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Cary McMullen: GOP paradox: promote science classes, reject evolution

The newest university in the state, Florida Polytechnic, is under construction in Polk County, with several hundred new students already lined up for classes scheduled to begin later this year.

It is projected to be a showpiece for science and technology education and research, perhaps the kernel of new Silicon Valley-like corridor along I-4.

So the local newspaper, The Ledger, recently ran an in-depth article about popular attitudes about science. Americans always have been famously ambivalent about higher education, and sure enough, the Ledger quoted average citizens who expressed doubts about a number of scientific theories and conclusions, most notably evolution.

The article anticipated a new survey by the Pew Research Center, released earlier this week, gauging the public’s views on evolution. According to Pew, most Americans (60 percent) accept that humans evolved over time, but one-third reject that theory.

As you might expect, white evangelical Protestants had the strongest objections to evolution. Just 27 percent of that group agrees that evolution is fact, and almost two-thirds say we have existed as we are now from the beginning of time.

The survey obviously has implications for the future of institutions like Florida Poly, but also for the legislators who control their fate. And according to the survey, when analyzed along political lines, Republicans are more and more becoming the Know-Nothing Party.

First, it’s worth noting that our elementary and secondary schools clearly are not drilling into students just what science is and what it isn’t. If I were the czar of all language, one of my first decrees would be to ban  the word “belief” in the same sentence as “evolution,” as in “I don’t believe in evolution.”

Evolution is a scientific theory, not a religious doctrine. One believes in God. One believes in angels, saints and divine pronouncements. You do not believe in evolution, you THINK it is an adequate explanation of how life came to be in its present form.

Or you think it’s not adequate, but if not, you have to refute it using the same methods used to develop the theory. “The Bible said it” may be a basis for spiritual salvation but not for a peer-reviewed journal article about genetic modifications caused by evolutionary mutation.

I understand but do not agree with conservative Protestant objections to evolution. They believe that the Bible is literally true. (This is a selective belief, however. They stoutly insist Genesis is literally true, but interpret the passages where Jesus commands his followers to turn the other cheek and not resist evil).

Many Christians, including several recent popes, do not see a conflict between Darwin’s theory and biblical accounts of Genesis. According to Pew, about 25 percent of Americans say that God guided the process of evolution — hardly a ringing majority, but a pretty substantial number.

The influence of evangelical Protestants on the Republican Party is unmistakable. The survey showed that only 43 percent of Republicans agree with this well-established scientific theory, and that is down from 54 percent in an identical 2009 survey.

Furthermore, the gap with Democrats is widening. In 2009, 64 percent of Democrats accepted evolution as true, and this year it was 67 percent. In just four years, the difference between the parties went from 10 to 24 percentage points.

This is producing a paradox that cannot be sustained. Republicans — the party that is screaming about our educational deficiencies in science, technology, engineering and math — is the very same party that doubts the conclusions of science. It’s as though Republicans love science as a vehicle for creating jobs, as long as they don’t have to accept what it teaches as true. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

As long as evangelical Protestants make up a substantial wing of the Republican Party, so long as it is the party in power, then our public policy is going to be held hostage to a theology held by a minority of Americans.

Their paradox threatens to further erode our science education at all levels and put us further behind in the race for progress with other nations.

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