Thursday, November 17, 2005

54. Teaching science intelligent choice

To the surprise of almost no one in the scientific community, President Bush came out in support of teaching Intelligent Design alongside evolution in high school science classes. The President believes that schools should teach Intelligent Design, "so people can understand what the debate is about." Unfortunately, it appears that the President himself does not understand, not only what the debate is about, but also, and more importantly, what is at stake.

As an issue, Intelligent Design is one of a number of subjects highlighting the "culture war" that has engaged our country, most significantly in the separation of church and state. I have previously written specifically on the issue of Intelligent Design and its impact on education in Ohio, so I will only summarize the idea again here.

Intelligent Design is the proposition that life is too complicated to have evolved on its own, that is, without divine intervention. Despite the fact that evolution is one of the most fundamental ideas in science, the same science that allows us to compare the DNA of species across millenniums, build skyscrapers high into our horizons and fly defiantly into outer space, it has been enthralled by religion as both contrary to the Biblical stories of origin and void of the idea that humans have been employed on the earth as something greater than animals. In that Intelligent Design is impossible to prove, it is not a scientific theory as much as it is a "default" idea. The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), petitions the notion, "Such unscientific attitudes belong in the Dark Ages, not America's classrooms."

However, greater than the issue of Intelligent Design, the concern is the poor performance of American high school students in comparison to students in other developed countries- especially Asia. Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Science asked, "How can it be that the nation that leads the world in science and technology still graduates a high school class, which in international comparisons, ranks very near the bottom in science and mathematics accomplishments?"

Moving forward, scientific knowledge is pertinent to the issues surrounding not only this country, but also around the globe. As science progresses, many social, economic and ethical questions are going to have to be considered. Inquiry into the social questions involving nuclear weapons, economic questions that weigh scientific exploration against social welfare, and ethical questions encompassing cloning and stem cell research are going to continue through the next decades. To properly consider these questions, and the many more forthcoming, Americans are going to have to receive a much better education in science than they have been afforded in the recent past. CSICOP harshly, but straightforwardly, concurs, "A public ignorant about the principles of biology is incompetent to make reasonable well-informed decisions on crucial personal, social and economic issues." Consequently, to continue to waste valuable resources in discussing the teaching of Intelligent Design alongside evolution not only demonstrates a lack of knowledge in science, but it also hinders scientific study and continues to divide American culture.

The issue should not be about separating church and state, for even if the metaphoric wall between the two did not exist, Intelligent Design would still have no claim to the science curriculum. Moreover, the issue should not be made to be a religious or political matter- further dividing Americans across the political spectrum. Finally, it is not an issue of equality or debate, as the President suggests. It is an education issue, specifically a science education issue- a discipline in which American education has greatly suffered.

President Bush also said, "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought." I agree with this statement to a point, but does that suggest that science should also teach that the Earth is flat, the Sun orbits around the Earth, and that rain dances may succeed in times of drought? With enough "schools of thought," and outdated ideas, we might not ever actually get around to teaching science.

Thursday, November 3, 2005

53. Self-interest drives country

Greek philosopher Protagoras is credited with the phrase, "Man is the measure of all things," meaning that individuals are the ultimate source of value, and that they create standards based on an ideology that most reflects their belief in and of society. Essentially that it is man, or should be man, that decides what is important. We decide what to care about, and, just as importantly, when to care.

Too often individuals only care about the things that have an impact on their lives directly or that adhere to their life agenda. For a variety of reasons, including disinterest, loyalty to a person or party, or ideological differences, individuals often remain uninformed or uncommitted to principles outside of what affects them directly. In the same manner, too often individuals only care when it has an impact on their lives or when they have seen the impact that not caring has on other individuals.

For, few seemed to care when President Bush was rewarding unqualified political supporters with government positions. It was accepted, to the extent that "to the victors go the spoils," and the appointments were largely ignored.

Only when millions witnessed the deplorable effort by FEMA that left thousands stranded did Americans question "cronyism." And only now that President Bush has nominated a judge, whose qualifications seem to include mostly that she is religious and a close personal friend of the President, have both liberals and conservatives expressed outrage at a process that has gone on for five years now.

Few seemed to care about energy conservation when Americans were throwing themselves, one after another, into gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles as a measure of lifestyle. Few demanded that American automobile manufactures invest their resources in energy-saving alternatives, such as hybrids. Few care that Americans use 18 million barrels a day, which is 21 percent of the world's output- despite having only 5 percent of the world's population.

Only when gas prices rise and it affects both individuals and the economy, do Americans suddenly become outraged at our dependence on foreign oil, and insist that measures be taken to maintain American affluence. Only when China, now the number two oil consumer and with over one billion people, starts competing for foreign oil do we care what the rest of the world might be doing in their plight for energy.

Few seemed to care when the invasion of Iraq was portrayed as an act of patriotism, a fight against terrorism, and a search for weapons of mass destruction. Few seemed to care when it seemed like an easy victory, and the vogue thing to do was slap a yellow ribbon supporting the troops on their car- as though that protested the war did not. Few were interested in demanding answers to the tough questions.

Only when America became an international embarrassment and Americans started to suffer numerous causalities, for a fading cause, did we admit, among other things, the immorality dispensed on the thousands of Iraqis civilians. Only then did we ask ourselves the questions we should have asked from the beginning- how reliable was the information, was Iraq really involved in September 11, 2001, do we have an exit strategy?

Few seem to care about global warming when it is made to appear as though it is a scientific uncertainty. Few care that our government, despite the protest of hundreds of scientists, continued to blatantly employ flawed scientific studies to promote their economic programs. Few care whether the administration arrogantly dismisses International environmental agreements or not- as long as business is not affected.

Only when hurricanes and Tsunamis began to hit in record numbers and leave thousands dead did we consider the possible impact of global warming. Only when, as the New York Times recently noted, the once frozen North Pole may soon be acting like an open sea much of the year, do individuals seem willing to acknowledge the phenomenon.

Few seem to care about the overpopulation of our planet when American lifestyles continue to be among the most affluent in the world. Most are oblivious not only to the poverty in this county, let alone the third-world countries. Most do not consider the impact of overpopulation on future generations, or on our natural resources.

Only when other countries, such as China with their population of over one billion, begin to consume natural resources in increasing amounts, proportional to their development, and thus increasing demand, and prices, do we care. Only when American companies take advantage of desperate conditions in other counties, to both employ labor at reduced costs and use the full benefit of lax environmental regulations, and it leads to significant job loss in America, do we seem to care.

Few seem to care about the distribution of wealth as long as their middle-class life is unaffected. Most individuals remain uninterested in the fact that those who have the greatest need for representation in government have nearly no voice, and certainly no lobby. Americans sit motionlessly as wealthy corporations and well-funded special interest groups fight for their significance in government.

Only when Hurricane Katrina unearthed a population that most did not even know existed, and less even cared about, did Americans take notice- even if they were called "immoral and welfare-pampered."

Few seemed to care about the pollution to our water and air when the proper disposal of such pollutants was regarded as an economic cost.

Only when cities became engulfed in smog, a river caught on fire and fish suffered ghastly mutations did we demand that the government place a value on clean air and clean water and hold businesses accountable.

Unfortunately, in the examples above, the pattern is that most people will sit silent and not make personal commitments until the problem or issue inflicts them directly. That it not to say that there are not a number of incredibly dedicated individuals that are willing to sacrifice time, money and lifestyle for principle- there are. There are just not enough of them.