Although it might be trite to say so, it is worth saying it: Good news isn't always what it seems.
Having said that, here's the good news. I predict that within the near future the achievement gap in student science learning between the United States and South Korea will be narrowing significantly. As of right now, the gap is huge.
Let me explain. Beginning in 1995 and every four years thereafter, something called The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has been conducted. TIMSS tests fourth, eighth and 12th grade students around the globe on both science and mathematics and the huge data set allows knowledge levels to be compared by country. The results for 2007, the last year for which data are available, compared more than half a million students in 41 countries.
In science, students in the United States ranked third at the fourth grade level but fell to 17th at the eighth grade level and rose slightly to 16th at the 12th grade level. Students from South Korea, in comparison, were first and fourth in fourth and eighth grade, respectively. (South Korea didn't test their 12th grade students.)
Here's a list of the 2007 TIMSS results:
When the 2007 data were released, Pascal D. Forgione, Jr., then U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics at the National Center for Education Statistics, laid the poor placement of U.S. students directly on the weak science curricula present in U.S. middle schools and high schools.
All of that is now about to change. Well, maybe not all of it, but, as I said, we will soon be closing the gap with South Korea. Unfortunately, the reason isn't because the United States has improved its science curriculum. No, quite the contrary.
Recent changes in South Korea have made it clear that fundamentalists are flexing some of the same muscles that their brethren have flexed in the United States. According to a report in Nature, South Korea's Ministry of Education, Science and Technology indicated that in response to a campaign by a group called the "Society for Textbook Revise" (sic) (STR) publishers of biology books will release revised editions of basic biology texts that omit many classic examples of evolution. STR is also working to have content about the evolution of humans removed from texts as well.
Koreans will soon realize that when biology education removes evolution as the organizing principle for the discipline, students will no longer be able to make sense of the science. Without evolution serving as the central idea tying all facets of biology together, all that's left is a collection of random facts and experiments. Teaching biology without evolution is akin to teaching history simply by asking students to memorize dates. No context, no integration of ideas, no learning.
The Nature article quoted Joonghwan Jeon, an evolutionary psychologist at Kyung Hee University in Yongin who was not happy with the upcoming changes in biology texts. His explanation for the change and for the general rise of creationism in South Korea in recent years was as simple as it is likely wrong: these actions, he said, are "due to strong Christianity in the country."
Christianity is not the problem either in South Korea or in the United States. Most Christian denominations, in fact, have doctrinal statements that are fully supportive of evolution. As biologist Joel Martin shows in the first chapter of his wonderful book "The Prism and the Rainbow: A Christian Explains Why Evolution Is Not a Threat," "acceptance of evolution is a majority, and not a minority, view among Christians."
And as I so often point out on these pages, the various clergy letters produced by The Clergy Letter Project have been endorsed by more than 13,000 clergy members in the United States alone. The Christian Clergy Letter makes this point so clearly that it is impossible to be misunderstood:
"We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. ... We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge."
Fundamentalism is one type of religious belief -- and it is quite distinct from that believed by members of most religious denominations. When we lose sight of this fact, when we believe that anyone who is religious is a fundamentalist, that anyone who is religious is opposed to science, we become unable to engage in meaningful dialogue.
The problem is not with religion per se. The problem is with one very vocal and very aggressive form of religion. And the problem is when we allow these people to control the public educational agenda.
South Korea will soon see that bringing religious dogmatism into the science arena will undermine science education. Unless this trend is reversed, South Korean students will soon sink to the levels found in the United States.
But growing ignorance in South Korea will certainly not make the United States any more competitive. Together we will watch the citizens of other developed countries achieve things we are no longer capable of accomplishing.