Two recent headlines appearing within a few days of each other should have warranted greater attention: "School Science Lesson Claims Gravity Was Created by God" and "Best Education in the World: Finland, South Korea Top Country Rankings, U.S. Rated Average." The explanation for the latter is fully explained by the former, yet not enough of us seem to make the obvious connection.
The far right can stick their collective heads in the sand and talk about American exceptionalism, but the rest of the world is getting educated in the meantime. America is indeed number one -- in self-delusion. While flag wavers congratulate themselves on how awesome we are, the world looks on bemused: only six percent of American students achieved advanced levels on an international standard, behind 30 other countries. We rank 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading. We are behind Lithuania and Slovenia -- two countries a majority of American students could not identify on a map.
Many factors have brought us to this sad state of affairs, but we can no longer ignore the 600 pound gorilla and trumpeting elephants in the room: religion is killing us. While our kids are being taught that god created gravity, children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are learning about Newton and Einstein. As children in Lichtenstein are being taught about the warping of space-time, American kids are learning that "people who do not believe in god" are incapable of understanding gravity.
American religiosity has become an existential threat, undermining the foundation of our future prosperity by contaminating our educational system with superstition, fable and myth. We see this with evolution, vaccines, climate change, energy policy and a host of critical issues that should be based in science but instead are hijacked by ignorance. We are 17th in the world in science, but instead of improving our education, we continue to fight battles more appropriate to the 16th century. Let's look at a few specific and tragic examples in which religion has triumphed at the expense of our educational system and with great harm to society.
Religion is the only explanation for why evolution creates such a fuss in our society. We do not see people getting exercised about Quantum Mechanics, String Theory or the Theory of Relativity. But mention evolution and you invoke an immediate and visceral reaction. Local school boards are elected, rejected and then re-elected solely on this issue. No other scientific discovery is so deeply embedded into the fabric of American politics.
Evolution is one of the most successful, thoroughly documented scientific discoveries in human history. We can see evolution in a Petri dish. Evolution has been validated across multiple fields of anthropology, geology, genetics, embryology, bacteriology, virology, and biogeography. Evolution is a fact, an undeniable, proven fact, as certain as the existence of atoms. Only some of the details of the mechanisms of evolution remain to be elucidated. Cancer is a fact, though not all the mechanisms leading to malignancy are understood. Theory does not imply uncertainty; instead, theory means a grand idea, such as General Relativity or Evolution; well-established principles that encompass and explain a broad range of phenomena.
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.
The debate about intelligent design in public schools is a uniquely American phenomenon, a quirk of our history and culture. Beyond the theocracies of the Middle East, religion permeates American politics in a way not found anywhere else in the world. No other developed country, east or west, is host to a serious political movement dedicated to the destruction of secularism, with evolution exhibit number one.
We have to go all the way back to Italy in 1614 to find another example of a powerful political machine dedicated to the suppression of a broad scientific truth with deep implications for human understanding. That is the year in which Galileo's observations of the earth orbiting the sun were first denounced as a threat to the established authority of the Catholic Church, which claimed Galileo's doctrine to be false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture. We have regressed four centuries. Intelligent design is nothing but a transparent fig leaf for creationism, a child of that dark era in the 1600s. Comparing creationism or intelligent design to evolution is no different than insisting that we teach today that the sun actually orbits the earth as an alternative theory to modern astronomy. Only in the United States are such discredited views taken seriously by a large portion of the citizenry. We can and should do better. Intelligent design has no place in a science classroom -- and it does not in any western country outside these United States.
Perhaps you believe that teaching that god created gravity is harmless, no big deal, nothing to be exercised about. But disdain for objective truth has real and tragic consequences... which brings us to measles and the issue of childhood immunization. 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. Consequently we recently witnessed the biggest outbreak of measles in 15 years, double the number of cases seen typically. With the success of vaccines we forget, ironically, that measles is deadly; prior to vaccinations about 5000 people died annually in the United States from the disease. In 2008 measles killed about 170,000 worldwide. With the best intentions to protect their children, parents are in fact playing a deadly game of chicken based purely on ignorance -- lack of knowledge of the benefits of vaccination compared to the inaccurate, overstated and simply wrong conclusions about the dangers.
The problem is not theoretical but real and deadly. Because of one paper published in 1998 in the medical journal Lancet, subsequently withdrawn for suspicions of scientific fraud, and fully discredited by later study, tens of thousands of parents risk their children's health by withholding critical vaccinations against terrible diseases. Rates of childhood immunization for measles (rubeolla), mumps, and rubella (German measles) have yet to fully recover from the impact of this one discredited paper. And many parents still insist that vaccines cause autism, even in the absence of any evidence to support the claim with the withdrawal of the original paper. Myth has usurped fact. In many school districts, including wealthy ones like in San Diego County, the number of unvaccinated children has nearly tripled since 1990. This affects everybody, not just those who choose to avoid vaccinations. Case in point: a few years ago San Diego County experienced the worst outbreak of deadly Whooping Cough in local history as more parents eschewed vaccination against that disease. And let's be brutally honest; we can lay the death of every child who dies of this preventable disease directly at the feet of all the parents who chose not to vaccinate their children. Unlike most diseases that require only 85% vaccination to create herd immunity, Whooping Cough, and measles, requires 94% immunization to protect the public. Ignorance, the willingness to dismiss hard evidence when inconvenient, or inversely the readiness to reach a conclusion in the complete absence of evidence are all symptoms of scientific illiteracy growing in the nutritive soup of religiosity.
Oddly, many accept the link between autism and vaccinations with no proof, but when it comes to climate change, the demand for proof is never satisfied no matter how convincing such proof may be. Many accept the existence of ghosts with no evidence, but deny the reality of a changing climate with proof before their eyes. This differential deference to evidence is clear indicator that much of the American public lacks the tools to evaluate issues rationally. Without science, reality becomes just an option to be rejected whenever the real world gives us inconvenient truths. In this frightening environment in which fiction becomes fact, the conclusions from years of careful research, scrutinized by competing scientists and published in peer reviewed journals now carry no more weight with the public than the random thoughts of a bloated pundit. Talking heads with no training now have the same authority as highly qualified experts. So global warming is dismissed as a liberal hoax in spite of a preponderance of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. Climate and weather are mistakenly thought to be the same. So with every cold snap in winter we hear, "See, it snowed -- I told you climate change was a joke." Articles noting the acceleration of climate change are ignored by the press, focused on an audience obsessed with the Kardashians; melting ice caps just can't compete. When presented with solid evidence, skeptics selectively demand more "proof" without any sense of irony that they demand no proof for virgin birth, talking snakes, 900 year old men, Immaculate Conception and resurrection.
So let us come back to our low international rating in education. We debate climate change and evolution because society is still largely unable to embrace the scientific method, which is neglected in our classrooms, which perpetuates our downward spiral. Although understanding the basics of science is critical to everyday life in a technology-driven society, the subject is given only cursory treatment in most public schools. As a result, people are often poorly equipped to understand the complexities of an issue before forming an opinion about the costs and benefits of adopting or restricting a particular technology. And so we lag behind Lichtenstein.
Steeped in this wasteland of scientific illiteracy we march ever further toward a theocracy; a secular society cannot stand without deference to fact. We are in danger of becoming the Iran of the West, or a bad copy of the former Soviet Union. Under the communist dictatorship children were taught that Stalin was a hero and that capitalism was a great evil, or that Russia invented the telephone and airplane, with no regard to the truth. We are about to make the same mistake in twisting history to indoctrinate our children with stories about god and gravity.
As religiosity has ascended in American life, policy debates have become faith-based rather than being anchored in logic. Support for a policy position becomes unmoved by contradictory facts because proponents simply "believe" the position to be correct even in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. Just as there is no way to determine relative validity between religions, or to diminish faith with facts, as soon as logic is removed from policy debates, competing positions are no longer evaluated based on relative merit, but are supported as inherently right, immune to any reasonable counter arguments. This slide away from secular debate leads increasingly to polarization, greater animosity and a loss of civility because the only way to support a position is simply to assert supremacy as loudly as possible. We are reduced to childlike tantrums of "I'm right, you're wrong, I win." Without logic, there is no common basis for discussion, and no way to mediate disputes. The death of secularism is the death of civility, and nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the debate about teaching science in schools free from religion. Our international ranking suffers because we have not yet learned this lesson. Slovenia has.