Dumbing Down Idaho

A few evangelicals in the Gem State hold the state's students hostage

In the year 1600, Giordano Bruno was declared to be a heretic and was ceremonially burned alive at the stake. Bruno met that ghastly end because he believed that the universe was infinite and the earth was not its center. Today's children learn that simple fact as early as kindergarten.

Bruno, a philosopher and astronomer, also maintained that the Bible should be followed for its moral, not its astronomical, teachings.

More than 400 years have passed since Bruno's death. We've given up burning visionaries at the stake, but we still have a ways to go. The lesson that religious doctrine cannot trump scientific facts is still lost on a vociferous segment of Idaho's population.

For example, the Idaho Department of Education Science Standards Committee, made up of outstanding science teachers in Idaho public schools, was tasked with rewriting the science education standards in early 2015.

Three years earlier, the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute published a national survey that gave Idaho's science standards a failing grade of F, accompanied by withering language. A sample: "Idaho science standards contain precious little science... the quality of the scientific content starts poorly in the primary grades and declines thereafter."

So the Science Standards Committee completed a rewrite in 2015; the proposed standards were circulated for public comment, approved by the State Board of Education and sent to the legislature for its stamp of approval.

Then the evangelical grassroots erupted in opposition.

Fundamentalists — those churchgoers who believe in the literal translation of the Bible — objected to students being taught that climate change is a result of our collective human activity that sends carbon dioxide and other gases into earth's atmosphere on a daily basis. The naysayers also maintain that children should not be told that the Earth is estimated to be 4.5 billion years old, nor should teachers suggest that the Big Bang theory is more accurate than God creating the earth in seven days.

Despite the good work of the teachers' science committee, the legislative House and Senate Education Committees sent the proposed standards back to sponsors to be redrafted. So the old, inadequate F-rated science standards will stand for at least another year.

I quizzed my daughter Tara, who teaches science to Wisconsin college students, about the science standards issue. Tara's response was that it is unfortunate for a student to disbelieve in evolution, but the more serious rejection is the scary reality of climate change. Students who have less than a full understanding of the implications to the future of climate change are put at a tremendous disadvantage. It's like forcing students to wear blinders.

Students deserve to receive accurate, as well as exciting, information that may lead them to want to be astronauts or astrophysicists or explorers or engineers. Imagine trying to make any progress in a college science course, much less at a medical school, if you really believe that evolution is a hoax. Or that the earth is merely 7,000 years old. Or that climate change is not a result of humans overloading carbon into the atmosphere.

Job growth in the U.S. in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields is triple the growth in any other sector. In 2010, there were 7.6 million STEM jobs here. Add at least a million more to that figure to bring it up to date. The STEM world could offer great opportunities for bright young Idahoans, if only we'd help them get there by teaching accurate science.

Bruno's scientific curiosity in 1600 earned him an extremely unpleasant demise. If he had been living in our 21st century, Bruno would appreciate the news that Albert Einstein's theory of relativity has been proven correct by the gravitational waves of two black holes colliding more than a billion years ago. They were recorded at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory detectors in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana.

Whew! It stretches the imagination. I confessed to my daughter that I believe it is now possible for scientists, with their machines, to hear the universe, but that I personally can't follow the astrophysics, and must take both Einstein's theory and the collision of two black holes on sheer blind faith.

So, I asked, what is the difference between my blind faith in scientific discovery and evangelicals' belief in "intelligent design"?

The answer to that question is that faith of any kind requires an imagination, with no burden of proof. There's no way to "show me" the evidence to back up the belief. Science requires proof. So while I cannot hear the gravitational waves from space, there are instruments that can record them and produce them as sounds we can detect. We can share scientific evidence. On the other hand, we cannot share proof of our faith.

The First Amendment makes clear that faith is an individual matter, not for the government to decide. Idahoans have a right to believe as they wish, but not to impose their faith on others. Idaho schoolchildren deserve access to uncensored, unaltered scientific facts. When the future of the Earth — indeed, the fate of Creation — may hang in the balance, real-world truths matter more than ever. ♦

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