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Teaching Science in the Schools

The United States invests, annually, more than $250 billion in scientific research and technological development. The outlays for R&D have grown at a rate greater than 9 percent per year, in constant dollars, for most of the last ten years. Moreover, the United States enjoys a formidable assortment of universities and research institutions, where millions of scientists and engineers receive superb training and where wonderful scientific discoveries and engineering feats are accomplished. Students come from all over the world to benefit from the superb training provided by these institutions of higher learning.

These accomplishments would seem to imply that the U.S. must have an excellent school system, preparing the young for productive careers in scientific research and technological development. Alas, it is not so. Certainly the U.S. has many excellent elementary and secondary schools, where superior science education is imparted as part of the curriculum. But there are many others, perhaps a majority, where science courses are degraded or, in extreme cases, virtually absent from the curriculum.

One reason for the deficiency of science education in many of our schools is the decentralization of education—there is no nationally prescribed program of studies, course requirements or assessment standards for either elementary or secondary education. The 16,000 school districts in the United States are entitled to independently set up much of the school curriculum, the subjects to be studied and assessed, and the textbooks to be used. Each of the 50 states of the Union zealously protects its right to self-determination in educational goals, as in many other matters. It is not surprising, then, that there is great heterogeneity in the quality of science education.

A second reason is the conviction, common among biblical literalists and other Christian fundamentalists, that certain teachings of science—concerning the origin of the universe, the living world and humans—are contrary to biblical texts and the Christian faith. Some state legislatures, superintendents of education, school boards and regulatory agencies seek to undermine the teachings of cosmology, geology and evolution. These teachings are deleted from the schools' science curriculum, or teachers are required to present creation-science, intelligent design and other alternative "theories" in parallel. It is often argued that the American tradition of fairness and "equal time" beckons that these alternative theories be taught. But these theories are not scientific and therefore have no place in the science curriculum. Not all scientific knowledge is equally certain. When there is uncertainty, alternative hypotheses should be taught in science classes, but only those grounded on naturalistic explanations subject to refutation by empirical observation and experiment. Schools should not teach astrology as an alternative to astronomy, alchemy as an alternative to the periodic table or witchcraft as an alternative to medicine.

The theory of evolution needs to be taught in the schools because nothing in biology makes sense without it. Modern biology has broken the genetic code, deciphered the human genome, opened up the fast-moving field of biotechnology and provided the knowledge to improve health care. Students need to be properly trained in science in order to improve their chances for gainful employment and to enjoy a meaningful life in a technological world.

Francisco J. Ayala
President, Sigma Xi



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