Science: Fact or Fiction?

I was shocked this week to read that a Pew survey  showed that only 60% of Americans believe in evolution! And that belief among Republicans has fallen from 54% in 2009 to only 43% today. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

I taught science for many years, from Grades Seven and Eight, through Biology, Chemistry and Physics in high school, and then Biochemistry and AIDS 101 at university. A mixed grouping, at best.

For my first assignment, I was hired on a Friday, given five textbooks, and began the next Monday teaching Physics, Chemistry, Biology to high school students, as well as pre-biology and pre-chemistry to grades Seven and Eight. I hope my enthusiasm made up for the fact that I was usually only one lesson ahead in my preparations.

A few years later, teaching just high school was a breeze, and I was glad that Biology was not on my roster, as the Bio teacher was often gifted with road kill by her colleagues, and was too polite to explain that she really had no interest in dead animals. The venomous Palestinian viper that someone killed in their garden was coiled, frozen, in the Teacher’s Lounge, and almost brought on cardiac arrest in a hungry English teacher.

But in all these postings, I found my colleagues to be excited by their subject matter and eager to convey it to their students, though there were stories of teachers who drew the short straw (literally and figuratively) being forced to teach the math or science they detested, with predictable results.

But once I completed a Ph.D. and began to teach in college, I noticed that there was a shift. One began as an Assistant Professor, and after five or six years came the opportunity to seek tenure. On paper this was based on Research, Teaching and Community Service. In fact, the true basis was Research, meaning Acquisition of Grant Money. No grants, no tenure. There was even the “joke” that receiving a Teaching Award was the kiss of death for receiving tenure.

Classes were often enormous, and the students there under some duress. To go to Med School you had to take Biochemistry, or Organic Chemistry, or Embryology. And year after year of students whining over their grades or threatening lawsuits if they didn’t get an “A” could get old pretty fast. The privilege of teaching small classes and seminars went to the tenured. Science was seen as a proving ground, and elimination of the “unworthy” was expected.

I am trying to fit these observations into the fact of the regrettable ignorance of science amongst the general public. Where is the breakdown? Of course the observation has been made that we feed bright, enthusiastic students into our educational system at one end, and turn out grade-grubbing, semi-literate incurious products at the other end. Why should it be different for science?

It should be different because science and the knowledge of how science works is essential in an informed democracy (though of course literacy is too). More and more we are called upon to make decisions based on an understanding of science. Should Grandma have a feeding tube inserted, now that her brain waves are flat? Should I allow a pipeline (or fracking) on my property? Is my water safe to drink? How much treatment is too much (or too little) treatment for a disease? What is a scientific theory, and how does that relate to facts? And does the cold, cold winter many of us are having refute or bolster claims of climate change?

The “debate” or rout this week, between Bill Nye, the Science Guy and Ken Ham, head of the Creation Museum, on the subject of evolution gave a stark picture of the current state in the U.S. Watch it and weep!