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Is ignorance bliss?


Fifty-nine percent of Americans believe that astrology is "mostly true" or "somewhat true" --- up from 40 percent in 1978.

Why do more and more Americans believe in the supernatural? That was one of the topics at the "Toward a New Enlightenment" conference in Buffalo in late October. The 600 attendees got an earful of disturbing information from renowned intellectuals and scientists, including seven Nobel laureates. One of the main themes was the danger of religious fundamentalism throughout the world. And the current debate about intelligent design and creationism was front and center on the agenda.

We've all heard that America is falling behind other developed countries in education, and that many Americans are woefully ignorant on many subjects. The speakers at the Enlightenment conference talked about all of that in great, and disturbing, detail.

For example, Professor Lawrence Krause of Case Western Reserve University cited studies indicating that:

• 50 percent of Americans believe that the sun orbits the earth;

•) 49 percent of Americans believe man was created in the image of God within the last 10,000 years;

• 54 percent believe that evolution should not be taught.

In Western European countries, Canada, Japan, and Australia, all the percentages are much lower.

This is an age of technology, and the US is not keeping pace. It's estimated that we lack at least 10,000 high-school science and math teachers. Only 30 percent of US college students are studying engineering or science. In China and India, that figure is 65 percent. These are some of the nations we will be competing with as the high-tech 21st century moves forward.

David Dawkins, the world renowned microbiologist, noted that the 19th century was dominated by chemistry and the 20th by physics. The 21st century will be the era of biology, he said. But the United States is in danger of falling hopelessly behind in that field, since we're tied in knots by religious fundamentalists. They oppose stem cell research, and the Bush administration takes its cue from them. Advances in that field are moving to other countries.

Key to understanding biology, of course, is the evolution of living organisms, and that basic scientific principle is now increasingly under attack throughout the United States.

The critics who don't want evolution taught in schools, or who want "intelligent design" taught alongside it base, their argument on "fairness." A huge percentage of the population believes the fundamentalist position, they say. Therefore, fairness dictates that it should at least be presented. But that's not science. That's like arguing that we should teach the "alternative" belief that the sun orbits the earth, and then let the students decide which makes sense to them.

Education, said David Dawkins, should not be used to validate ignorance.

Intelligent design advocates have also made an issue about "gaps" in the theory of evolution, and they insist that those gaps prove their religious beliefs. But there are always gaps in knowledge. The way to fill the gaps is through the scientific method: doing research, testing hypotheses, conducting peer review, and continually testing new evidence until answers are found. It often takes decades between the first hypotheses and the general acceptance of an explanation. These explanations finally find their way into textbooks and scientific teaching. Intelligent-design advocates, however, want to skip all those steps and go right to giving their belief equal status with evolution.

A hundred years ago there were 10 times as many gaps in the theory of evolution as there are today, and the gaps will shrink as knowledge increases. That's the way it's done. Intelligent design is not science, and it should have nothing to do with science education. If it were science, we would have scientific papers being published for peer review. There are none.

Many conference speakers alluded with alarm to the growing debate about teaching intelligent design. In Dover, Pennsylvania, the school board has mandated that students be told there are problems with the evolution theory and that intelligent design is a credible alternative. (The board is being challenged in court.) And there are reports of intelligent-design initiatives in Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Florida, and Virginia.

Also at the conference: Chris Mooney, author of "The Republican Attack on Science," outlined how the Bush administration's adherence to its political agenda is compromising America's scientific leadership. Among the results: the administration refuses to recognize global warming. It has emasculated funding for basic scientific research and eliminated the White House Office of Science and Technology. Stem cell research has been restricted, and the administration is ignoring the input of respected scientists.

It is hard to believe that in the 21st century the United States, the supposed technological and scientific leader of the world, can be embroiled in such controversies. No other developed country is. Unless these challenges can be successfully met, the prospects for our continued technical leadership are in grave doubt. So, do we need to move "Toward a New Enlightenment"? You bet.

(For those interested, further information on the Enlightenment conference can be found at; click on the appropriate icon.)