[Before I launch into the statistics, I want to urge you to watch the YouTube video at the bottom of this post. It’s a beautiful testament to the scientific method. In it, a scientist proves Darwin right on a hypothesis that, when Darwin was alive, earned him ridicule. The proof took 150 years to come to light – and it does so in that video.]
The crisis in scientific illiteracy should be a well-known fact to educated Americans, but just in case, a few statistics from the University of Chicago‘s National Opinion Research Center’s 1991-93 International Social Survey Program (ISSP):
- Percentage Saying “I know God exists and I have no doubts about it”
- United States: 62.8% – ranks 3rd under the Philippines and Poland. (Britain, by comparison, ranks 13th at 23.8%, and even Israel is less certain about this “knowledge,” at 43%, than the U.S.)
- Percentage Saying They Definitely Believe “The Bible is the actual word of God and it is to be taken literally, word for word”
- United States: 33.5% – ranks 3rd, again under the Philippines and Poland. (Again, Britain, by comparison, ranks 17th at 8%, and Israel ranks 6th at 26.7%.)
- Percentage Saying They Definitely Believe in “The Devil”
- United States: a whopping 44.5% – ranks 1st, this time, right above the Philippines and Poland. (Britain, by comparison, ranks 10th at 12.7%, and Israel ranks 11th at 12.6%.)
- Percentage Saying They Definitely Believe in “Hell”
- United States: a whopping 49.6% – ranks 1st, again, right above Northern Ireland and the Philippines. (Britain, with 12.8%, ranks 10th, while Israel ranks 5th at 22.5%.)
- Percentage Saying They Definitely Believe in “Religious Miracles”
- United States ranks first, at 45.6%, above Northern Ireland and Ireland. (Britain ranks 13th with 15.3%, and Israel ranks 7th with only 26.4%.)
I frame these statistics in terms of “scientific illiteracy” because it seems clear that a basic understanding of what we mean by “knowing” (as opposed to “having faith”) is lacking among those saying they “know God exists.” Similarly, those who “definitely believe” in the ontological reality of “the Devil,” “Hell,” and “Religious Miracles” betray a lack of understanding of what, in the International Baccalaureate program’s “Theory of Knowledge” class, we call “Justified True Belief.” (How is “definite” belief any different, subjectively, than believing we “know,” since “definite” implies no doubt?). Finally, the fundamentalist belief that every word of the Bible is “literally” true, as I read it, suggests a belief that the contradictory creation myths in that book’s first two pages (Genesis Books 1 and 2) are to be taken as scientific, cosmological explanations on the level of contemporary physics.
The ISSP survey seems to corroborate my “scientific illiteracy” frame by including in its survey questions that measure each respondent’s understanding of basic evolutionary theory:
- Ranking of 21 Nations on Knowledge Question about Human Evolution:
The United States, as you can see, finished dead last out of 21 countries. A 44% grade on this national science test literally shows that America scores an “F” on its report card for science class. (Britain gets a C, and non-monotheistic Japan and then-Soviet satellite E. Germany score a solid B-. Remarkable, when you remember this is a survey of the general populace, and not just the educated elite.)
I know this data is 15 years old, but more recent data from 2005, as I’ve reported before, shows “that the United States ranks next to last in acceptance of evolution theory among  nations polled,” and “that the number of Americans who are uncertain about the theory’s validity has increased over the past 20 years.” We beat Turkey in that study, but Bulgaria beat us.
A Testament to Science and Darwin’s Prophecy Hypothesis Come True
Just watch it. Science teachers and Theory of Knowledge teachers, your students should love this:
Two Short Stories: Why I’m Writing This
There’s so much muddying of the scientific waters from proponents of Creationism and Intelligent Design going on in America. Many of our edubloggers are guilty of that. In my book, no responsible progressive will stay silent and cede the battle for scientific literacy to the forces of medievalism out a sense of social niceness. The stakes are too vital. Call me a crusader for knowledge – or just call me a teacher.
Besides that, I had two recent experiences that struck me with enough force to mention them here:
One: The Neglected Healer
My mother-in-law suffered a catastrophic stroke last Sunday morning. My wife and I rushed to the hospital and joined her family in the Intensive Care Unit in what we thought was our final goodbye to that sweet woman. (She survived, thank goodness, though twice the doctors told us her chances were less than 20%.)
After saying the only words I figured this Korean woman, who speaks no English, would understand – “We love you. It’s okay. We love you. It’s okay.” – I stepped back to let the other family members in.
Two of them bent over her and started praying intensely in Korean. I listened to the “hallelujah’s” and “amen’s” with my ears as I watched the I.V. tubes and medical monitors with my eyes.
Right afterward, the surgeon who’d just operated on my mother-in-law’s brain spoke to the entire family. They hung on his every word. When he was finished, I saw no indication of gratitude or thanks to this man who, through the power of science, had just opened my mother-in-law’s skull and saved her life with science’s healing hands.
I don’t mean to attack prayer here. I simply mean to point out that science saved this woman. Her family didn’t take her to a priest for healing. Yet they gave credit to the priest’s paradigm instead of the scientist’s.
a nine-hour surgery, in which [his] heart was stopped entirely and [his] body and brain were chilled down to about 45 degrees to prevent brain damage from lack of oxygen until they could get the heart-lung machine pumping
so I could share it with that doctor. (See this post – one of my favorites on this blog – for more on that.)
Two: The Medieval “A” Students
My “Advanced Placement” seniors – 18-year-olds now, ending their K-12 education presumably ready to enter many of America’s “elite” (if you believe the hype) universities – and I recently had a class discussion about what scientists are projecting about the future of our planet. One of the students brought up the prophecies of Nostradamus, and how they’ve been “proven true” – according to something she saw on TV, I think. All the other students in the class chimed in with the same enthusiastic credulity about Nostradamus as the first student. There were no skeptical rebuttals.
I was aghast.
That moment was not uncommon. I’m tempted to say, when it comes to evidence that schools succeed in training students to think critically, that that moment was the norm. (Other teachers, please weigh in here. Is my case different from yours?)
It left me wondering how, after 12 years of daily incarceration and nightly homework, even the students with the highest grades show such an inability to think. The easy answer, as regular readers who know me will predict I’d say, is that the students aren’t thinking about learning all these years, but about making grades.
What answers do you have?
Photo: secular, non-secular, non sequitur by Dean Forbes
Related: All posts tagged “Religion“