that biology, geology, anthropology, cosmology, and several other sciences are fundamentally wrong, but quantum physics is right on the money.
So yes, it does matter to me that students far from here are learning that science is hooey. It matters to me not because it’s any sort of personal affront to me, but because it diminishes the future of our country. We all want our children to grow up and be more prosperous and better off than we were. But I fear that won’t be true. Religious faith is a good thing for many people. But you can’t build industry around it. You can’t export it. And you can’t eat it. Religion has its place, but we allow it to dilute science at our own peril.