Saturday, July 16, 2011 | 2 a.m.
A bunch of scientists have been at the South Point this week to talk science at what’s called “The Amazing Meeting.” They’re talking science, but also discussing how to make America less foolish on matters scientific.
A tall order, that.
Still, I find encouragement in these people fighting the good fight right here in Vegas, especially as a counterpoint to the humiliating performance recently by many of the Miss USA contestants, also here in Vegas, when asked whether evolution should be taught in the schools.
A friend forwarded me the YouTube video awhile back, and when I wasn’t laughing, I was appalled at the state of our education system.
The science community took notice of this assault on reason, even though this must feel commonplace for scientists.
Josh Rosenau, policy director of the National Center for Science Education, is in town for the conference. He blogs and provided a transcript of the answers the pageant contestants gave to the evolution question.
The most common absurdity was the continued use of the words “believe” and “belief.”
For instance, here’s Miss Arizona: “I know that some people obviously believe in evolution and some people believe in creation.”
Evolution isn’t Santa Claus, something you “believe” in. Like gravity, it exists, whether you like it or not.
Rosenau told me: “The balancing act that the contestants are doing is not different from what you hear from politicians — they’re trying to find some middle ground. It reflects on the quality of science education, but also more broadly on how scientific issues are perceived: That they’re a matter of belief. That you choose your reality in a certain way.”
What’s funny is that we often hear this from conservatives, who otherwise decry relativism, but on scientific issues such as evolution or climate change, suddenly become all, “Oh, hey man, everybody is entitled to believe what they want, man.”
Related to this tripe is the notion of choice, as illustrated by Miss Colorado: “It’s important to let students just decide their own ideas and what they want to believe in.”
Uh, no. As Rosenau put it: “You don’t get to vote on whether gravity works or not.”
Evolution is a central idea of biology and can’t be dispensed with just because a student feels like it. Moby Dick was not a dolphin, and the moon landing wasn’t staged either.
These young women apparently don’t know basic civics either, because the Supreme Court has declared, correctly, that young-earth creationism amounts to the teaching of religion, which is a violation of the First Amendment’s ban on the establishment of state religion.
Ignorance of this kind was pretty rampant among — shocking — Bible Belters. Here’s Miss Georgia: “I think evolution should be taught but I also think maybe the biblical stuff should be taught as well, you know.”
Oh, to my Jewish friends, yeah, we’re gonna teach that Jesus was the Messiah, but don’t worry because just to be fair we’ll also teach that you all don’t believe in that sort of thing, m’kay?
That this attitude is prevalent among some pageant contestants would seem to indicate that young-earth creationism is indeed being taught in wide swaths of the country.
(To be fair, some of the contestants gave the right answer, including Miss California, who was eventually crowned Miss USA. So there’s a case for optimism.)
Rosenau told me the situation has gotten better during the past decade or so, but that often his organization finds that it discovers a school teaching creationism only when a student or family raises a ruckus — there’s no lawsuit until there’s a plaintiff, after all.
Finally, there’s the classic ignorance about what constitutes a scientific theory. Here’s Miss Mississippi: “I think evolution should be taught as what it is, it’s a theory, so I don’t think it should be taught as fact, but I do think our children should know the theories that are involved in different sciences.”
When you and I are having a conversation at a bar and we say, “Well, that’s just a theory, man,” that’s not the same as a scientific theory that has developed through the scientific method. A scientific theory is, as the dictionary tells us: “a more or less verified or established explanation accounting for known facts or phenomena.”
Sometimes I’m amazed that we don’t still live in caves.