Editors Note: A strange confluence of events in the news — Tom Cruise’s Scientology-based rant against pharmacology and psychiatry, the Kansas Board of Education’s re-opening of the creationism vs. evolution debate, the Terri Schiavo circus, the Bush Administration’s continued opposition to stem cell research and evangelical rants against the latest “Harry Potter” novel — has made me think how much many Americans yearn for the “good old days,” when the world was flat and the sun revolved around it, mental illness was caused by evil spirits and scientists could be burned at the stake (right along with witches and blasphemous books) if they dared to contradict The Scriptures.

A Nation of Scientific Illiterates

Audiences enjoy CBS’s crime show “CSI” so much that someday there’ll probably be a spin-off called “CSI Greenwich, CT.” This fascination with forensic science seems odd, however, when you consider that, compared with the rest of the industrialized world, Americans don’t really believe in science.

During the O.J. Simpson trial, DNA analyses indicated that the probability someone other than O.J. was the murderer was something like one in 10 billion, but the jury refused to be confused by the facts. From courtrooms to Congress, Americans love junk science.

After merely watching a videotape, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist — who’d been a doctor before becoming a professional conservative — used politically motivated junk science to misdiagnose Terri Schiavo. Antiscientific pro-life extremists then rallied behind him. Trying to sound like neurologists, religious fanatics like Randall Terry first rejected the diagnoses of her attending physicians and then the findings of the autopsy. With no faith in facts, right-to-lifers chose wishful thinking and dogma over medical science.

This admixture of religion and politics underlies right-wing opposition to stem cell research, which is going full bore in the rest of the developed world, where the scientific method isn’t hamstrung by Christian fundamentalism. Meanwhile, in the United States, priests and politicians plot the course of medical research based on what accords with their theology.

The situation gets worse when celebrities are added to the mix. Tom Cruise is a talented actor not normally known for his intellect. Nonetheless, he pontificates on talk shows about pharmacology and psychology, and has castigated Brooke Shields for using mood-elevating drugs, when he knows as little about post-partum depression as he does about the pain of an episiotomy. Unfortunately, Americans take movie stars seriously.

As a Scientologist, Cruise’s characterization of psychiatry as “pseudoscience” is ironic. This religion makes money peddling quack cures, such as the E-Meter, a device used by Scientologist ministers to locate patients’ “areas of spiritual distress.”

Cruise believes that depression doesn’t really exist, but its symptoms can be alleviated with vitamins and exercise. This is similar to snake oil, faith healing and the notion that exorcism casts out the demon spirits that cause psychosis and epilepsy. It follows a long tradition of scientific progress opposed by pseudoscience— from flat-Earthers’ sectarian persecution of heliocentrists to the endless crusade to replace modern biology in the classroom with creation science, which was considered “modern” during the Bronze Age.

The evolution vs. creationism debate isn’t happening in countries whose educational systems are uncorrupted by fundamentalism. Nor is it taking place at Caltech or MIT, because it’s not a dispute between competing scientific theories, but rather between science and religion — modernity vs. primitivism. The Religious Right has made it an either/or choice, and politicians can side with the National Academy of Sciences or the Southern Baptist Convention. Guess which group delivers more votes.

Only in the America are large numbers of Christian colleges offering degrees in science, while rejecting much of the scientific knowledge gained since the New Testament was canonized. At a time when American high school students rank just below the Latvians and Bulgarians in math and science, respectively, Kansas school boards are wasting time rearguing the evolution debate, which scientists resolved more than 100 years ago. But what can you expect when Margaret Spellings, the Bush Administration’s secretary of education, sees no problem with teaching creationism in the public schools “from a factual basis.”

American students are often home-schooled to keep them from being exposed to what playwright Jerome Lawrence (“Inherit the Wind”) referred to as “agnostic scientists” filling the minds of children with their “atheistic filth” — e.g., natural selection, the Big Bang, paleontology and calculations on the age of the universe. No wonder the Third International Mathematics and Science Study ranked U.S. students 15th out of 16 in math and dead last in physics.

The latest example of replacing mainstream science with religion is the endeavor to introduce Intelligent Design Theory into school curricula, over the objections of the scientific community. This isn’t surprising in a country where junk science — from therapeutic touch to dowsing to the search for Noah’s ark — is constantly and unskeptically presented on television, and evangelical ministers burn copies of “Harry Potter” for encouraging witchcraft. Didn’t we stop worrying about witches after the Salem trials? What century is this again?

America’s mistrust and ignorance of science may seem unimportant, but pseudoscience enabled our government to reject data on the dangers of tobacco for decades, and now enables it to ignore global warming and other environmental problems, while opposing promising biomedical research. Competitive globalism makes it increasingly important for America to be at the forefront of research and development — especially when a large percentage of our scientists and engineers come from foreign countries (such as India and China) that don’t share our animus toward progress.

The fact that 58 percent of the Ph.D.s awarded by American universities in engineering went to foreign students has educators and business leaders increasingly concerned about our inability to teach science in the secondary schools, which will eventually erode our ability to innovate. How will we fare in the 21st century, when we’re still clinging to the 12th? Dr. Isaac Asimov put it best:

It’s not so much that I have confidence in scientists being right, but that I have so much confidence in non-scientists being wrong.

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