Tuesday, January 01, 2013

STEM the Science Deniers – Part I

An interviewer recently posed the following question to a nationally known politician: “How old do you think the Earth is?” Here was the response:

“I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.”

That relatively simple question, followed by that relatively convoluted response, recently gained a good deal of publicity since the responder is a U.S. Senator, and a strong potential contender for even higher public office (Senator Marco Rubio, R-FL). He is (ironically) also a member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee of the U.S. Senate. The Science Committee? Really! (Read more here)

Let me paraphrase an old Arabian adage that claims, “There are those that know; there are those that don’t know; there are those that know that they don’t know; and there are those that don’t know that they don’t know.” Frankly, I’m not certain as to which group the senator belongs to since he is not a stupid individual. Of course his response might have been a gut reaction that insured he would not offend at least a segment of his constituent base.

Economics 101

Despite his original comments that we will “ never be able to answer when the earth was created,” two weeks later, he announced that he suddenly (perhaps miraculously?) discovered the answer to the question that he had termed not only unanswerable, but “one of the great mysteries”–– he correctly stated that the earth is actually 4.5 billion years old.

Notwithstanding that about face, he has not yet seen fit to correct his testimony regarding his apparent non-belief of the relationship between scientific empirical evidence and its impact on gross domestic product and economic growth. This raises the suspicion that he might not only be at the very least a Science skeptic, but at the very worst a “Science Denier.” Regardless, his comments about gross domestic product, and economic growth clearly indicate that he is seriously challenged on the subject of Economics.

In an article in Scientific American (that preceded the above interview), it stated that, “For some two centuries, science was a preeminent force in American politics, and scientific innovation has been the leading driver of U.S. economic growth since World War II.” The article pointed to the fact that, “[Scientific] Breakthroughs in the 1970s and 1980s sparked the computer revolution and a new information economy.

In a sense the publication anticipated the outlook of the politician cited above by maintaining that, “A large number of major party contenders for political office this year took anti-science positions against evolution, human induced climate change, vaccines, stem-cell research, and more.” The article continued, “It’s hard to know when it became acceptable for U.S. politicians to be anti-science. The Founding Fathers were science enthusiasts. Thomas Jefferson, a lawyer and scientist, built the primary justification for the nation’s independence on the thinking of Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and John Locke––the creators of physics, inductive reasoning, and empiricism.”

Then came a Jeffersonian principle that is crucial, one that all too many politicians ignore––“Consequently, those in positions of authority do not have the right to impose their beliefs on the people. The people themselves retain this inalienable right. Based on this foundation of science—of knowledge gained by systemic study and testing instead of by the assertion of ideology––the argument for a new democratic form of government was self-evident.”

In addition to the groups mentioned in the Arabian aphorism, we can probably add another. This would be the “I don’t want to know” group. Actually, at least a portion of this group is well educated, but like the group as a whole, seems to live in another galaxy. These are people that believe scientific, empirical evidence (what might be termed true, proven facts) is trumped by economic, political, or religious ideological dogma. You might think that the size of this group is rather limited, but on certain subjects the numbers belie this belief. As mentioned above, many of the controversial issues involved are of a scientific nature. Here is one such statistic:

Creationism or Cuckooism?

In June 2012, a Gallup survey showed that nearly half of Americans believe God created mankind in a single day about 10,000 years ago, a literal interpretation of the Bible. If you think that is a remarkable number, even more remarkable is the fact that despite our nation’s growing, almost fanatic fascination with innovation, technology, and scientific feats, this most recent survey confirms that the view toward evolution in the United States hasn't changed in 30 years. About 46 percent of people say Creationism explains the origin of humans. You might believe that the population became more scientifically inclined over those 30 years, but apparently the percentage of Science Deniers has not budged.

This unusually high, and surprisingly persistent percentage of Creationists (essentially science deniers), may explain another problematic phenomenon. The word “stem,” has several different meanings, but as used in the headline above, Stem the Science Deniers, it is defined as prevent, stop, arrest, bring to a standstill, check, contain, control, curb, dam, hinder, hold back, oppose, resist, restrain, stay, withstand. However, that same configuration of letters–– STEM––when viewed as an acronym, refers to four sorrowfully overlooked, yet critically, even crucially imperative education fields of study––Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

The Executive Report

The full ramifications of this issue, and its influence on the ability of our country to succeed as a competitor in the 21 st Century global economy is best described in the following opening statement from the 2010 Executive Report by The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (I apologize for its length, but it is central to the issue):

“The success of the United States in the 21st century – its wealth and welfare – will depend on the ideas and skills of its population. These have always been the Nation’s most important assets. As the world becomes increasingly technological, the value of these national assets will be determined in no small measure by the effectiveness of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in the United States. STEM education will determine whether the United States will remain a leader among nations and whether we will be able to solve immense challenges in such areas as energy, health, environmental protection, and national security. It will help produce the capable and flexible workforce needed to compete in a global marketplace. It will ensure our society continues to make fundamental discoveries and to advance our understanding of ourselves, our planet, and the universe. It will generate the scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians who will create the new ideas, new products, and entirely new industries of the 21st century. It will provide the technical skills and quantitative literacy needed for individuals to earn livable wages and make better decisions for themselves, their families, and their communities. And it will strengthen our democracy by preparing all citizens to make informed choices in an increasingly technological world.

Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. education system drove much of our Nation’s economic growth and prosperity. The great expansion of high school education early in the century, followed by an unprecedented expansion of higher education, produced workers with high levels of technical skills, which supported the economy’s prodigious growth and reduced economic inequality.

At the same time, scientific progress became an increasingly important driver of innovation-based growth. Since the beginning of the 20th century, average per capita income in the United States has grown more than sevenfold, and science and technology account for more than half of this growth. [Mr. Senator, please take note.] In the 21st century, the country’s need for a world-leading STEM workforce and a scientifically, mathematically, and technologically literate populace has become even greater, and it will continue to grow – particularly as other nations continue to make rapid advances in science and technology. In the words of President Obama, “We must educate our children to compete in an age where knowledge is capital, and the marketplace is global.”

Okay! We can agree that STEM education is important for the future of our country. So what’s the problem? How about this as an answer:

The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 52nd in the quality of mathematics and science education, and 5th (and declining) in overall global competitiveness.

The United States ranks 27th in developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering.

There are more foreign students studying in U.S. graduate schools than the number of U.S. students and over 2/3 of the engineers who receive Ph.D.’s from United States universities are not United States citizens. This is more than a problem, it’s potentially catastrophic.

More on this next month.


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