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30 January 2011

From the genius of Richard Feynman to the idiocy of Sarah Palin

I have a particular weak spot for education, and its dire state in the US.  Especially in the area of evolution, we seem to be getting dumber and dumber.  Which is amazing to think that we used to be a nation that was known for our great achievements in science, and that we had mental giants that symbolized to the world our greatness.  Now we are known for our fucktards and idiots.  On behalf of all Americans with an IQ that is above 100, I must apologize for these mental midgets that somehow got a hold of a microphone and camera.  It seems that we have a signal to noise ratio problem, and now we are becoming known as a nation of ignorant, red-neck theitards.  I'm sorry.

Bad science education in the US

I am completely unsurprised by the recent report on the state of evolution in the American science classroom. It confirms entirely my impressions from years of freshman college students and from previous studies of the subject, and puts specific numbers and issues to the problem.

The short summary: public schools suck at teaching basic biology. You already knew this, too, though, didn't you? The question has always been, "How bad?"

We can now say how many high school biology teachers do a good job, teaching the recommendations of the National Research Council and also, by the way, obeying the requirements of most state science standards: 28%. About a quarter of our biology teachers are actually discussing the evidence that evolution occurred and using evolution as a theme to integrate the components of a good year of biology instruction. And since most school curricula only include one year of life science, that effectively means that only about a quarter of our high school graduates are even exposed to evolutionary biology.

There's also another problem. 13% of our biology teachers are openly and unashamedly creationists who teach creationism in the classroom. That number varies, by the way, with the political leanings of the citizens of the school district: 40% of the teachers in conservative school districts reject evolution entirely, while "only" 11% in liberal areas do. This is a disaster. This is active, ongoing miseducation and misrepresentation of science by the teachers we entrust with our children.

What about the rest? 60% of our teachers do nothing: they teach the bare minimum of evolution that they can get away with, focusing on details of genetics and molecular biology that allow them to avoid the more obvious implications (which shouldn't happen, either; the molecular evidence for evolution is powerful stuff), or they allow it to slip off the schedule of lesson plans. They're afraid, and rightly so, of aggressive, nasty, privileged religious parents who will make their life hellish if they do their job properly.

The paper did surprise me in one way. It made a very strong statement about those timid teachers in the 60%:
The cautious 60% may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists. The strategies of emphasizing microevolution, justifying the curriculum on the basis of state-wide tests, or "teaching the controversy" all undermine the legitimacy of findings that are well established by the combination of peer review and replication. These teachers fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments, even if unintentionally.

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