Since John Wilkins has already commented on Paul Hanle’s article on the declining competitiveness of Americans in science, I’ll focus my opinion on a narrower point. I think Hanle is precisely correct when he points out that ID and creationism are shackles that handicap science education in our country.
By teaching intelligent design or other variants of creationism in science classes at public schools — or by undercutting the credibility of evolution — we are greatly diminishing our chances for future scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations, and are endangering our health, safety and economic well-being as individuals and as a nation.
As a college instructor, though, here’s my perspective. The damage is done long before they get to me. The kids who have been indoctrinated in religious mythology are invisible, as far as I’m concerned: they either don’t go to college at all, or they go purely for the job opportunities, and they’re in more vocational programs; or they go to some podunk bible college somewhere; or if they do come to a university (they aren’t stupid, after all, and can qualify), they sure as heck aren’t going to go anywhere near the sciences. I might see one or two students a year who profess belief in some form of creationism, and they either eventually learn otherwise or at least learn to do the science well in exams and essays, or they drop out. We’re a public liberal arts college; survey students in our science degree programs, and you’d think creationism was near non-existent.
That’s the good news. Creationism does not cripple science at the college level and above (which might also explain why you don’t see a lot of university scientists up in arms over it—it doesn’t affect them much.) It’s effects are indirect—those smart students with great potential who get shunted off into Jebusland Bible College are wasting their abilities, and it means that the pool of students is diminished.
(Just a thought: if all the kids who were impregnated with anti-science ideas in America had not had their brains scrambled by fundie mommy and daddy, there would have been more competition for good positions in the universities and grad schools and the professoriate, and I might not have been able to get my current job—I could have become a refrigerator repairman like my father wanted. Think about that, creationists: you are partly to blame for my ability to work my way up the academic ladder.)
Now the bad news. What is the number one problem I see in students admitted to the university? What looming issue is really going to wreck America’s success in the scientific enterprise? That’s easy.
I’m seeing a lot of smart, ambitious kids show up as biology majors who barely understand algebra. We send them off to take remedial coursework to bring them up to speed, but they’re already hurting. In order to complete a biology degree in four years, students have to take general chemistry and biology in their freshman year, and students who don’t have those basic math skills, who are taking basic algebra as freshmen, are going to take a hit in those courses, and their grades will suffer. Their second year compounds the problem, as they have to take cell and molecular biology and organic chemistry while trying to take a pre-calc course.
We do have smart students who are willing to work hard to overcome their handicap, but they pay the price: their first years of college are not happy, their grades aren’t what they should be, and if they’re planning to be doctors someday, the impact on their GPA can annihilate those hopes. I’ve taken to advising some students to hold off on all the chem/biology coursework for a while, resign themselves and their parents to a five-year degree program, and get caught up in their freshman year with nothing but math and general education requirements. If I were to give parents the most important secret for seeing your kids succeed in the sciences at college, it’s to make sure that they have taken at least pre-calculus/trigonometry by their senior year of high school. If they can get calculus under their belts, even better and they’ll have a leg up on everyone, but at least our curriculum is designed for and presumes that freshmen will be taking calculus at our university.
Seriously, if the creationists really want to cut American science off at the root, where they should focus their efforts is in smashing math programs in K-12. Come to think of it, they already know this: why else would a common theme with Intelligent Design proponents also be halting more rigorous programs, like the International Baccalaureate? We saw that in our local Minnetonka school district. The creationist problem goes deeper than just an effort to mangle science: it’s a strategy for crippling our children’s ability to think.