Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

I have good news . . .

and, of course, bad news. The good news, according to an ongoing series of surveys by the National Science Board, is that the proportion of U.S. adults who are considered scientifically literate has doubled since 1979. The bad news is that it is now 17%. This survey program, directed by Jon D. Miller of Northwestern University, is discussed by Liza Gross in PLoS Biology.

It is only because people do not understand basic scientific ideas, in fact do not understand the nature of science and how scientists think, that they reject science in favor of biblical literalism. According to Miller's research, 1/3 of Americans think that evolution is "definitely false," most aren't sure, and only 14% believe it is the true explanation of human origins. In an international survey of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 33rd in the proportion of adults who believe in evolution, ahead of Turkey.

Gross reports that Miller finds that 43% of Americans agree with all three of the following statements: the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally; there is a personal God who hears the prayers of individual men and women; human beings were created by God as whole persons and did not evolve from earlier forms of life.

Whew. We have a very serious problem here. I have to tell you the truth -- I grew up in the United States, I have lived in many different cities, and I have worked in many different kinds of jobs and workplaces. I attended two different high schools, and three colleges or universities, and I have taught at three. Oh yeah, as a youth I attended church and Sunday school, and my uncle was an Episcopal minister. I have never, to my knowledge, met a single person in my entire life who does not believe in evolution. Now obviously I must have, but it never came up. Whenever it has come up, every single person in the room took it for granted that yes, of course the earth is billions of years old and all of life evolved from a simple common ancestor by the process of mutation and natural selection. That's just common knowledge, it's like knowing that the earth is roughly spherical and it goes around the sun.

I knew that many years ago, there were laws in some states against teaching evolution in the schools, but that was all settled in 1925 when the state of Tennessee put high school teacher John Scopes on trial for open and flagrant evolutionism and Clarence Darrow made a fool of William Jennings Bryan on the witness stand. Out of the blue sky, well into my adulthood, I hear that this question is still politically controversial, and that people all over the country are campaigning to have the biblical story of creation taught in science class. To me, this was like discovering that 50% of Americans have two heads and I'd just never seen one of them. What the hell (pardon me) is going on here?

Well, maybe I shouldn't be surprised because it is also the case that I never knew a single person who voted for Ronald Reagan, and he was elected president twice, by substantial margins, I am given to understand. There is, clearly, an extraordinarily powerful cultural assortment process in our society. I don't try to avoid people who disagree with me about fundamental issues. I don't avoid talking about science and politics -- on the contrary, those are two of the subjects I talk about the most, even with people I've just met. Somehow, without any manifest social barrier -- no caste signal such as pigmentation, clothing, accent, or any other visible sign -- I inhabit a completely different world from the majority of my fellow citizens. This is a very disturbing, very weird discovery. I really need to find out how this is possible.

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