Here’s more or less what I said at the YearlyKos panel today, assembled from my notes and with all the “ummms” removed. It’s very general, but hey, what can you do in ten minutes? Next time they should give me 30 minutes and I’ll flash up some genes and copulating squid and splutter out more blasphemy.
Two hundred and thirty years ago, when our country was founded, we faced a number of crises: we were a small weak country, threatened by great world powers, and at war. We persevered and succeeded, and I think we won out because of two fortunate endowments or opportunities. The founding fathers were the inheritors of the Enlightenment, and built this country on a foundation of reason and respect for education. We had a reputation as a practical people, with Yankee ingenuity and a can-do spirit. We also found ourselves on the edge of the Industrial revolution with a wealth of natural resources, and we took advantage of that opportunity to grow.
Some like to say America is a Christian nation. I think that misses the point: we have been and are a science and engineering nation. The riches we enjoy right now arose from invention and discovery and industry.
Now in the 21st century, we are the most powerful country in the world. The richest. The country with the greatest military might. As in the 18th century, though, we’re still facing crises, new problems that threaten us.
What are those crises?
#1: Peak oil. We’ve built our strength on the breakneck exploitation of rich energy sources. Those sources are finite, and we’re seeing them in decline right now. We need to plan ahead for alternative sources.
#2: Global warming. We’ve changed our world, and we’re seeing unexpected consequences. We have to start thinking about a carbon economy, and how we’re going to deal with climate change.
#3: Declining biodiversity. We’ve demolished habitat—for instance, the vast prairies present at the founding of the nation have been reduced to a fraction of a percent of their original extent, replaced by fields of corn and wheat and soybeans—and species worldwide are going extinct at a rate at least a hundred fold greater than any other time in human history. We are squandering irreplaceable diversity, and once extinct, it’s never coming back.
#4: Pandemics. In the last few decades, we’ve heard about HIV, Ebola, avian flu. We’re coping so far, but humanity is a vast and delicious petri plate to the microorganisms of the world, and evolution is constantly churning up new diseases. We can’t sit still, but need to continue advancing biomedical research to keep ahead of new threat.
#5: International competition. We may be king of the hill right now, but if you remember that game, even in a spirit of friendly competition no one stays up there forever. Are we going to take advantage of our position to strengthen ourselves, or are we going to complacently idle away our time until it’s too late? Will we let Asia and Europe pass us by?
There are other problems, of course, but these are the five that worry me most right now. How will we address these problems? What are our assets?
Remember that we are a science and engineering nation. Our answers are here in our heads, in innovation and technology and planning and being smart.
I said that early America had two valuable assets, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The 21st century world is looking at two new opportunities: the Information Age and Biotechnology. Computers have revolutionized industry, design, how we think, how we teach, and how we communicate. Biology has just begun an exponential rise in power, and the public is only beginning to see a few early innovations percolate into relevance. Think about the impact that just the nascent reproductive technologies are beginning to have on society, and know this: much, much more is on the way. Be afraid, or anticipate some unexpected new wonders.
Notice that I said the world is looking at these opportunities. Not just us. Are we ready to compete?
We have deep structural weaknesses that impede our ability to take advantage of the opportunities. At this moment when we most need a generation with skills in math and science, we see our country turning inwards. We have an administration that likes to close its eyes and hope problems will go away…or at least not become unavoidable until a Democratic administration is in office. We are seeing a growing religiosity in our government, a departure from our tradition of secularism—”can do” is being replaced with “let’s pray”. Piety will not save us from a climate crisis or the next pandemic.
As an educator, what concerns me most is the weakness of our commitment to good public school education and the compromises that are being made to satisfy a reactionary religious element in our country. A subject near and dear to my heart is evolution, as evolution is the keystone concept for all of biology. It is the central idea that informs our research, and it is an essential tool for advancement in biotechnology. It certainly isn’t the totality of biology, but if you want a reliable leading indicator of the state of biological knowledge in our country, evolution is a good one to choose.
So how well informed are Americans on this central subject in science?
A recent review in PLoS Biology summarized the state of the nation on evolution. One third of Americans reject it outright, saying it is definitely false. In another survey, 43% agreed with the statement that god created humans as they are, and we did not evolve from other forms of life. In yet another survey comparing attitudes towards evolution in America, Japan, and Europe, the US ranked 33rd out of 34—we beat Turkey. Go, USA.
Imagine being an electrical engineer and hearing that a third of the country doesn’t believe all that stuff about electricity and radio waves, but thinks there actually are little people moving about inside their televisions. That’s how biologists feel about the state of knowledge about biology here; we’ve got a lot of people with medieval attitudes about the subject. This is the pool from which we have to draw our students, and that worries us.
It gets worse.
I’m from the progressive state of Minnesota, a place that has long held an excellent reputation for its educational system. A thorough survey by Randy Moore discovered an interesting fact, though: 20% of our public school biology teachers are teaching creationism. 20%! Additionally, almost half are pressured to avoid teaching evolution at all in their classes, despite the fact that our state standards require instruction in the subject.
Think about that. While we’ve built this world class scientific establishment and created a strong science elite, we’re having our foundation cut out from under us by a seductive, anti-intellectual grassroots effort by creationists. Are you worried yet? I’m worried. Just when we’re challenged with new crises that require a sophisticated workforce, that requires our science and engineering nation to buckle down and find solutions, we discover that the coming generation is being undermined from within, stripped of the skills that we need.
What can we do? Electing the right person to the presidency is a good start. Even more important, I think, is aiming a little lower and taking over school boards and getting good local representatives elected. I attended a school board meeting in my town last year where one of the members openly admitted that his function on the board was to represent those community people who wanted public education shut down. That’s the kind of thing we can’t afford to let happen, and all I could think was that we needed one pro-education, pro-science person to stand up and run for that position and boot that bozo off the board. It doesn’t take much to turn a school away from an anti-science course towards one much more supportive of good education.
Earlier this year, I was privileged to participate when a pro-education group in the Minnetonka school district marched in a train of scientists and concerned community members to make a case for preserving their International Baccalaureate program and blocking an attempt to inject intelligent design into their curriculum. They effectively isolated the two creationists on the board there–that is exactly how activists can make a big difference.
I shouldn’t need to tell this audience another kind of counter-strategy we can apply. We need to mobilize scientists and get them out of the ivory towers and talking to citizens; we need to build our own science netroots that get scientists communicating ideas and sharing their knowledge with the average person on the street. Instead of talking to their preacher, or their bartender, or their dog-groomer to get answers to complex questions about the real world, people ought to be able to ask scientists and engineers what the best answers are.
For example, Sean Carroll is here—he participates in a blog called Cosmic Variance. He’s a physicist and a cosmologist, and he does stuff I have a hard time comprehending. But, you know, I can read about it on the web, and I can even ask questions…and he might even answer them. How empowering is that? Any of us can chat with a cosmologist. Seed Media has been working hard to build a nice home for scientists on the web, at scienceblogs.com, and right now you can visit that site and find everything from mathematicians to cognitive psychologists, all willing to talk with you. It’s a free education on the web!
Another advantage of this kind of communication is that we are organizing a pro-science tribe—I’m looking over this room and seeing all these people who want our country to do a better job supporting science, and I have to say that this is an important step: we are building a community passionate for a cause, and that cause is science and technology applied to the betterment of humankind.
This is how we democratize science. Not by dumbing it down and getting it wrong, as the creationists do, but opening up access to real scientists doing real work with real knowledge, and aggressively making a positive case for the benefits of reality-based research.