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Unscientific American: US Almost Last in Understanding Evolution

Americans rank next-to-last on a survey of 34 nations' acceptance of evolution as a scientific fact. (See the chart, below.) Our awareness of this scientific reality has actually gone down over the past 20 years, no doubt as a result of the so-called "intelligent design" movement and other Christian fundamentalist campaigns. In fact, frequent churchgoers in the US are most likely to doubt evolution. How will their children - and ours - become the great scientists, doctors, and engineers of tomorrow?

The US scores well behind nine European countries in its acceptance of scientific fact. Jon Miller, the primary author of the survey on evolution, notes one likely cause:

"The biblical literalist focus of fundamentalism in the United States sees Genesis as a true and accurate account of the creation of human life that supersedes any scientific finding or interpretation. In contrast, mainstream Protestant faiths in Europe (and their U.S. counterparts) have viewed Genesis as metaphorical and--like the Catholic Church--have not seen a major contradiction between their faith and the work of Darwin and other scientists."

A country that doesn't believe in evolution doesn't respect rational thought or the scientific process. It can't produce the scientists and leaders it needs to face the problems of the 21st Century. This is even a national security problem, since a nation that won't face and study reality can't defend itself. It situation should be of concern to every American.

Evolution is not a "theory" in the way that fundamentalists claim. It's verified scientific fact, developed through a rigorous method of observation, hypothesis, and confirmation. Some people believe things that science can't prove. Others believe things that science has disproved. They can do that, but they should be prepared to be challenged in an open society. (That's particularly true if there's an extensive scientific record demonstrating that a belief - say, that the earth was created 6,000 years ago - is false.)

As has been said often in the political debate: "You're entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts." A secular society must rigorously teach facts to its children, so that it can have an educated workforce and contribute to scientific advancement.

The Catholic Church rejects the "intelligent design" movement and unequivocally supports the teaching of evolution. The National Council of Churches is a progressive association that represents 55 million American Christians, and it has taken a leadership role in resisting "ID" and other impositions of private belief onto the public sphere. (For some reason, the mainstream media have ignored this organization so thoroughly that I've described them as "America"s Secret Christians.")

Unfortunately, their efforts have been more than offset in this country by an activist coalition of fundamentalists and conservative politicians. The result is an all-out war on science that has caused scientific fact to be banned from IMAX theaters, and resulted in a museum exhibit failing to find a corporate sponsor.

The impact on the scientific climate in the U.S. has been so extreme that one scientific journal, Nature, unfavorably compared the U.S. attitude toward science with that of Islamic fundamentalists in Ahmadinejad's Iran.

It's true that literalist Islam doesn't challenge proven scientific fact the way its Christian equivalent does. That should trouble Christian conservatives like Gary Bauer who believe that fighting something they call "Islamofascism" is "the defining cause of our time." But don't expect to hear from them soon, despite the fact that Al Qaeda's ranks include a number of engineers and doctors who spend their time thinking of ways to use science to create terror.

The controversy continues, and was the subject of avery effective Doonesbury series last week.

I support religious tolerance and respect religious expression and have my own spiritual beliefs, but no group has the right to interfere with the common good and our shared freedoms. Religious organizations such as the Catholic Church and the NCC are on the right side of this debate. Perhaps that's why heavily Catholic countries like Italy and Spain perform so much better in this survey.

Americans who are concerned about the Constitution and our social advancement should be concerned about any attempt by a religious group to control the public discourse, or interfere with individual freedoms, based on sectarian belief. That includes access to medications in pharmacies or access to scientific knowledge in schools or homes.

One last thought: Science isn't just the truth, although it deserves a vigorous defense for that reason alone. It's also beautiful. It's tragic to deny schoolchildren and other Americans the right to appreciate its wonders.

UPDATE: I removed reference to a story about the National Park Service after a sharp-eyed commenter noted that one of the outlets that publicized the story, Michael Shermer of Skeptic, did some first-hand investigation, found some apparently contradictory evidence, and issued a retraction. As I've long said, those who claim to speak for science and rationality should be willing to retract unproven or disproven claims.

And for those who point out that evolution is a theory, a clarification: I wrote "Evolution is not a "theory" in the way that fundamentalists claim," meaning as a supposition that's just as untested as "ID."

As for evolution being "fact," there's a serious semantic discussion to be conducted here. By one definition, "facts" are bits of information that have been objectively processed and stored for shared use. Otherwise, perhaps I could have said "facts - based on present information and the most objective evaluation possible." But that's unwieldy.

Maybe I should have said "conclusions that would be reached by unbiased and informed observers given all relevant and currently available information"? I didn't want to get all phenomenological on y'all or anything ... so I used the word "fact." Alternate suggestions for choice of wording are welcome.

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