Who Believes in Sputnik?

By / 3.18.2011

Many parents can’t decide whether they love or hate the Tiger Mom. Either way, she has focused our collective attention on education in the United States. American students are falling behind students from other countries. In the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing of 15 year-old students from 65 countries, our children placed 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and a below-average 31st in math. The results from January’s National Assessment of Education Progress were equally dismal – only 21 percent of the nation’s 12th graders scored ‘proficient’ in science. In his State of the Union address, President Obama called this our “Sputnik moment,” a crisis moment in the history of our country that should shock us into action.

But is it possible to change our educational system in the US? Success in today’s world is based upon proficiency and innovation in science. Multiple factors contribute to our poor performance, but one glaring problem is the disregard of scientific facts by a large segment of our society. Science allows for a certain amount of dissent, but when ideological, political or religious beliefs automatically nullify reasonable scientific facts, there is potential danger.

Many American students are raised to disbelieve some of the bedrock principles of modern biological science, including evolution. A troubling report, published in Science (Jan 28), describes the concern that 13 percent of high school biology teachers actively teach creationism and an additional 60 percent avoid the controversy of evolution. That leaves less than one third of educators who teach the scientifically-accepted truth about evolutionary biology. To succeed in science, one needs to build knowledge from facts. If scientific facts such as evolution are taught to be false, what foundation then have we given our students? This is certainly not a solid one upon which to base innovation or the next great discovery.

Only 39 percent of Americans believe in evolution. Fifty-seven percent do not believe in global climate change. And only 38 percent believe there is no link between vaccines and autism. Solid bodies of literature separate fact from fiction on these topics, but the majority of Americans apparently disregards the truth. If this denial of scientific fact is then passed on to our children, the next generation of Americans will find difficulty not only with the PISA test, but also with the real world challenge of finding scientifically valid solutions to big problems like climate change and finding cures for disease. We need our children to be innovators, but America’s ideological constraints are holding them back.

Everyone has the right to their beliefs. The rub here is how to balance one’s religion, politics, or ideology with the validity of science. Is it not the responsibility of a religion or ideology to make its teaching compatible with scientific facts? Faith, as I understand it, should be enough to account for the unknowable or unexplainable. And it should be strong enough to accommodate scientific facts within its belief structure. This is not a new struggle, but the consequences are greater in today’s information age where the internet can spread data instantly. It took the Catholic Church almost 400 years to vindicate Galileo for his support of the heliocentric view of the universe, despite solid scientific evidence from Copernican times. Today, religions and ideologies not only harm their own credibility by not accepting evolution but potentially contribute to the flawed science education that seems so prevalent in the United States now. In Galileo’s time, some scholars tried to harmonize the new data with Scripture and Church teachings, but were not able to carry the day. Eventually, it became untenable to deny Galileo’s claims; now is that time for evolution and science in general. We cannot wait another 400 years or we will be overtaken by cultures that advocate real science.

Last December, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in December. Near the end of her comments, she called the K-12 education problem in our country a national security issue. “There are a lot of problems,” she said. “Proliferation, Afghanistan, the Middle East. But the US needs internal repair more than it needs anything else.” Now is the time to start that internal repair. We must teach true science to our children, before another country seizes our Sputnik moment.