12/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Transition Topic I: Education and Scientific Illiteracy

To compete in a technology-driven world, the United States must dramatically improve public education. Our children today test behind many Third World countries. Losing our technological lead threatens our national security, undermines our economy and prevents us from solving our most pressing environmental problems.

We must teach critical thinking from the beginning, and reconfigure our curricula to incorporate science and technology as fundamental rather than elective. 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 most recent is fear that the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva will create a black hole that will consume the earth when scientists there smash protons together to create energies first seen at the Big Bang. Even the most rudimentary familiarity with, not even understanding of, high energy physics would prevent such an absurd idea from flourishing.

The anti-vaccine movement is another classic case of dangerous scientific illiteracy. 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 colossal ignorance, forcing school boards across the country to accept students with no vaccination history.

The public is unable to filter exaggerated claims by some environmental groups, such as the fear of Alar in apples, from legitimate concerns like global warming. 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, another consequence of scientific illiteracy. 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. 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.

While we debate teaching creation science alongside evolution, the rest of the world is training the next generation to compete in the new global economy. We are the only industrialized nation that questions the proven ideas of evolution. We debate this issue, resolved 150 years ago, while China, Japan, Europe and Australia leave us in the dust. Those countries are actively funding stem cell research, which the United States has shunned on the basis of a narrow religious ideology.

We can be the country of the 20th century, a relic of the age of fossil fuels and polluting industries, left behind by the rest of the world adapting to a new age. Or, we can be the leader of the 21st century, blazing the trail to renewable energies, clean technologies and a green economy. The choice is ours. But such leadership demands a better system of education, based on rational thinking skills and knowledge of the basic principles of science. Without an educated populace, the United States will fall ever farther behind the Asian giants and a united Europe.

The first step is to remove from public education the influence of religion, bringing us back in line with other industrialized countries. Let us leave religious teachings to the church, synagogue and mosque. Let us teach religion in our homes, but not in our public schools. We cannot hope to teach lessons of the 21st century when we are fighting battles of the 15th. The next step is to integrate lessons from science and technology into every subject taught, from English to social studies to home economics. Finally, we need to revamp how we teach actual science courses, making the subject more accessible to a broader range of students, not just a few nerds interested in chemistry.

When properly taught, science is fun, exciting and interesting. No experience is quite like that light bulb going off when some aspect of the natural world suddenly becomes clear and understandable. Knowledge truly is power. The image of science should be the polar explorer or underwater adventurer, not the guy in the white coat with thick glasses standing in the lab with a beaker in hand. Scientists should be the rock stars of the future.

If we focus on the Three Es of Energy, Environment and Education, this country can once again reclaim its rightful position as a global leader and leading light in the centuries ahead. But we have to go back to basics and get our system of education back on track.