09/19/2014 01:54 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

Ignorance Kills

We learned recently that eight health care workers combating the Ebola epidemic were killed by an angry mob who believed the doctors and nurses were infecting people with the virus. The population most in need of help murdered the only people who could provide assistance. In that tragedy we can learn much about ourselves, even if the problem initially seems distant and remote.

Sitting in the comfort of our homes, we can easily see these horrible killings as ridiculous, obviously counterproductive to the killers, and dangerous to people globally with an increased risk of a broader epidemic. The terrible episode is based entirely in the transparently false idea that doctors were spreading the disease, a notion borne of ignorance of basic biology. While the killings in Africa are easy to condemn, and rightfully so, we in the West live in a big glass house while throwing stones. We are guilty of a deep scientific illiteracy of a magnitude similar to what we see in Africa, with equally deadly results. So look carefully in the mirror when disparaging the ignorance of native villagers.

Scientific illiteracy is pervasive in the United States. Examples are depressingly easy to find. 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 eschewed from fear of radiation, and vulnerable people are persuaded to rely on crystals and astrology for guidance. The public is unable to filter exaggerated claims by environmental groups (Alar in apples) from legitimate concerns like global climate change. This ignorance has deadly consequences; ask the parents of every child who died from a preventable disease, or farmers looking at starvation in the face of crops withering in a changing climate.

On the subject of global warming, let us be brutally honest here: Climate change deniers are no different than Africans fearful of doctors treating Ebola. They base their claims on ideas as transparently ridiculous as those attacking health care workers providing aid. As do those African villagers, climate deniers reject widely accepted scientific fact and accumulated knowledge. Without any anchor in the sciences reality is an option to be rejected whenever the real world gives us inconvenient truths. As in Africa, this deadly ignorance is borne of unfounded fears and denials based in the irrational rejection of basic established fact.

When fiction becomes confused with fact, we sever our critical tether to reality. The conclusions from years of careful research, scrutinized by competing scientists and published in peer-reviewed journals 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 scientific evidence to the contrary. Climate and weather are mistakenly thought to be the same so that with every winter storm comes the pathetic and childish denial that the world could not be getting hotter. When presented with evidence, skeptics selectively demand more "proof" without understanding what that concept means in scientific inquiry.

Yet when we are not discussing climate change, many demand no proof at all before reaching a firm conclusion, the flipside consequence of misunderstanding the scientific method. The anti-vaccine movement is a classic case.

Because of just 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. Because of medical illiteracy and misplaced religious zeal, rates of childhood immunization for measles, mumps, and rubella have yet to fully recover from the impact of this one discredited paper. And many parents still to this day insist that vaccines cause autism, even in the absence of any evidence to support the claim with the withdrawal of the original paper. Some parents still force school boards across the country to accept students with no vaccination history, endangering their children, but worse, all children in the school, and ignoring the reality that vaccines are one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine, saving hundreds of millions of lives. Rush Limbaugh exhorted his listeners to eschew the H1N1 vaccine. Are conservative pundits and these anti-vaccination parents any different than the villagers in Africa fearful of doctors spreading Ebola? Myth has usurped fact. And ignorance kills.

This deadly and ubiquitous scientific illiteracy will not be cured overnight. We must begin somewhere, though, and that would be to reform our system of education. The sad state of public schools in America is a disgrace. If you have doubts, just look at the results from a Newsweek survey a few years ago of 1,000 American citizens; almost 40 percent of which failed the test necessary to gain citizenship. Forty-two percent of Americans could not name the Taliban as an enemy, but 75 percent of Brits could. We lag terribly behind the rest of the modern world in mathematics.

From the Newsweek survey we learn that nearly one-third of Americans could not name the then-current vice president; 73 percent could not explain why we fought the Cold War; 44 percent were stumped when asked to define the Bill of Rights. We cannot realistically expect a citizen who has not been taught about the Bill of Rights to know the difference between an atom and a molecule, to know what a vitamin is or an enzyme, or the definition of species, or the meaning of a calorie, or to understand dose-response curves, or to distinguish between correlation and causation, or to accept the reality of climate change.

Without an ability to reason critically, people believe in weeping statues of the Virgin Mary, the existence of a carved face on Mars, out-of-body experiences, and Christ's image captured on the Shroud of Turin. Among the most notable miraculous relics of Catholicism is the much publicized "blood" of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples. Since the fourteenth century, a substance said to be the dried blood of the martyred saint periodically liquefies and reddens, indicating good years and bad according to legend. Virtually the entire metropolitan congregation turns out once a year to wait anxiously as the miracle proclaims the city's fate. The explanation is absolutely trivial. Many substances, including mixtures readily available to medieval chemists, have the property exhibited by the purported blood.

Former NASA administrator Dan Goldin, while defending funding for the space agency, was famously asked, "Why are we building meteorological satellites when we have the Weather Channel?" Critical thinking is an endangered species.

Nowhere is this bottomless pit of deep ignorance and lack of clear thinking better illustrated 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. Those who deny the obvious truth of evolution are no different from fearful African villagers who reach conclusions based on ignorance of established fact. Teaching evolution is equal to teaching that the Earth is a sphere or that the sun is the center of the solar system. Or that doctors help prevent the spread of Ebola. All are established beyond doubt.

Some may still believe that the sun revolves around the Earth as the Bible implies, 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 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.

How can society 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, but civil society is forced to divert time and resources to a ridiculous battle more appropriate to the 1600s. But without winning the battle on teaching evolution, there is no hope of conquering scientific illiteracy in general.

We have a long road ahead. To fight this scourge of illiteracy, people must move beyond silly controversy, such as whether to teach evolution, and emphasize the importance of critical thinking; we must focus on reading, language proficiency, history, math, and science from the early grades, and build on that foundation through to graduation. Science is not an elective; critical thinking is not a luxury. To combat scientific illiteracy, middle school students should be required to demonstrate a minimal proficiency in basic science 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. Take a good look in the mirror; we are in danger of becoming like those who murder doctors who are trying to help. Ignorance kills.