05/26/2010 10:54 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When Faith Trumps Reason: the Curse of Scientific Illiteracy

The State Board of Education (SBOE) in Texas has jumped into the abyss of the absurd, modifying school textbooks with an ideology so extreme as to be nearly beyond comprehension to any rational mind. Just as the twisted metal of a fatal plane crash is the focus of investigation to determine what went wrong, so too must the carnage from the SBOE be examined to understand how reason died in the fiery wreckage of conservative extremism.

With extensive news coverage of the SBOE many Americans now know the basic story. The SBOE adopted a curriculum for social sciences and history that questions the separation of church and state in the erroneous belief that we are a Christian nation. Conservatives on the board were successful in relabeling the United States a "constitutional republic" instead of a democracy; emphasizing the Christian influence on our founders, and rejecting the widely accepted classification of historic periods of BCE (before current era) and CE (current era) in favor of the old style of BC (before Christ) and AD (anno domini - year of our Lord).

The New Deal was removed from a timeline of significant historical events, because Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts were socialistic. Reagan's invasion of Granada in 1983 was described instead as a "rescue." Reagan himself is lauded only in terms of his "role in restoring national confidence, such as Reagonomics and Peace with Strength." No mention of Iran-Contra. Nixon is noted only for his "role in normalizing relations with China and the policy of détente." Watergate never happened. Illustrations to teach women how to do self-breast exams were removed. A picture of a business woman holding a briefcase was pulled and replaced with a mother baking a cake.

The SBOE tried but failed to exclude Thomas Jefferson from our history books because of his liberal views on government and religion. In arguing to delete Cesar Chavez, Irma Rangel (first Hispanic woman elected to the state legislature) and Thurgood Marshall from our history, Texas Governor Rick Perry said in place of references to these figures from our past we should instead add language to reveal "the motivational role of the Bible and the Christian faith played in the settling of the original colonies."

While garnering most of the attention, these theocratic distortions of history are not isolated acts of insanity. In earlier rounds of editing in May 2009, the SBOE adopted badly watered down language on evolution that gives equivalency to Darwin's theory and Intelligent Design as "two sides" of the story to be evaluated equally. That is because "evolution is hooey" according to Board member Don McLeroy. This is the same Board member who proudly noted that he evaluates textbooks by determining "how they cover Christianity and Israel. Then I see how they treat Ronald Reagan - he needs to get credit for saving the world from communism and for the good economy over the last twenty years because he lowered taxes." This would explain another of his agenda items: to rehabilitate Joseph McCarthy.

How did we arrive at this tragic point where reason and fact are buried so completely by an avalanche of utter nonsense? The answer lies in the sad observation that religion has corrupted our political discourse, and a growing number of Americans can no longer distinguish between faith, fiction and fact, a consequence of scientific illiteracy that seems to grow worse with each generation. The problem is not only that facts from science are ignored, but so too is the method by which scientists search for objective truth. With little understanding of how scientists tease truth from the natural world, how data are gathered and analyzed, or how hypotheses are supported or disproven, the public has few tools to evaluate the validity of competing claims - in any area of public discourse not just those relating strictly to issues of science. Consequently, faith and belief have come to substitute for objective truth and verifiable facts are no more influential than the musings of any madman.

When science or at least the logic used in science is rejected anybody can claim anything. Proof is only demanded if a claim is unaligned with ideology (evolution, climate change, Obama's place of birth), but the idea of providing proof for claims consistent with conservative ideals is rejected as liberal elitism (we are a Christian nation, guns make us safer, missile defense works, god exists).

Imagine a Christian and a goldsmith standing around a five-foot-tall Star of David that the artisan just completed on commission from a local temple. The goldsmith notes correctly that the structure is made of solid gold that he himself shaped into the symbol of Judaism. This is a fact not open to debate or modification by ideology. Gold is gold. But the Christian claims that god would never allow any symbol other than a cross to be made of gold, so therefore the Star of David must instead be made of wood painted the color of gold. The Christian simply created a new reality by fiat, offering no proof of his claim. So to counter this nonsense the Goldsmith in exasperation takes a few scrapings from the structure and sends them to a lab for analysis. The results are conclusive - the star is made of pure gold atoms. But the result is immediately rejected by the Christian on the basis that scientists are biased, labs are unreliable, and in fact we do not really know anything about atoms because we cannot see them with our own eyes. No matter how much evidence to the contrary is offered, the Christian will believe the structure to be wooden, and no amount of data will persuade him otherwise.

Without science reality is 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 scientific evidence to the contrary. Climate and weather are mistakenly thought to be the same. A recent article in Science documenting reptile extinctions due to climate change is ignored by the press. 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, the public demands no proof at all before reaching a firm conclusion, the flipside consequence of misunderstanding the scientific method. Vaccines offer an unfortunate case history. We believe, with no evidence other than from a small study never replicated, that vaccines cause autism. 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. Rush Limbaugh exhorts his listeners to eschew the H1N1 vaccine. All this when in reality 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.

False conclusions about vaccines are only the tip of the iceberg. 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. Under George Bush we lost eight years for nothing. With no distinction between fact and fiction the public is unable to filter exaggerated claims by environmental groups (Alar in apples) from legitimate concerns (loss of biological diversity). 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.

And we still debate evolution (but never the Theory of Relativity). 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. 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. SBOE succeeded. 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 a general decline in all areas of public debate. Without a shared reality we have no basis for discussion. What's next, removing Thomas Jefferson from our history books because he promoted the scientific method or argued that religion should play no role in government?

Teaching evolution is equal to teaching that the Earth is a sphere or that the sun is the center of our solar system or 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.

Scientific illiteracy is now pervasive and in this expanding environment of ignorance we breed nightmare scenarios like the SBOE. By severing all ties to objective truth, the SBOE is unfettered from the annoying constraint of reality. Anything goes. Anything is true as long as you believe it to be so. Global warming is a joke, evolution a liberal conceit, Thomas Jefferson a communist. No boundaries exist, only the limits of our own wild imaginations. We have no means to reign in the SBOE when their claims, no matter how outrageous, go unchallenged, because fact and fiction carry equal weight. The Star of David is made of wood because we say it is, gold atoms be damned.

Steeped in the wasteland of scientific illiteracy we descend ever further toward a theocracy, 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. The SBOE seeks to perpetuate that cycle of ignorance by corrupting the education of our children, impairing their ability to think logically, and brainwashing them with medieval myths. The SBOE is a cabal of Christian soldiers hell bent on launching a new Crusade. Our children deserve better. Our only hope for the future is to stop the zealots before we lose another generation. The upcoming election in November could not be more critical.

Local politics is not glamorous but has never been more important. What happens to the SBOE impacts the entire country. Fortunately for us in Texas, and for the nation, we have two candidates for the SBOE, Rebecca Bell-Meterau and Judy Jennings, who would restore sanity to the school board and integrity to the textbook selection process. With their election we can reclaim our right to have reason and truth serve as the foundation for public discourse. We can reclaim history as an objective view of the past, not a sanitized fantasy that would do an Imam proud. We can restore our reliance on science to help us understand the physical and natural world. We can, if we muster the will, witness the triumph of fact and reason over faith and fantasy.

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of, Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World (Jacquie Jordan, Inc)( Follow Jeff Schweitzer on Facebook.