America famously leads the world in its denial of evolution and other well established foundational scientific theories,. It is a trend that is growing worse at a time when truth counts for less and less in the popular media. Even those who accept evolution often fail to appreciate its tremendous relevance for understanding and improving the human condition.
Not surprisingly, this trend is consistent with America’s tend towards less and less success in science education. In a 2009 study by the Program For International Student Assessment, America is now 25th amongst 32 developed countries in respect to its quality and results for science education.
Although religion and politics can be partly to blame for rampant science denial in the USA, it is my opinion that we are failing to teach our children the fundamental aspects of what makes knowing things about the natural world through science different than other ways of knowing. This is dangerous for a democracy that depends on a well educated citizenry to affect public policy on things like science through the electoral process. It is dangerous because not understanding how we know things thorugh science leaves us unable to distinguish between science and nonsense. This leaves us vulnerable to exploitation by those who want to affect public policy about science and technology in ways that are self-serving. When science is indistinguishable from politics we are all in deep trouble.
There is the obvious risk of the USA slipping ever more behind other countries as we enter this new milennium where science and technology will be most important. But what is not so obvious is that Americans seem to be almost willfully ignorant of what makes science one of the most successful and useful intellectual pursuits ever invented by man.
There was a time at the beginning of the age of Enlightenment, when every intellectually well rounded person regardless of their field understood what made knowing things through the discipline of science very different than other ways of knowing.
Consider that we made almost no progress in our understanding of the natural world for hundreds of thousands of years of human existence. Then only about 400 years ago, a new kind of thinking emerged that changed the world virtually overnight (when compared with the timescale of human existence). We went from a world lit only by fire to one that is lit by lasers and the glow of the screens of high speed computers linked by a worldwide network. We went from diagnosing maladies in terms of evil spirits and bodily humours to MRIs and curing by open heart surgery.
So what is it about the way we acquire knowledge about the natural world and how we develop certainty in that knowledge that is different than other ways of knowing? I would like to post a series of articles that answers just that question. My goal is that it be easily understood by any intelligent person but rigorous enough so that the reader can have a solid understanding of how we can be certain about such theories as the Big Bang and Evolution that occured over a time period of millions of years.
When someone challenges a theory like Evolution with the question, “How can you prove that? Were you there?” and so on, I hope that the reader will be able to understand and articulate why a theory like Evolution is offered and proven in the same way as other scientific theories that we seem to have no controversy over, such as Newton’s physics that we use to guide our spacecraft and predict the position of celestial bodies.
So the operative word here will be “epistemology”, which is a name for the philosophy of “how we know things”. Stay tuned for a series of posts that develop the epistemology of science, why it is a special way of knowing things, and why it has been so astonishingly successful. Jump to part 1.