On February 4, Bill Nye (the Science Guy) debated young-earth creationist Ken Ham, President of Answers in Genesis, an organization which takes the Bible as literal historical truth. The topic of the debate was what damage could teaching Biblical creationism to children do and what are the costs of denying evolution? The two men eloquently defended their respective views, but ultimately, Bill Nye produced a far more scientifically constructed argument: that the theory of intelligent design is a dangerous idea. This debate is an important one for the United States, as far too many school boards are under pressure from the religious-right to teach young-earth creationism in science classes; this could hinder young Americans if important matters such as innovation, discovery through the scientific method, and the questioning of sources are not taught in schools.
Mr. Ham’s argument for a “young earth” of only 6,000 years focused on the notion that science is a discipline of observation, and that as no one was around for the beginning of the world we can not say with certainty that the earth is not only 6,000 years old. Most of the ‘scientific’ evidence he used to support his view came from the Liberty Christian University, an institution founded by pastor Jerry Falwell. Mr. Nye, on the other hand, centered his argument on the many different ways we can observe the earth’s age of over 4.5 billion years. He mentioned the number of stars over 6,000 light years away – which we would not be able to see if the earth was as young as Mr. Ham suggested. He also brought up trees with thousands of years worth of rings, or glaciers with thousands of snow-ice layers. In addition, Nye discussed the implausibility of one ancient carpenter constructing the world’s largest wooden ship and housing and feeding all of the earth’s species for over a month as everything else drowned.
Of course, everyone is entitled to their own religious beliefs, but the debate underlies a broader socio-cultural trend that the United States needs to shake off if it want to maintain its position as the world’s greatest innovator. Science is a discipline originating from one of mankind’s most unique and fruitful creations – the scientific method. Science allows for questioning of what we know, and further discovery to better understand our world, as well as to make claims based upon logical theories backed up by hard evidence. In doing so, we are able to understand so much more about our world and to develop various important technologies. For this reason, science and its methods and findings should be what is taught in schools the world over.
Unfortunately for many developed countries, but most particularly for the United States, there are large groups of people who would like to see less scientific evidence and theory taught to young students. People like Ken Ham, and many creationists across the country, have petitioned to have intelligent design taught in biology classes. Firstly, this contravenes the idea of the “separation of church and state” outlined by Thomas Jefferson and embedded in the Constitution. Everyone in America has the right to freedom of belief, or organization, and of speech. But the founding principles of the nation were such that religious belief should stay out of the public sphere. If we begin to teach Christian origins of the world in science class, why not Hindu, Buddhist, or Islamic origin stories? These sorts of faith systems should be reserved for religious studies classes, and not for biology.
Additionally, teaching children to want to learn more about the universe, to question and discover, is a large part of what drives scientific and academic knowledge. If we disregard years of research and millennia of evidence, then we are throwing away our innovative spirit. The rest of the world is moving forward, and so to must America. It is through scientific education, applied sciences, engineering, as well as the humanities, that American society can build and progress. A recent study concluded that the most devoutly religious states in the U.S. are primarily those in the south, with Mississippi, Utah, and Alabama topping the list. It is no coincidence that these states are lacking in medical technology when compared to their more secular neighbors. As Mr. Nye pointed out, Kentucky does not have a single institute offering university-level programs in Nuclear Medical Technology.
Finally, I wish to reassert the point that individual religious beliefs are a private and personal matter, and something to which everyone has an inherent right. There is little conflict between the theory of evolution and some kind of belief in a deity; after all, Pope Francis himself has accepted evolution. However, serious damage can be done if a small but vocal minority is allowed to influence the curriculum of our public schools. A prime example – apart from evolution – would be how many on the religious-right deny climate change, or assert that it is a punishment from God. This kind of logic is dangerous to the prosperous progression of both the human race and our planet, and should not be supported with public funding. To ensure developments in medicine, engineering, technology, and to further our understanding of the universe and our role in it, evolution should be taught alongside other scientific consensuses in our schools.