03/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Stimulus Package and Scientific Illiteracy

When credit default swaps and toxic mortgages finally brought down Wall Street, Republicans threw $700 billion at the problem like drunken Mardi Gras celebrants tossing bills and beads for the benefit of a desperately quick peek. Lurching down the political equivalent of Bourbon Street, our conservative congressmen demanded no oversight or accounting of how that money was spent. Now those same legislators stammer in righteous outrage that Obama is spending money to rescue us from the very debacle caused by the failed debauchery of Republican economic policy.

After running up the largest deficits and debts in American history, the Republicans have little credibility in offering fiscal advice to the new president. Bobby Brown offering advice on marital bliss would have more credibility. Obama was elected to clean up the Republican mess, not to continue down their path of destruction. Yet we see that a blinding obsession with tax cuts still prevents these sudden converts to fiscal conservatism from seeing the limits of their failed trickle down economic policies, proven ineffective ever since Reagan cut, then immediately raised taxes.

While pushing tax breaks, our Republican friends disparage any spending for what they call "social programs" that do not protect the rich. I am particularly struck by conservative opposition to spending on science and technology in the stimulus package. Until Bush took office, both parties widely recognized that science and technology were a potent force driving economic growth. At the end of the Second World War, our technological prowess propelled the United States to superpower status. Reaction to the stimulus plan underscores how the two parties have diverged from this long-standing consensus. Republicans are on the wrong side of history here.

The loss of bipartisan support for science can be directly attributed to the rise of religious influence in U.S. politics. In any society dominated by religion and religious morality, as we now are, technology often proceeds at a pace greater than society's ability to address the associated moral dilemmas. The issue of stem cell research offers a prime example. Religious bias and scientific illiteracy combined to restrict a technology with extraordinary potential for good, with little associated risk. We lost eight years for nothing.

Religion's intrusion into political life has extended deeply into our educational system as well. As a consequence, rather than keeping apace of scientific advances, the U.S. system of education has fallen woefully behind. The stimulus package addresses this reality.

Nowhere is educational decline better illustrated than by the issue of evolution as taught in the United States. Evolution is one of the most successful, thoroughly documented scientific discoveries in human history. However, more than 75 years after the trial of State of Tennessee v John Scopes and despite incredible advances in biology, many public school boards strive to eliminate the teaching of evolution from the curriculum. If a scientific discovery as important, mainstream, and established as evolution can be a source of controversy for school curricula, society is extraordinarily vulnerable to the results of a general decline in science education.

Teaching evolution is equal to teaching that the Earth is a sphere, that the sun is the center of the solar system, that atoms are the basic building blocks of matter or that DNA is genetic material. All are established facts. Some may still believe that the sun revolves around the Earth as the Bible claims, but including such an idea in a school curriculum is unacceptable. Teaching creation according to Genesis also would require the science curriculum in public schools to include the notion that a great fish swallowed Jonah, that Joshua made the sun stand still, that Noah, at the advanced age of 600 years old, put a breeding pair of every animal species on a boat, and that the Earth was created in six days, along with a host of other literal interpretations of the Bible.

Civil society is being forced to divert time and resources to a ridiculous educational conflict more appropriate to the 1600s. How can we hope to teach children the basics of science when forced to fight this primitive battle? The public education system is broken and desperately needs focused attention. The stimulus package specifically promotes the construction of new science labs for this very reason. The influence of the religious right must be diminished to ensure that children receive an education that prepares them for modern life in a technologically advanced society.

Without winning the battle on teaching evolution, there is no hope of conquering scientific illiteracy in general. Failure to do so has serious consequences for all of us. Ignorance of scientific principles prevents the public from distinguishing the dangerous from the harmless and from preventing the abuse of science for malevolent purposes. On the basis of bad science, governments support costly efforts to enforce ill-conceived laws to protect consumers from nonexistent or negligible risk, while draining resources from areas of critical need.

Ignorance of science allows the public to be deceived by a barrage of dubious claims. The anti-vaccine movement is a classic case. Vaccines are one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine, saving hundreds of millions of lives and improving the quality of life for countless others, but because of medical illiteracy and misplaced religious zeal, some parents are, in a display of dangerous ignorance, forcing school boards across the country to accept students with no vaccination history.

Vaccinations however are only the tip of a dangerous iceberg. Scientific illiteracy is pervasive, and the list of consequences almost endless. The public is unable to filter exaggerated claims by environmental groups (Alar in apples) from legitimate concerns (global climate change). People opposed to irradiated food ignore the existence of more than 50 known strains of E. coli that can cause bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, and death. This is a typical case of poor risk-benefit analysis. People are duped by claims of harmful emissions from cell phones. Life-saving diagnostic x-rays are neglected from fear of radiation, and vulnerable people are persuaded to rely on crystals and astrology for guidance.

To fight this scourge of illiteracy, people must move beyond silly controversy, such as whether to teach evolution, and emphasize the basics of reading, language proficiency, history, math, and science from the early grades, and build on that foundation through to graduation. To combat scientific illiteracy, middle school students should be required to demonstrate a minimal level of scientific knowledge against a national or international standard as a requirement for graduation. Society does no service to the student or to itself by graduating children ill-prepared for today's world. That is why the stimulus package and funding for science education deserve our strong support. Building high school laboratories creates jobs immediately while laying the foundation for future growth in a global economy increasingly driven by advances in technology.

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