There were two important election results involving evolution a couple of weeks ago. In Dover, Penn., voters replaced eight Republican members of a school board, all of whom had enacted a policy requiring students in the district to hear a short statement about intelligent design prior to learning about evolution. The new board members, all Democrats, want nothing to do with intelligent design. In Kansas, meanwhile, things turned out differently; the state’s Board of Education approved new science standards in a 6-4 vote that seem to favor intelligent design at the expense of evolution. Most notable among the changes is an alteration of the board’s very definition of science. The old language, which stated that science is “the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us,” has been supplanted by a new definition – one that cuts out the word “natural” with reference to the explanations that science seeks to develop.

Jesse Singal

This is troublesome, to say the least. The excision certainly seems intentional, and it’s hard to see why science should ever touch anything that isn’t “natural.” Certain groups are seeking to worm their preferred ideology into science classrooms – an ideology that is far from scientific. What’s unfortunate is that if poll numbers are any indication, Kansas’s result is much more in line with “mainstream America.”

According to a CBS survey conducted in late October, 51 percent of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form. This is a surprising statistic for anyone who lives in a major urban area or a liberal, intellectual enclave like Ann Arbor – if you asked around in New York, Boston or Los Angeles, you’d get the impression that Americans, on the whole, accept evolution. But this is not the case, and it has major ramifications.

Huge swathes of the country disagree with the accepted view of biologists everywhere. It’s easy to shrug this off and say, “So what?” But there’s more at stake here. This has to do with being a highly industrialized, ultramodern country where the majority of the population lacks a basic understanding of science or the logical process. It has to do with our ability to accept undesirable facts. And most importantly, it has to do with our ability to defer to experts.

A history class teaches what history experts think. A painting class teaches the techniques adopted by master painters. So why, in certain areas, are we so unwilling to accept the opinions of experts? It’s a question that needs to be addressed, as an ill-informed voting body is a self-destructive voting body. Just as most Americans don’t believe in evolution, there was a point at which most people thought Saddam Hussein was involved in Sept. 11. These aren’t exactly raging controversies for experts in the respective areas; all it takes to find out that yes, evolution exists, or that Hussein, a secular nationalist, would be loath to associate with a religious radical like Osama bin Laden, is to ask someone with a doctorate in the relevant field. A country unwilling to look to experts cannot be expected to effectively govern itself.

No group better embodies this mistrust of experts than the Bush administration. According to The Associated Press, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office recently revealed anomalies in the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to reject over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill, including the fact that “some documents suggest the decision was made even before scientists finished reviewing the evidence.” Much has already been written accusing President Bush of stocking high-level organizations like the FDA and Environmental Protection Agency with those whose qualifications are more political than scientific. Bush, for his part, wants intelligent design taught alongside evolution.

It’s in the interest of politicians that we mistrust experts. Experts, usually subjected to the political disinfectant of peer-reviewed journals and wary of the career-killing potential of bad science, are more concerned with accuracy than with conclusions that fit into a particular agenda. Politicians are concerned with getting re-elected. This explains many of the origins of anti-intellectualism; intellectuals have a pesky habit of undermining political rhetoric. The same goes for the consistent attempts on the part of the Republicans to foment distrust of the media. The GOP, of course, would rather have itself and its “new media” figureheads be the ones who produce and disseminate “truth.” It’s vital for the future of the country that the voting public get over this misunderstanding and fear. If Kansas is in any indication, we have a ways to go.

 

Singal can be reached at jsingal@umich.edu.

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