It looks like everyone's talking about the new Gallup poll that shows more of what we already knew: Nearly half of America is filled with evolution denying idiots.
But absent from the discussion in many other blogs is something else that I think needs to be pointed out and considered.
Question 24 asked Americans how familiar they were with both evolution and creationism. In each case the total saying they were familiar was about 85%.
I'll go ahead and call this one: Bullshit.
I've been discussing evolution as well as many other science topics for several years now, both in person and in online discussion forums. The number one thing that has always struck me is that, in most cases, those who criticize science can't even correctly define what they're criticizing!
Even in forums which are dedicated to people with strong interests in science, I still see the most basic of errors. I found myself correcting the same errors so frequently that it turned into my 4 Big Bang Common Misconceptions post last summer.
Long story made short: Americans think they know a lot more than they do. However, if we made them go back and take a high school exam, I doubt even 10% could pass them. In fact, the problem is so bad, that Fox has an entire TV show showing that adults can't answer the same questions as 5th graders.
So what we really have is a bunch of arrogant Americans that think they know what they're talking about, trying to write policy about things they can't even remember the definitions of from elementary school. A fertile soil of ignorance, watered with religious superstition, and bathed in the sunlight of assumed knowledge is what has led us to the deeply rooted weeds we have today.
The question is what to do about the weeds. I think the best answer is to attack it on each of the three prongs. If we can eliminate the soil, it will have no place to grow. But that's a huge task. Schools are already working extremely hard to educate students and ultimately, I think they do a pretty good job. As I see it, the trouble isn't the schools so much as the cultural attitude that what you learn isn't applicable to everyday life and can be thrown in the mental compost bin as soon as you get your grade.
But once you've composted something, it starts decomposing and turning into that slimy mess that all blends together. That's where you get weird mixtures of things like people thinking the big bang says there was "nothing" and was an "explosion", or that evolution "says we came from monkies". All those words are in there somewhere, but it's all jumbled and mixed together. But again, that's not the fault of the schools so much as cultural attitudes which are going to be nearly impossible to change. Perhaps schools could make the knowledge they instill a little less mental-degradable, but I think it's a stretch to expect them to start handing out intellectual styrofoam.
As far as getting rid of religious superstition, that's something else that's not about to change any time soon. People like Dawkins are slowly starting to unravel it, but I doubt that it will ever be gone in any real sense. Merely changed.
But what about the last case: Trying to prevent the arrogant attitude that Americans have that presumes that a high school diploma means they're "very familiar" with advanced topics? This is one area that I think there is a great deal of progress to be made. High schools should stress (especially in the last year) that this is just the beginning of the path to intelligence. They are merely the smorgasbord of introductions. But nothing beyond that.
Spending 12 years in the educational system seems like a long time, but given that those that are truly the experts can dedicate their entire lives to a single sub-field, 12 years sampling 6 different topics a day, doesn't make one qualified for much of anything. Instead, we should instill a sense of humility in students before turning them loose in the real world. And for those that don't learn their lesson, then we shouldn't play nice and pander to their nonsense.
When people start realizing that they don’t know what they’re talking about, they won’t feel the need to start trying to create public policy that perpetuates their misconceptions. Instead, they will be forced to rely on experts. I make no claim that the experts are always right, but at least there would be far less time wasted on things we know are wrong.