A headline on Joe Romm’s fine climate-change blog, RealClimate, gives me pause: “Tennessee Enacts ‘Monkey Bill’ To Dumb Down Kids In Biology And Physics, Undermine Their Future.”  The bill — now law — orders schools to help teachers present the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of “controversial” topics such as “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” Romm argues that Tennessee thus

encourages the disinforming of its kids in two of the most important areas they will need to thrive in the 21st century [evolution and climate change]—thrive economically in a world of global competitors who don’t teach anti-science disinformation to their kids . . .

Well, such bills do tend to “dumb down” science education. We mutilate science if we either fail to teach the biggest creationism-unfriendly scientific ideas like the age of the Universe and evolution, which unite all known scientific observations into one great, sense-making fabric, or else teach “skeptical thinking” on “controversial” subjects that aren’t, in fact, substantially controversial among scientists.  I agree that bills like Tennessee HB 368, despite their sham of secular intent, are ideological stealth drones targeted at undermining the plausibility of scientifically well-established ideas while strengthening various non-scientific beliefs.

So far, so good, but I still wonder about the “undermining their future” part, the competitiveness argument. One hears it often, harking back to the reaction to Sputnik in the late 1950s. Before that time, evolution was often AWOL in US schools: Mr. Scopes and the ACLU lost their famous case back in 1925, and anti-evolution laws remained on the books in Tennessee and many states until the 1960s. Not until the Russians were coming did the picture change much. But is it actually true that teaching kids bad biology cripples them for the job market or dooms the nation as a whole to backwardness? Economically speaking, can creationists compete?

Can creationists compete in the dog-eat-dog economy that most conservatives favor?  (Photo: Larry Gilman)

Science education in the US is definitely in a bad way. In 2012, the World Economic Forum ranked the US as 51st in the world for “quality of math and science education” — far below China (31st), India (32nd), or even Albania (42nd) . That’s dismaying, but it can’t be because our public schools have been invaded by creationism, because they haven’t. Teaching creationism in public schools, whether in the guise of “creation science” or “intelligent design,” has been uniformly struck down in US courts since the 1960s. The true reasons for the feebleness of US science education would probably fill a book—our obsessive diversion of time, zeal, and money to sports throughout the middle-school and high-school years might share the blame—but we cannot, I think, finger creationism. At least not entirely, or not directly. Perhaps Americans do starve their schools and their science programs partly because at least 40% of us are strict young-Earth creationists, but I do not know if it can be shown that this is so.

Putting aside the question of why US science education is so bad, we might ask the simpler question of whether young creationists are at an economic disadvantage compared to high-school graduates who accept the scientific world-story. If we fail to teach kids evolution, are we disadvantaging them in the competitive, science-based job market of Tomorrowland? Are we “undermining their future” at a personal level?

A yea-sayer might point out that in the US, creationism is strongly correlated with conservative religiosity, which correlates in turn with lower socioeconomic status (SES).  But this does not prove that it is the conservative beliefs that cause the lower SES, rather than the lower SES causing the beliefs, or some common factor both. The American Psychological Association argues that low SES causes poor educational outcomes, rather than the other way around — so if conservatively religious students do perform more poorly in school, it might simply be because of their lower average SES, not their creationism. But might creationism add independently to the intellectual burden of low SES? Some studies find that creationist-style cosmological beliefs correlate with poor performance in science classes, even correcting for SES, but others find no such correlation: for instance, a 2010 study of junior-high students in Indiana found no statistically significant correlation between “science achievement and cosmological beliefs, but very strong multiple correlations of socioeconomic status and previous science knowledge to science achievement . . . .”

A weak case, then, for disadvantage in school.  What about after graduation? Are creationist graduates, as such, more likely to have lower SES down the road? There are no studies, so far as I can tell, testing whether adult SES correlates with cosmological beliefs during one’s school years—in short, whether creationism makes you less able to compete. But it’s certainly not obvious that creationist students are doomed to skid in the job market. About 20% of all US medical doctors reject evolution outright — half the rate of the general public, but still, that’s an awful lot of doctors making an awful lot of money. There are also plenty of engineers in this country who hew to some form of creationism: nobody seems to know how many, but there is a view with wide anecdotal support, the Salem Hypothesis, that engineers are more likely than are scientists to be creationists. Even if engineers are no more likely than MDs to be creationists, then there are about 400,000 (20% rate, ~ 2 million engineers) well-paid, technically adept creationists out there applying science to the design and manufacture of complex 21st-century widgetry, chemical reactions, buildings, and the like.  In what sense has their economic future been “undermined” by their creationist beliefs?

What, then, about the view that creationism undermines national economic prosperity—the Sputnik Hypothesis? The USA is one of the most creationist countries in the industrialized world, but ranks seventh in gross domestic product per capita.  Not too shabby, especially given that four of the countries that outrank it have petroleum economies and could hardly fail to be rich even if they tried.

Let’s snap the frame out to the level of whole civilizations. Is it possible for a civilization based on applied science to remain viable in the long run if it permits its students to opt out of scientific patterns of thought whenever identity issues such as evolution arise?

In other words, can we go on forever being successful engineers and doctors without being good scientists? Can we keep on shaping the world in ways that enable us to survive while remaining deluded or ignorant about the history of the Universe, including its biological history?

There are no survey data on the rise and fall of industrial civilizations, leaving us pleasantly free to B.S.  My own wishy-washy answer is, “Maybe not.” The intellectual rules of engagement for problem-solving in engineering are the same as those in biology or climatology. Declare that your relationship to those rules is a matter of choice in one area—which creationists and climate denialists effectively do—and you have, it seems to me, damaged your commitment to those rules in all areas. Your fidelity has been compromised.  Prosperous creationists, on this view, are hitchhiking on a civilization built by scientific habits of thought that they are not fully committed to and therefore cannot in the long run sustain.

Or perhaps an industrialized, technology-dependent civilization could be sustained indefinitely even while applying scientific methods of thought inconsistently. The discomfort of maintaining an intellectual double standard—one for problems in engineering and medicine, another for fossils, cosmology, and DNA—might pain some persons, but not enough to stagger the society.  I see no physical reason why one could not design and build all the iPads, jet planes, and artificial hip joints one wished while believing ardently in a literal Adam and Eve. A creationist technocracy could easily deal even with the evolution of toxin resistance in bacteria and crop pests by doctrinally splitting “micro-evolution” (deemed real, OK, and Genesis-compatible) from “macro-evolution” (the man-from-fish stuff, totally impossible and unreal).  Which creationists already do.

In sum, I think that the competitiveness argument is weak at the  personal level. Creationism is bad science by any working standard, and disastrous theology from where I stand in Christianity, but is it economic suicide for individuals in our existing economy?  Probably not.  Nor can I prove that a technical civilization composed entirely of creationists could not prosper for centuries.

Nevertheless, in the long term and on the large scale, I sense that we are not free to pick and choose. Science is a form of truth-telling, and any alliance between truth and evasion is likely to be unstable.