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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Falling Behind in Science

I was recently sent the following "interesting factoid" by a friend:
Aviation Week and Space Tech (Oct 17, 2005, page 23) reported that last year US graduated 70,000 engineers. India had 350,000 and China 600,000. 59 percent of US engineering PhDs went to foreign nationals in 2003.

Coming engineer shortage will be hard on US defense industry who must hire US Citizens with clearances.
In addition, the scientific establishment in the United States continuously bitches and moans that we're not funding enough scientific research.

So who's to blame? According to the scientific and academic establishments and talking heads, the blame can be placed squarely at the feet of those ignorant and backwards Red-Staters who shun science and all things rational. Indeed, the morons want to teach Creationism or Intelligent Design in their public schools. How awful!

I have a different perspective. It looks to me like the science educators in this country have put a big sign up on all of the science classrooms that says, "Those with religious beliefs are not welcome here!" It looks to me like the scientific establishment would much prefer to advocate anti-religious ideology than to actually have more students interested in science.

A person's belief system is often his or her most prized position. We can argue about whether or not that would be true in an ideal world, but it is true in this one. If the choice is between learning scientific knowledge that contradicts one's belief system and avoiding science, the choice is an easy one for many people - they will simply be uninterested in learning science. In addition, they're probably not going to be particularly interested in funding science either.

Yet, it would be no big trick to teach science in a religion friendly way. First, greatly reduce and/or skip over historical science topics (Paleontology, Archaelogy, Common Descent, etc.) while emphasizing science that focuses on technology going forward. Most of the conflict between science and religion centers on explanations of the past. The past is past, no reason to waste time explaining it in scientific terms to those who are hostile to the concept. Even though some people think otherwise, I think there is little, if any, historical science that's required as a foundation for forward looking science. For example, a while back, I had the following conversation with Jim Hu, a biologist from the Texas A&M, in the comments to a Left2Right post on this very subject.
Me: [N]o understanding of Evolution is required to understand the process for creating GMOs. DNA, transcription, and gene splicing...

Jim Hu: Our ability to build the trees [to understand transcription] is based in part on inferences about different rates of mutation at selected and unselected sites in the DNA, and the predictions of models built on these evolutionary inferences ...

Me: When you say "different rates of mutation", how does that differ from saying "accumulated mutations", and how do both of those differ from just saying that "the DNA is different by some amount"? Lastly, is the word "evolutionary" required? For example, could I rewrite your sentence as "Our ability to build the trees is based in part on how much the DNA differs at selected and unselected sites, and the predictions of models built on these inferences..." and still have the same meaning?

Jim Hu: You could certainly rewrite the sentence that way.
In other words, if you assume, as Jim Hu does, that Common Descent is True, then of course the differences in DNA between related lifeforms is closely coupled with Common Descent. However, there is no need to believe or understand Common Descent via Evolution to be able to understand transcription and the like, and it's possible to be a perfectly good scientist without knowing about or believing Common Descent.

A second way to make science more palatable for the religious is to add religion friendly (and non-scientific) components such as Intelligent Design to schools' curriculums. In my opinion, the debate about whether Intelligent Design is science completely misses the point. Assume Intelligent Design is junk. Let's say during ten percent of science class you teach non-science junk as science. Then the students will be taught 90% science and 10% junk. That seems to me far better than 0% science, which is what you get if you refuse to allow Intelligent Design and other religion friendly topics to be taught.

Also, I think it's important to emphasize that theories are models that describe phenomena and ensure that it's clearly taught that the models are not necessarily the same thing as reality or even an accurate reflection thereof. Science is not inherently about reality. Science is about explaining observable phenomena and the explanations may not match the underlying, unobservable phenomena (and all historical science, is by definition, not directly observable). This is an important, but subtle, difference. In one case it's an ideology (and generally anti-religious nowadays) and in the latter case it's an important tool.

Teach the tool using any means available, skip the ideology, and we won't fall behind (as quickly) in science.

3 comments:

Joe said...

Bret, couldn't one just as easily say that it is religion that has declared science its enemy, and that this is what accounts for religious people avoiding scientific fields? (If they actually are, in greater numbers than anyone else). It seems to me that the issue of America's lag in science education is pretty complex in origin, and it is too simple say it's because science education has hung a "believers need not apply" sign on the door.

I know several devout christians who also possess PhD's in the sciences. Their religious beliefs don't impede their scientific inquiry because they understand that it is not science's role to answer questions of a theological nature. Science is simply a tool, that uses testable hypotheses to create theories about the behavior of energy and matter.

Science will surely never answer (or even address in any meaningful way) the question of god's existence. It's not testable, therefore it's outside the purview of science.

The misunderstanding between science and religion is at least partly due to religious people thinking that science seeks to refute their beliefs--in fact, science has no such ambition. Science has no role in talking about God at all, and many people have no trouble at all keeping the two intellectual tracks separate.

Bret said...

Joe Riddle wrote: "The misunderstanding between science and religion is at least partly due to religious people thinking that science seeks to refute their beliefs--in fact, science has no such ambition."

I'm not sure the religious care whether or not science "seeks" to refute their beliefs. That fact is that some scientific dogma does refute their beliefs, whether it seeks to or not. Common descent via evolution (with no god allowed) clearly refutes The Creation if one wants to be literal about it, as does paleontology, archaeology, etc.

Does this affect everybody? No, but I think it is a significant effect in some places, for example, Kansas.

You're from Utah aren't you? Did you never see this sort of thing there?

Joe said...

Bret, I think you said something key there: "Common descent via evolution (with no god allowed)..." That's my point: science makes no claim about whether there was a higher power involved in setting the evolutionary chain in motion--nor should it. It only draws conclusions based on observable phenomena.

Even though Utah's culture is extremely devout, the evolution debate isn't very heated there. Mormon theology is explicit that God's children have a perfect choice about whether to believe in Him or not. In fact, Mormons believe God offers no "proof" of His existence. That would obviate the need for faith.

For Mormons, it makes sense that science provides a perfectly reasonable alternative to faith. No other arrangement would allow humans the perfect choice, as it were, to believe in the truths of God or man. "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for but not seen."