Wednesday, March 09, 2005

You Calling Me Stupid

Could we Americans really be that uninformed? Of course the logical question then becomes compared with whom? And, uninformed about what?

A recent article in the Kansas City Star reported that many scientific researchers felt assaulted by various groups and individuals, regarding such topics as stem cell research, evolution, global warming, genetics, and a host of scientific activities.

History, however, has demonstrated that scientific thinking has always held on by the slimmest of threads. Brief periods have shined with critical thought, facilitated new inquiries, and encouraged learning as an end in itself. A few examples would include Greece in the 4th and 5th century B.C., the approximately 400 years that the Arab world and Baghdad was the center of learning (coming to an end by the middle of the 13th century), and Europe in the 18th century, the period known as the Enlightenment.

Scientific thinking is analytic and objective. Above all, it's frequently difficult. On the other hand, revelation, the prophetic voice, and a belief in the "rightness" of ones own words and thoughts is much easier and requires little or no training. It's subjective and does not require that the views of others need to be considered. Science, at its best, does respect thoughtful, diverse opinions. America, it seems to me, is slipping into an especially gloomy time for science, critical thinking, and learning in general.

One poll and survey after another point out that Americans are remarkably ignorant when it comes to basic knowledge, at least compared with residents of other "developed" countries. Two Gallup polls taken over the past several months state that nearly 50 percent of those polled do not believe in the theory of evolution or don't know what it is. The percentage in Europe and Japan is under 30 percent. Of course, what does it say about us as a country when the current occupant of the White House states that the "jury is still out" on the theory of evolution.

A National Geographic survey published two years ago pointed out that only 17 percent of those Americans surveyed could locate the country of Afghanistan on a map. This survey was done after U.S. soldiers had been there close to a year, some of whom were killed in combat.

Do you remember the Time-Life books, the series about Ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Age of Reason, and so forth? While looking up some information about Greece in the fifth century, I compared the book published in 1965 and the one published in 1997. In the 1997 edition I was told that "Zeus was the all-important god of the sky and weather." In the 1965 edition I learned that "at the center of the Greek outlook lay an unshakable belief in the worth of the individual man." The 1997 version might have been written for the average eighth grader. The 1965 version was written for literate adults.

Some 83 percent of Americans supposedly believe in the "virgin birth," and 68 percent believe in the devil. Our knowledge of world history, as well as our own history, is at best pathetic. American high school students consistently perform poorly on math and science tests compared with the rest of the world.

Anti-intellectualism has been a recurrent theme throughout the history of the United States, but it seems noticeably virulent in America today. The highest elected political leader in the country, the President, claims publicly he doesn't read newspapers. His wife later says that he does read newspapers. Perhaps political success, more and more in the U.S., necessitates the increasing need to pander to the uninformed.

Politicians at all levels sneer at "those self-appointed intellectuals." The chairman of the U.S. Senate's Environmental and Public Works Committee (James Inhofe) once said that global warming was the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." I suspect that many climate experts in the world may think the only real hoax is Senator Inhofe....

Ah, well. In the final analysis, what is the important question? Did Adam and Eve have navels--belly buttons? Martin Gardner, writer and debunker of nonsense science, suggests this is not a "trivial" question. If these two poster children of creationism didn't have navels, they couldn't have been perfect human beings. But if they did in fact have navels, well, would this suggest a birth they supposedly never experienced. Weighty matters to be considered.

This topic has been debated ever since the Book of Genesis was written. Ponderous treatises have been published over the centuries arguing for or against belly buttons. Paintings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance show "with and without." In one form or another we are still debating these questions in the twenty-first century.

Scientists believe the average vertebrate species exists for 2 to 5 million years. Homo sapiens have only been around some 200,000 years. It seems inconceivable that we'll ever approach the two million milestone. I suspect that as long as we're infatuated with our own self-importance on the planet, magic in its various forms will hold sway for most of us.

We'll likely destroy ourselves before long, in geologic time--I hope, but we can wish that evolution in its serendipitous way will come up with something better to replace us on planet earth. In the meantime be happy, have some fun ... and fervently hope the spark of scientific inquiry remains alive somewhere. I've got an appointment with my urine therapist.

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