Educating for Democracy: The Power of Self-Deception

04/25/2011 04:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2011

In a recent CBS-New York Times poll 45 percent of Republicans responding believed that President Obama was not born in the United States and another 22 percent were "unsure." Only one in three Republicans were certain that the President was actually born in this country. This despite the fact that a copy of the document proving his place of birth has been made public, most recently when George Stephanopoulos showed one to Michelle Bachmann on "Good Morning, America."

I doubt that even Bachmann's public admission that there was conclusive evidence of Obama's birth in the U.S. will deter the "birthers" from continuing to argue that it doesn't prove anything. I must admit that the Warren Commission investigation of the Kennedy assassination never satisfied me with its results. But that was a far more complex issue involving many thousands of pages of evidence, compared to whether or not the public will accept a valid government document proving someone's place of birth.

The persistence of the "birthers," including what seems to be Donald Trump's coy embrace of their cause to gain him a sudden rise in popularity in the Republican Presidential polls is, to me, a worrisome sign. It reveals how our educational system has either failed young learners and the general public, or, as likely, that our culture of mistrust in anything that contradicts our "core beliefs" no matter how effectively proven wrong can lead us into self-deception.

For instance, the "theory of evolution" has been consistently rejected as an explanation for the creation of life, particularly human life, by about 40 percent of the population including, in a recent poll, a majority of Republicans. "Climate change" as a demonstrable phenomenon, and human activity as a major cause of it, is accepted by only 34 percent of Americans, which, like the Theory of Evolution ranks us at the bottom of Industrialized countries.

I understand that there has long been an effort to present evolution and "Intelligent Design" by state education departments as "equally valid" in explaining the development of life on this planet. This is in schools that, I would hope, teach chemistry without regarding chemical reactions as "divinely inspired" or dismiss the assertion that "spontaneous generation" is a valid theory for explaining the appearance of maggots in spoiled meat. It is difficult enough for me to understand how a GPS works or accept the likelihood that there is intelligent life in the rest of the universe. But when people support and elect political figures who cater to ignorance, especially on topics about which most Americans should be knowledgeable, then I wonder if the power of self-deception will overwhelm our ability to function as a democratic, knowledge-based society.

Although the number of students taking advanced science courses almost doubled from 35 percent in 1982 to 68 percent twenty years later, today almost one quarter of high school biology teachers refuse to teach evolution. Is this because their "faith" leads them to reject the empirical evidence that the earth is billions of years old and that humans evolved from a common ancestor of the chimpanzee? If so, I would only hope that they are persuaded that another subject might be appropriate for them to teach such as business administration in which another form of blind faith -- the logic of a "market economy" -- can guarantee prosperity for all Americans, evidence mounting to the contrary.

Recently I took my granddaughter to the American Museum of Natural History where she saw the remains of reptiles that ruled the earth 65 million years ago. Accompanying the exhibits was a short film on the origins of life on this planet and the rise and fall of the dinosaur. The film, narrated by Meryl Streep, concluded by warning the viewer that unless we take measures to protect our environment from man-made pollution, we, too, might go the way of the dinosaurs.

What I found particularly ironic about this highly educational and enlightened exhibit is that one of its principal benefactors was David Koch who with his brother is one of the most powerful advocates for weakening environmental regulation in the interest of a "thriving economy." Perhaps he is confident that a significant number of American voters have either been so poorly schooled or learned so little that they will rely on "what they feel" as more valid than "what they learn." If this is the case, then we are in for some perilous times ahead both politically and environmentally. As I've stated in an earlier blog: "We can try to compromise with Nature, but Nature won't compromise with us." If we don't recognize that empirical evidence can't be dismissed by asserting some dogma, then we might find ourselves going the way of the dinosaur.