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Unscientific American: US Almost Last in Understanding Evolution
Friday, 19 January 2007 12:17
by R.J. Eskow

Americans rank next-to-last on a survey of 34 nations' acceptance of evolution as a scientific fact. (See the chart, below.) Our awareness of this scientific reality has actually gone down over the past 20 years, no doubt as a result of the so-called "intelligent design" movement and other Christian fundamentalist campaigns. In fact, frequent churchgoers in the US are most likely to doubt evolution. How will their children - and ours - become the great scientists, doctors, and engineers of tomorrow?

The US scores well behind nine European countries in its acceptance of scientific fact. Jon Miller, the primary author of the survey on evolution, notes one likely cause:

"The biblical literalist focus of fundamentalism in the United States sees Genesis as a true and accurate account of the creation of human life that supersedes any scientific finding or interpretation. In contrast, mainstream Protestant faiths in Europe (and their U.S. counterparts) have viewed Genesis as metaphorical and--like the Catholic Church--have not seen a major contradiction between their faith and the work of Darwin and other scientists."

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A country that doesn't believe in evolution doesn't respect rational thought or the scientific process. It can't produce the scientists and leaders it needs to face the problems of the 21st Century. This is even a national security problem, since a nation that won't face and study reality can't defend itself. It situation should be of concern to every American.

Evolution is not a "theory" in the way that fundamentalists claim. It's verified scientific fact, developed through a rigorous method of observation, hypothesis, and confirmation. Some people believe things that science can't prove. Others believe things that science has disproved. They can do that, but they should be prepared to be challenged in an open society. (That's particularly true if there's an extensive scientific record demonstrating that a belief - say, that the earth was created 6,000 years ago - is false.)

As has been said often in the political debate: "You're entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts." A secular society must rigorously teach facts to its children, so that it can have an educated workforce and contribute to scientific advancement.

The Catholic Church rejects the "intelligent design" movement and unequivocally supports the teaching of evolution. The National Council of Churches is a progressive association that represents 55 million American Christians, and it has taken a leadership role in resisting "ID" and other impositions of private belief onto the public sphere. (For some reason, the mainstream media have ignored this organization so thoroughly that I've described them as "America's Secret Christians.")

Unfortunately, their efforts have been more than offset in this country by an activist coalition of fundamentalists and conservative politicians. The result is an all-out war on science that has caused scientific fact to be banned from IMAX theaters, and resulted in a museum exhibit failing to find a corporate sponsor.

The impact on the scientific climate in the U.S. has been so extreme that one scientific journal, Nature, unfavorably compared the U.S. attitude toward science with that of Islamic fundamentalists in Ahmadinejad's Iran.

It's true that literalist Islam doesn't challenge proven scientific fact the way its Christian equivalent does. That should trouble Christian conservatives like Gary Bauer who believe that fighting something they call "Islamofascism" is "the defining cause of our time." But don't expect to hear from them soon, despite the fact that Al Qaeda's ranks include a number of engineers and doctors who spend their time thinking of ways to use science to create terror.

The controversy continues, and was the subject of avery effective Doonesbury series last week.

I support religious tolerance and respect religious expression and have my own spiritual beliefs, but no group has the right to interfere with the common good and our shared freedoms. Religious organizations such as the Catholic Church and the NCC are on the right side of this debate. Perhaps that's why heavily Catholic countries like Italy and Spain perform so much better in this survey.

Americans who are concerned about the Constitution and our social advancement should be concerned about any attempt by a religious group to control the public discourse, or interfere with individual freedoms, based on sectarian belief. That includes access to medications in pharmacies or access to scientific knowledge in schools or homes.

One last thought: Science isn't just the truth, although it deserves a vigorous defense for that reason alone. It's also beautiful. It's tragic to deny schoolchildren and other Americans the right to appreciate its wonders.

UPDATE: I removed reference to a story about the National Park Service after a sharp-eyed commenter noted that one of the outlets that publicized the story, Michael Shermer of Skeptic, did some first-hand investigation, found some apparently contradictory evidence, and issued a retraction. As I've long said, those who claim to speak for science and rationality should be willing to retract unproven or disproven claims.

And for those who point out that evolution is a theory, a clarification: I wrote "Evolution is not a "theory" in the way that fundamentalists claim," meaning as a supposition that's just as untested as "ID."

As for evolution being "fact," there's a serious semantic discussion to be conducted here. By one definition, "facts" are bits of information that have been objectively processed and stored for shared use. Otherwise, perhaps I could have said "facts - based on present information and the most objective evaluation possible." But that's unwieldy.

Maybe I should have said "conclusions that would be reached by unbiased and informed observers given all relevant and currently available information"? I didn't want to get all phenomenological on y'all or anything ... so I used the word "fact." Alternate suggestions for choice of wording are welcome.

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Comments (8)add comment

a guest said:

Good for the Christians
If even the author of the theory of evolution Darwin himself disregarded it in his older (and wiser) days who are we to doubt the master!
January 19, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

galileo was right the world was wrong
I'd love to be able to have a survey of the countries that refudiated galileos observations about the orbit of the earth and sun. In that case all the world was wrong regardless of survey or opinions. Scientist are vacating the evolution position and adopting an intelligent design en masse because the evidence is revealing that the chances for evolution are dissapearing as quickly as the ozone layer.

toleration means toleration.
the so called tolerant are generally the most intolerant.
January 19, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

good for the Christians??!
So it's good that we no longer pay attention to scientific inquiry and fact?! And Darwin discounted evolution in his older days??? You Can't even gethistorical facts straight much less science. I, for one, am not at all proud that we are going backwards while the rest of the civilized world moves beyond us.
January 19, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

Conflating Two Issues
In the interests of fairness I wish to point out that there are two basic questions here -- commentators on both sides of the debate tend to conflate them rather than deal with them separately: A pox on both your houses!

Macro-evolution (so-called) is the notion that life on Earth evolved from non-living things.

Micro-evolution (so-called) is the notion that species evolve through mutation and selection.

The differentiation of species and the genesis of life are two very different matters. And if we don't talk about them separately we will never get anywhere.

January 19, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

So sad ..
Wow! In only 4 comments such nonsense. Macro-evolution is not about how life evolved from nonliving matter that would be properly called abiogenesis. Darwin didn't recant evolution on his death bed and scientists are not abandoning evolution "en mass".

It would behoove anyone that wishes to discuss evolution to actually understand it.

If you find yourself thinking things like:

If we evolved from apes, then why are there still apes around?

Then you do not understand evolution.
January 19, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

Science isn't just attacked on the evolution front. Opposition to climate change research has been funded by big oil, especially Exxon-Mobil, and we all know how the Busheviks have gutted environmental law.

The only biology given respect in the US these days is genetics because it can generate corporate profit, any science that might lead to environmental controls that interfere with the accumulation of profit is attacked or discredited.

When economic and political ideologies are allowed to dominate science; science, society and the planet suffer.

January 20, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

Evolution needs to catch-up with creation-origin Vedas
The author Dr. Vidyardhi Nanduri
Promotes the unity of science with philosophy



Presently Cosmology is undergoing REVISION and BIG-BANG,
Dark Matter,DARK ENERGY and Blackholes are all under question.
Evolution needs to catch up with creation.
These books provide search links,routes and many COSMOS QUESTIONS
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January 21, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

exactly what is faith
Faith is something which cannot be validated by scientific method.
January 28, 2007
Votes: +0

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