Monday, March 21, 2005

Dumbing Down America

As America's once formidable world lead in science and technology shrinks, some Americans are doing their very best to further undercut the nation's already crumbling scientific literacy.
In several US states, Imax cinemas - including some at science museums - are refusing to show movies that mention the subject or suggest that Earth's origins do not conform with biblical descriptions.

Films include Cosmic Voyage, an animated journey through the universe; Galapagos, a documentary about the islands where Darwin made some of his most important observations; and Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, an underwater epic about the bizarre creatures that flourish near ocean vents.

In most southern states, theatre officials found recent test screenings of several of these films triggered accusations from viewers that the films were blasphemous.

Carol Murray, marketing director of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History in Texas, said audience members who had watched Volcanoes had commented 'I really hate it when the theory of evolution is presented as fact', or 'I don't agree with their presentation of human existence.'

As a result, the science museum had decided not to screen the film. 'If it is not going to draw a crowd and it is going to create controversy, from a marketing point of view, I cannot make a recommendation,' Murray told the New York Times yesterday.
This would be funny, if the consequences weren't so devastating. If science museums can be cowed into omitting the last 150 years of scientific discoveries for fear of offending religious fundamentalists, what chance do public schools have of keeping real science in the classrooms? Worse, what seems like a problem particular to the American Bible Belt has ramifications far beyond that region. The high costs and marginal financial returns involved in the production of IMAX science programs leaves the productions vulnerable to the pressure of even a small segment of the market.
They require special cameras and expensive projectors. The economics of Imax film-making are therefore very tight, and the actions of these southern Imax cinemas will only exacerbate the problem. It is expected that producers will be far less likely to make films that could offend fundamentalists, as the loss of venues in the southern states could be enough to turn profit to loss.

'It is going to be hard for our film-makers to continue to make unfettered documentaries when they know that 10 per cent of the market will reject them,' said Joe DeAmicis, vice-president of the California Science Centre in Los Angeles.

This point was emphasised by Bayley Silleck, who wrote and directed Cosmic Voyage. Many institutions across America were coming under pressure about issues relating to natural selection. 'They have to be extremely careful as to how they present anything relating to evolution,' he said.

A spokesman for the Science Museum in London described the development as worrying: 'It is a very tight market in the Imax business and we would be extremely disappointed if this sort of pressure led to a narrowing of the market for popular Imax films. These films are very popular with families.'
The movement against evolution - and the rest of modern science - has gained considerable confidence since the re-election of George Bush. School boards in more than a dozen US states are examining ways to tone down discussions of evolution or to introduce "intelligence design," a carefully crafted bit of salesmanship for the old, scripturally-approved idea that God created the world - creationism in new rhetorical garb. The intelligent design theorists have found their voice in the Discovery Institute, the successor to previous creationist organizations.
Discovery Institute raised money for "Unlocking the Mystery of Life," a DVD produced by Illustra Media and shown on PBS stations in major markets. The institute has sponsored opinion polls and underwrites research for books sold in secular and Christian bookstores. Its newest project is to establish a science laboratory.

Meyer said the institute accepts money from such wealthy conservatives as Howard Ahmanson Jr., who once said his goal is "the total integration of biblical law into our lives," and the Maclellan Foundation, which commits itself to "the infallibility of the Scripture."

"We'll take money from anyone who wants to give it to us," Meyer said. "Everyone has motives. Let's acknowledge that and get on with the interesting part."

Meyer said he and Discovery Institute President Bruce Chapman devised the compromise strategy in March 2002 when they realized a dispute over intelligent design was complicating efforts to challenge evolution in the classroom. They settled on the current approach that stresses open debate and evolution's ostensible weakness, but does not require students to study design.

The idea was to sow doubt about Darwin and buy time for the 40-plus scientists affiliated with the institute to perfect the theory, Meyer said. Also, by deferring a debate about whether God was the intelligent designer, the strategy avoids the defeats suffered by creationists who tried to oust evolution from the classroom and ran afoul of the Constitution.
The Discovery Institute and its acolytes have concocted a clever strategy for infiltrating the public school systems. Borrowing arguments directly from the Left, they argue for an "inclusive" strategy in which all ideas and theories are equally valued and deserve a hearing. If this sounds familiar, it's because its the same sort of argument that undergirds the leftist ideas of multiculturalism, a ideological wedge which - despite sounding reasonable at face value - has allowed the left to gain control of most US universities and slowly discredit and excise the promotion of Western Civilization, the very reason for which those same universities were originally established. The idea that we must teach all points of view - ignoring any standards of evidence, integrity, civility or scholarship - has produced universities filled with the likes of Ward Churchill, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. Generally, the physical science departments have thus far managed to beat back multiculturalist and deconstructionist challenges, saving those departments from degenerating into the same sort of the intellectual sewers that many literature and humanities departments have become.

Unfortunately, the new strategy may prove as successful for the anti-science right in the public schools as its ideological cousin was for the socialist left in the universities.
Despite some disagreement, Calvert, Harris and the Discovery Institute collectively favor efforts to change state teaching standards. Bypassing the work of a 26-member science standards committee that rejected revisions, the Kansas board's conservative majority recently announced a series of "scientific hearings" to discuss evolution and its critics.

The board's chairman, Steve Abrams, said he is seeking space for students to "critically analyze" the evidence.
That approach appeals to Cindy Duckett, a Wichita mother who believes public school leaves many religious children feeling shut out. Teaching doubts about evolution, she said, is "more inclusive. I think the more options, the better."
"If students only have one thing to consider, one option, that's really more brainwashing," said Duckett, who sent her children to Christian schools because of her frustration. Students should be exposed to the Big Bang, evolution, intelligent design "and, beyond that, any other belief that a kid in class has. It should all be okay."
Consider the shocking admission in that statement. Ms Duckett believes that no intellectual standard of evidence should guide what students are taught. Every belief or idea should be considered equally. If a student believes that the Earth is 6,000 years old, then that should be taught as a "viable alternative." If some students believe - or more correctly, if their parents believe - that mankind existed contemporaneously with dinosaurs, that should be taught too. The results of the last 100 years of science are reduced in Ms. Duckett's view to merely more more world view, just as valid as any other.

But just as in the case of the universities, this particular dose of intellectual poison will have effects far beyond what its proponents envision. For instance, if we are to teach all views on evolution, then what about history? There are many "historians" who claim the Holocaust never happened. Some of these "historians" have seemingly sound credentials. All of them, just like the intelligent design proponents, claim their views are being stifled by a "dominant liberal establishment." If we must give equal time for all theories in science - with no regard to quality of evidence - then shouldn't we air the views of Holocaust deniers in history class? Isn't it just a matter of fairness? And why not the views of those who assert that aliens from outer space built the pyramids? Or the rantings of various Afrocentrists who claim that the Greeks stole all their ideas from Egypt? If you throw out intellectual standards, you leave yourself defenseless against any bad idea that slithers into your head - or classroom.

But the intelligent design proponents either haven't thought that far ahead, or don't care how much damage they do so long as evolution gets slowly drummed out of the public schools. They do have long range goals, however.
Fox -- pastor of the largest Southern Baptist church in the Midwest, drawing 6,000 worshipers a week to his Wichita church -- said the compromise is an important tactic. "The strategy this time is not to go for the whole enchilada. We're trying to be a little more subtle," he said.

To fundamentalist Christians, Fox said, the fight to teach God's role in creation is becoming the essential front in America's culture war. The issue is on the agenda at every meeting of pastors he attends. If evolution's boosters can be forced to back down, he said, the Christian right's agenda will advance.

"If you believe God created that baby, it makes it a whole lot harder to get rid of that baby," Fox said. "If you can cause enough doubt on evolution, liberalism will die."
For all the noise about wanting to teach "all views" in the name of simple fairness, the intelligent design proponents have only one goal: discrediting the scientific challenge to their religiously derived worldview. Unable to do it scientifically, they have resorted to crafty propaganda and a public relations campaigns meant to convince the public of what they cannot persuade scientists (who know the actual evidence). In waging this theological jihad against science, they threaten not science - and certainly not evolution - but the long-term economic and technological supremacy of the US.

How can a nation that refuses to expose its children to the findings of science expect those children to grow up and become world-class scientists? Answer: It can't. How can a country that doesn't produce enough world-class scientists expect to remain economically competitive in a world where economic might is based on science-driven high-technology? Answer: It won't.


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