Monday, September 17, 2012

Anti-Science Attitudes Threaten Education and National Security

The September 17, 2012 edition of my podcast, EXPLORING NATURE, explains why the anti-science attitudes in the U.S. are handicapping our students and threatening national security by graduating students who do not have the knowledge to cope with the world. Never has it been more important for children to have a sound science education yet we have one political party – the Republicans — and fundamentalist religious groups that oppose scientific facts and celebrate ignorance. These attitudes hark back to a pre-scientific era when superstition took precedence over evidence. Recent statements by politicians are mind-boggling in their stupidity. Yes, stupidity is the right word. We have Republican senatorial candidate Todd Akin’s comment about “legitimate rape,” and his further fake science comment that the female body can shut down pregnancy that occurs by “legitimate rape.” There’s no evidence for anything he said.

During the Republican primaries, Texas governor Rick Perry dismissed evolution as “just a theory” that has “some gaps in it.” Evolution is the foundation of the biological sciences. It’s as firmly established as gravity. Media interviewers sometimes ask politicians whether they believe in evolution. But evolution isn’t a belief. It’s a firmly established fact of life on Earth. Would anybody ask whether one believes in gravity?

This dangerous opposition to the teaching of evolution and the attempt to teach creationism in the science classroom confuses religion with science and leaves children uneducated in the basic science of life.

Science and religion are two completely different things. Religion is faith-based. Science is evidence-based. Let’s just review what science is. Simply, science is the best system we have for gaining knowledge using observation and experimentation to describe and explain natural phenomena.

The experimental method is a technique for obtaining knowledge about humans and their physical environment. Applying the experimental method involves several steps. The initial step is seeing and stating a problem in the form of a question. Then all the information that might have anything to do with the problem is used to set up hypotheses, or possible explanations. These hypotheses are tested, not once but many times. If none of the hypotheses solve the problem, alternatives are sought.

In sum, the experimental method is a tool for finding, testing, and choosing among alternative solutions to physical or social problems. In this way, the method enables people to use chance, rather than be victimized by it, and to use their minds in solving problems, perhaps to a degree as yet unimagined.

The significance of the experimental method is that it is a controlled way of knowing. Older ideas suggested knowledge could be obtained by psychological means—intense belief or feeling—and that such knowledge was absolute or unalterable. Such a theory of certainty acted as a strait jacket on the mind by precluding fresh inquiries and making some subjects off-limits for investigation. Experimental science’s great contribution to human development was in challenging the theory of absolute truth.

According to experimental science, reality simply did not support such a theory of sbsolute truth. Nature, including human nature, constantly changes. Why shouldn’t our methods of obtaining knowledge relate to what is happening? Why should a person’s word or feelings be accepted as proof? To be useful, knowledge should be available to more than one person, and it should correspond to physical reality. Knowledge, therefore, needed a more substantial basis than a person’s word or feeling; it needed concrete, demonstrable evidence. And humans needed a way to determine when a theory could be accepted as knowledge. Controlled testing was the solution.

Controlled testing is a way of placing limits on an experiment for the purpose of demonstrating whether a hypothesis corresponds to physical reality. Problems are composed of many little parts, any one of which might be significant. To reduce the risk of leaving out something that might be important, a scientist tests these parts—called variables—one by one. For example, in investigating whether humans could travel to the moon, scientists first analyzed the problem into its many components: what was the moon’s atmosphere? Its soil? What kind of clothes did space travelers need? What type of landing craft was required? How much power was needed to launch the spacecraft and, send it to the moon and then return to Earth? Had scientist tried to devise one test which would answer the large question, they might have left out something of life-saving importance.

As the experimental method began to be used, subjects previously forbidden to science, such as human anatomy, were investigated. Old theories which had been accepted without question for centuries—that the Earth was flat, that the the sun revolved about the Earth, that disease caused germs rather than the other way around--were disproved after instruments were invented to observe and measure such characteristics and relationships. Some people hated to see a cherished theory disproved, and they resisted the new methods of experimental science with arguments, violence, and even with laws that censored or banned ideas which questioned the views of the people in power. Sound familiar?

This is where we are right now, as the anti-science crowd tries to take us backwards by opposing the teaching of evolution and by declaring climate change a hoax despite decades of evidence to the contrary.

Again I’ll go back to Texas governor Perry because he’s such a clear example of willful ignorance. Governor Perry made the astounding statement that “a substantial number of scientists . . . have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects. And I think we are seeing almost weekly, or even daily, scientists are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate change.” This statement is not only ignorant; it’s a lie. Decades of data support the fact that global warming, caused by human activity, is occurring at a rapidly accelerating rate. According to the National Academy of Sciences, 97 to 98 percent of researchers studying climate say that the evidence for climate change is getting stronger, not weaker.

The current support for ignorance on the part of Republicans and fundamentalists make me think of the situation Galileo faced in the 1600s when he reported his observations and measurements that the sun–not the Earth--was the center of our solar system. The religion-driven opposition to a heliocentric universe was so strong that in 1633 Galileo was tried by the Roman inquisition, found guilty of heresy, and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.

Superstition, refusal to accept evidence, holds back the pursuit of knowledge. In our own time, we are seeing a devastating effect on science education in state after state that bans the teaching or evolution or distorts science education by confusing it with religion.

Anti-science is shortsighted and can only weaken our national security by failing to give children the education they need to confront our highly technological world.

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