February 3, 2009
In one of the Presidential debates, the candidates were asked about the poor showing in Science and Mathematics of American students in international comparisons. Neither of the candidates answered the question. As a long-time biology educator, I would like to offer my own hypotheses, particularly now with renewed political attempts in Mississippi to interfere with biology education.
First, I think that there is too much acceptance of the idea that believing something (anything) regardless of the facts is OK. One might call this the "Emperor''s clothes syndrome," if you recall that story.
Second, science and mathematics are very difficult subjects and more students these days seem to want to take an easier road to a high paying career. Science and mathematics requirements at all levels from grade school through college may also be inadequate and this is perhaps reflected in scientific illiteracy rates among American citizens.
Third, there is a vigorous anti-science movement that uses distortion and intimidation making it more difficult for science educators to teach their fields, especially the field of biology. This approach is reflected in the recent submission to the legislature of biology textbook evolution ''disclaimer'' by a local politician. Biological sciences include study of how living systems work and their history over long time periods (biological evolution). Evolutionary biology is not a belief system, rather a scientific subject like any other. All the evidence points to a common ancestry of different life forms on earth. Through millennia, many millions of new forms (species) have emerged primarily through selective process whereby unfit individuals are eliminated. New species appear when genetic changes lead to reproductive isolation between species. After hundreds of millions of years of these processed, often set back by waves of extinction, the result is extensive biodiversity. Just look in any field guide, whether to birds or insects or beetles or fungi or butterflies or flowers to get some idea of the incredible biodiversity that has evolved on earth.
As humans, we are all part of these processed and this biodiversity. There are currently described about 20 species of extinct fossil hominids in addition to our own species Homo Sapiens. I have long naively thought that as living humans we should all be interested in understanding our physical origins. However. I was initially surprised in teaching such course work how little interest there was even among many students who chose to take the course as an elective. Nevertheless, I continue to believe that a module or course in physical anthropology should be part of everyone''s education.
From these comments, you should gather that I advocate transparency in educating citizens (in science and other subjects) so that they will have better and more fulfilling lives and enable them to be better citizens and parents. Trying to interfere with or prevent science teachers from teaching the basics of their fields is a disservice to everyone. Science teachers bear the responsibility and deserve the freedom to teach their fields without political or secretarian interference like that being currently pushed. In addition, our country''s strong technology superiority is being threatened by a reduction in American students in graduate and post-graduate programs, soon to reach crisis proportions.
History shows that scientific thinking has been the basis for many of our freedoms and certainly for our advanced technology and high standard of living. Enabling a scientifically literate citizenry could be considered a patriotic activity, as it should make our country more capable in an increasing competitive world.