Tuesday, August 15

How to make sure children are scientifically illiterate

Voters in Kansas ensured this month that noncreationist moderates will once again have a majority (6 to 4) on the state school board, keeping new standards inspired by intelligent design from taking effect.

This is a victory for public education and sends a message nationwide about the public’s ability to see through efforts by groups like the Discovery Institute to misrepresent science in the schools. But for those of us who are interested in improving science education, any celebration should be muted.

... But perhaps more worrisome than a political movement against science is plain old ignorance. The people determining the curriculum of our children in many states remain scientifically illiterate. And Kansas is a good case in point.

The chairman of the school board, Dr. Steve Abrams, a veterinarian, is not merely a strict creationist. He has openly stated that he believes that God created the universe 6,500 years ago, although he was quoted in The New York Times this month as saying that his personal faith “doesn’t have anything to do with science.”

“I can separate them,” he continued, adding, “My personal views of Scripture have no room in the science classroom.”

A key concern should not be whether Dr. Abrams’s religious views have a place in the classroom, but rather how someone whose religious views require a denial of essentially all modern scientific knowledge can be chairman of a state school board.

I have recently been criticized by some for strenuously objecting in print to what I believe are scientifically inappropriate attempts by some scientists to discredit the religious faith of others. However, the age of the earth, and the universe, is no more a matter of religious faith than is the question of whether or not the earth is flat.

It is a matter of overwhelming scientific evidence. To maintain a belief in a 6,000-year-old earth requires a denial of essentially all the results of modern physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology and geology. It is to imply that airplanes and automobiles work by divine magic, rather than by empirically testable laws.

Dr. Abrams has no choice but to separate his views from what is taught in science classes, because what he says he believes is inconsistent with the most fundamental facts the Kansas schools teach children.

Another member of the board, who unfortunately survived a primary challenge, is John Bacon. In spite of his name, Mr. Bacon is no friend of science. In a 1999 debate about the removal of evolution and the Big Bang from science standards, Mr. Bacon said he was baffled about the objections of scientists. “I can’t understand what they’re squealing about,” he is quoted as saying. “I wasn’t here, and neither were they.”

This again represents a remarkable misunderstanding of the nature of the scientific method. Many fields — including evolutionary biology, astronomy and physics — use evidence from the past in formulating hypotheses. But they do not stop there. Science is not storytelling.

These disciplines take hypotheses and subject them to further tests and experiments. This is how we distinguish theories that work, like evolution or gravitation.

As we continue to work to improve the abysmal state of science education in our schools, we will continue to battle those who feel that knowledge is a threat to faith.

But when we win minor skirmishes, as we did in Kansas, we must remember that the issue is far deeper than this. We must hold our elected school officials to certain basic standards of knowledge about the world. The battle is not against faith, but against ignorance.

Lawrence M. Krauss is a professor of physics and astronomy at Case Western Reserve University.