As you’ll probably guess, this post is inspired by the debate my co-author and I had in the thread below. In the end, I remain uncomfortable with the idea that we should disqualify huge swaths of the American population for public office using what essentially amounts to a religious test, and my reason for this is simple: human nature.
The state of science education in the United States is abysmal — and it is not the fault of evangelical groups clamoring for “equal time” for creationism. Our students suck at science for the same reason our students suck at math, namely: we don’t properly educate our science teachers. But even if we had a wonderful teacher training program and a solid science curriculum, we still would not have students who are equal in their aptitude for or interest in the subject.
We can and should do everything humanly possible to expose our citizens to, say, the evidence supporting the theory of evolution, but I guarantee that a significant proportion of our population will imperfectly absorb that information. Not only do our native talents vary, but our incentives are also wildly different. A plumber in Kansas simply doesn’t apply the theory of evolution to the problems he faces in his daily life. Therefore, he makes a rational choice not to read up on it.
The truth of the matter is, even the very smart are limited in terms of what they can learn and understand. On the whole, we are equipped to be specialists, not generalists. Thus, I feel it’s a mistake to declare imperfect scientific knowledge a political deal-breaker.
Of course, a scientist might interject at this point and state that the theory of evolution is so basic that it’s not unreasonable to demand that our leaders comprehend and accept it. My response? Evidently, you scientists are wrong. According to Gallup, creationism persists even among the highly educated. 22% of those respondents whose highest educational attainment was “post-graduate” stated that they were creationists. 22% is low compared to the corresponding number for those who did not have college degrees, but it’s still not zero. And that means simple idiocy is not the sole explanation for creationism’s endurance. There’s something else going on, and it’s called human nature.
My degree is in Biological Psychology, which means that I spent a lot of time in college examining human behavior and its basis in the workings of the brain. Among the many things that I learned about our species during this course of study is the fact that we’re not infallible thinkers. For example, suppose you asked the average man on the street the following: “If you were traveling in Israel, which would you fear more: getting hurt in a car crash or getting hurt in a terrorist attack?” Well, that man on the street is likely to state that he’d worry more about the latter possibility even though the numbers indicate that he should worry about the former.
There’s also this little thing called confirmation bias, which means that we fallen humans tend to favor evidence which supports our preconceptions over evidence which does not. And no — this is not an inborn flaw unique to Biblical literalists or to those of low IQ. Confirmation bias is present throughout the intelligence spectrum, particularly when one’s entire worldview is at stake. Don’t believe me? Well, then I’d recommend you read up on all the 20th century intellectuals who defended Stalin and/or covered up his crimes.
A scientist might also note that because our political leaders are responsible for allocating scientific funding and appointing bureaucrats whose responsibilities impact the scientific community, said leaders should be scientifically literate. My response? Given human nature, it’s probably not the wisest course to depend upon the government for your funding. It seems to me that it would be easier to convince a few wealthy patrons of the utility of your research than it would be to convince an entire electorate and all of its representatives.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for an immediate privatization of all scientific study. But you might want to consider heading in that general direction — at least if you want to pursue your work free from political pressure. When you hold your hand out to the government, you leave yourself vulnerable to the whims of individuals who are not as educated as you are on matters scientific. And if politicians then interfere with your important research? Well, that’s your own damn fault, isn’t it? You’ve been hoist by your own petard.