A Nation of (Fundamentalist) Idiots

You can’t win the future if you think Noah’s Flood was a real thing. Sorry

For all 13 years of my elementary and secondary education, I attended a religious school. And not just a religious school, but an ardent, protestant, southern, fundamentalist-aligned religious school, wherein not just drinking and drugging could get you suspended or expelled (although, of course, everyone did that anyway), but also dancing, listening to secular music and (for girls) having your skirt fall more than two inches above the knee.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t complain that much. Sure, the place was a little religiously insane—true story: once had a Bible teacher suggest that the Salem witch trials were justified—but the school was small enough that my decidedly unathletic ass was able to play for the baseball and basketball teams, and we didn’t have any problems with gangs or safety issues or any of that other nonsense. And for the most part, the educational aspects—small class sizes, tough grading, etc.—served me well in future endeavors.

For the most part.

We were, however, taught that evolution was decidedly, markedly, demonstrably, incontrovertibly wrong and of the devil himself: rather, the Earth was 6,000 years old, Noah’s Flood actually flooded the entire world (and caused the Grand Canyon), dinosaurs walked with humans, the whole nine yards. And so, before any segment of our learning that dealt with evolutionary biology or pre-civilization history, we were presented with a disclaimer that, in essence, amounted to, “Everything you’re about to hear is bullshit, but we have to teach you this stuff so you can pass your SATs.” Often, the “this is all bullshit” part lasted weeks, while the “here is what we have to teach you” lasted a day or two. The school even flew in a “creation scientist”—a term to be used loosely, and in quotes—for a weeklong seminar on how Adam and Eve were real people, the Garden of Eden was a real place, Noah’s Flood was a real thing, and Bigfoot once existed, and, in fact, may still exist, somewhere. (I’m not making that last bit up.)

The baseline problem is, modern science is intractably interwoven with both evolution and the reality that the world is billions, not thousands, of years old: biology, psychology, astronomy, geology, physics, genetics—this is all where it comes from. (For the record, despite what the fundamentalist yokels in Kansas, Texas and Pennsyltucky want to tell your kids, this is “theory” in sense that gravity is a “theory.” In other words, that evolution happens is an observable fact; how it happens is a theory.)  It’s tough to excel at science when your religion requires you to discount of its most fundamental principles.

Which is why I found this report, from Penn State, to disheartening:

The majority of public high school biology teachers are not strong classroom advocates ofevolutionary biology, despite 40 years of court cases that have ruled teaching creationism or intelligent design violates the Constitution, according to Penn State political scientists. …

The researchers examined data from the National Survey of High School Biology Teachers, a representative sample of926 public high school biology instructors. They found only about 28 percent of those teachers consistently implement National Research Council recommendations calling for introduction of evidence that evolution occurred, and craft lesson plans with evolution as a unifying theme linking disparate topics in biology.

In contrast, Berkman and Plutzer found that about 13 percent of biology teachers “explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design by spending at least one hour of class time presenting it in a positive light.” Many of these teachers typically rejected the possibility that scientific methods can shed light on the origin of the species, and considered both evolution and creationism as belief systems that cannot be fully proven or discredited.

Berkman and Plutzer dubbed the remaining teachers the “cautious 60 percent,” who are neither strong advocates for evolutionary biology nor explicit endorsers of nonscientific alternatives. “Our data show that these teachers understandably want to avoid controversy,” they said. [Emphasis mine]

The good news, if you want to call it that, is that “only” 13 percent of high school biology teachers reject the scientific method, and instead put equal stock into a 3,000-year-old oral history passed down by Middle Eastern nomads. Still, that’s more than 1 in 10 teachers teaching students things that are demonstrably false—and that’s way too many. More dispiriting, though, are the 6 in 10 teachers who avoid the subject altogether, afraid that the neighborhood Church Lady will make a stink—and the fact that we’ve created a culture so afraid of antiscientific Christianists that we’ll neglect a key element of children’s education in deference to their mythology.

Just to be clear: I don’t hold anyone’s religious beliefs against them. If you want to believe that the Earth is flat, the galatic ruler Xemu killed billions of space people with H-bombs but their spirits later inhabited living bodies and that’s how humanity came about (or whatever the hell happened), or that global warming has been caused by the decline of worldwide pirating, be my guest. If you’re a high school biology teacher who believes in the literal Genesis story, that’s fine, too (although I might question whatever backwoods institution conferred your degree).

But if you want to be a science teacher, you need to teach science. End of story.

The truth is, no matter your political inclinations, President Obama was assuredly right in his State of the Union speech on one count: The future is science and innovation. And if we’re denying high schoolers information on this bedrock of scientific knowledge, we’re doing our posterity an unforgivable disservice.