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March 15, 2012 | Posted By David Lemberg, M.S., D.C.

If we were not capable of autonomous thought and merely accepted and acted on what others told us, the future prospects of our communities, nations, and race would be bleak indeed. Fortunately, a few humans are capable of independent thinking, creativity, insight, and innovation. Every "benefit" of modern existence is a direct result of independent thinking in the form of scientific activity. Those of us who live in developed nations would be very hard-pressed to get through a day without readily available electricity and running water. Imagine living without automated transportation. Imagine living without television or cinema. Imagine living without a computer.

The study, investigation, and application of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, and their combined disciplines such as engineering, agriculture, and architecture, have given us the world we inhabit. And yet in the United States close to half the population is being trained daily to believe that science is a bad thing.

For example, the theory of evolution (a classical example of the scientific method) has been under attack for several decades. A Gallup Poll conducted two years ago, around the time of the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, revealed that only 39% of Americans "believe in the theory of evolution". Twenty-five percent did not believe in the theory and 36% had no opinion.

Of course, in order to be able to assess the value of a scientific theory, even from a high-level view, one has to have the ability to assemble facts and be able to recognize associations and connections among disparate threads and competing explanations. Sadly, it seems that such abilities, formerly mastered in grade school, are no longer accessible to the majority of our fellow citizens.

And this poses a significant problem for the future of our country. John Adams, second president of the United States, had a great deal to say about such a scenario. Writing to a friend in 1786, Adams observed "The education of a nation instead of being confined to a few schools and universities for the instruction of the few, must become the national care and expense for the formation of the many."

Why is education necessary? In 1779 Adams was chosen to write the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts". In this singular document, the oldest functioning written constitution in the world, Adams included The Encouragement of Literature, etc. (Section II, Chapter 5). He wrote "Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; . . ." In other words, the rights and liberties we enjoy as American citizens depend upon our wisdom and knowledge.

If our citizenry is not well-educated, our ability to comprehend our increasingly complex world becomes severely diminished. Our decision-making becomes seriously impaired and our democratic system devolves to that of the tyranny of the majority. As stark evidence of our failure to educate young Americans, the U.S. high school graduation rate has slipped to 21st worldwide. (We used to be number 1 [in 1970].) The New York Times reported that only 7 of 10 ninth graders in 2012 will earn a high school diploma. In terms of economic impact alone, the Times reports that if this ignominious trend could be cut in half, the 700,000 additional high school graduates would benefit the public by $90 billion each year. Doing the math, U.S. taxpayers would reap $1 trillion over 11 years. Of course, the impact to society as a whole would be immeasurable.

The crop of presidential candidates who deride Darwin's theory and lambaste theories of climate change may well augur the twilight of democracy in America. One candidate calls global warming a "hoax" and recently advised energy conference attendees on the dangers of carbon dioxide. Saying "the science is bogus", he bloviated "Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is." Such comments demonstrate deep misapprehensions of the nature of science. In "The Aim of Science",1 Karl Popper states that science proceeds "to better and better testable ones [explanations]; which means proceeding to theories of richer and richer content; of higher degree of universality, and of higher degree of precision". Thus, science is an ongoing process. Science generates theories which are testable and falsifiable. Falsifying a theory may lead to a more robust theory. The theory of evolution is such a robust theory. Theories of climate change continue to be tested. This does not mean they are "bogus".

In a free society, citizens have responsibilities. If we will not actively take these on, the severe consequences may include losing our freedoms. Free citizens do not stick their heads in the sand. Democracy requires citizen participation. Such participation requires thinking. One of the best means of developing the ability to think is by training oneself in the meaning and processes of science.

1Popper KR: The aim of science. Ratio 1:24-35, 1957

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.
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