FROM THE PRESIDENT
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