The World Eyes American Ignorance

By Mark Trodden | October 2, 2005 8:08 am

The absurd spectacle of a post-enlightenment society seriously discussing the relative merits of evolution and creationism is being watched with a mix of abject horror and ridicule back in my home country.

Today’s Observer article, describing the plight of rational parents in Dover, PA, who are going to court to defend their children’s right not to be indoctrinated with superstitious nonsense in science class, gives a straightforward picture of how alien the sight is to our less credulous friends.

The final section of the article succinctly summarizes the uphill battle faced by those of us who love so much about this country, but who see the extreme danger of Americans rejecting the world as we observe it to be and embracing a mystical, fanciful and anti-scientific philosophy.

The American world view

64 per cent of people questioned for a recent poll said they were open to the idea of teaching creationism in addition to evolution in schools, while 38 per cent favoured replacing evolution with creationism.

40 per cent of Americans believe God will eventually intervene in human affairs and bring about an end to life on Earth, according to a survey carried out in 2002. Of those believers, almost half thought this would occur in their lifetime with a return of Jesus from heaven.

1 adult American in five believes that the Sun revolves around Earth, according to one study carried out last summer.

80 per cent of Americans surveyed by the CNN TV news network believe that their government is hiding evidence of the existence of space aliens.

70 per cent believe it likely that Saddam Hussein was involved personally in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

As PZ points out, it doesn’t have to be this way. As Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong puts it (via tild), referring to the similar problems that Kansas has faced in recent years:

Marion from Kansas writes:
“In my state the Board of Education threw out the teaching of evolution a few years ago. Upon election of moderate members, the Board brought it back again. Now conservatives are in the majority again and the whole issue of universe origin is being debated again. This time the issue of “intelligent design” is being brought in as needing to be taught. Is this just another way of bringing in conservative belief about instant creation?”

Dear Marion,

On one level it really doesn’t matter what the Kansas Board of Education thinks, evolution is real and is not subject to majority vote any more than whether epilepsy is caused by demon possession. Yet it is embarrassing to live in a state where public ignorance can force people to deny reality. It will also ill-equip the children of Kansas to live in the modern world. Already American school children are far behind Asians in the field of science. The pursuit of knowledge should never be compromised to protect religious sensitivities. That is where religious tyranny begins.
Intelligent Design is just one more smoke screen. The task of geologists and anthropologists is to study the sources of the life of this world. They should be free to follow wherever their scientific research carries them. If Christianity is threatened by truth, it is already too late to save it. Imagine worshiping a God so weak and incompetent that the Kansas School Board must defend this God from science and new learning. It is pitiful.

The challenge of Darwinian thinking to traditional Christianity is deep and profound. That means that Christianity’s survival depends on its being big enough to embrace a post-Darwinian world. If we cannot then Christianity will surely die. I do not believe that is the fate toward which Christianity is headed unless it becomes that petty, small-minded enterprise that must hide in ignorance and fear lest it be destroyed.

I hope you and others will resist these tactics at the ballot box. If that fails then you have to assess whether or not you want your children to grow up in the environment that Kansas is creating. If not, you might consider moving. I for one hope you will stay and fight for ignorance will not prevail forever, even in Kansas.

I’m not the kind of guy to say Amen, but nice job!

  • Scott

    why not teach ID in shools. Say these are the arguments for ID, and here is why this particular argument is simply wrong or unscientific ect ect. If we don’t counter propaganda in our schools what are they good for.

  • iso42


    I hope you are not surprised by polls like the one you cite. The 2/3 support for creationism is remarkable stable over many years.

  • janet

    When I was in the UK recently, I was struck by the fact that Darwin is on the 10-pound note. Can you imagine the reaction if such a thing were even suggested in the US?

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  • Clifford

    Scott: a seemingly reasonable question. But imagine the resources of time (etc) that we’d lose (or -more importantly- our kids would lose) by putting on the curriculum every random piece of nonsense somebody dreamed up about the world. You simply can’t do that. See my post on pastafarianism, and the links therein.



  • Adam

    In some respects, this is a very strange country.

    Very strange indeed.

    Many of the things, relating to apparent American weirdness, that my friends and family back home ask me about can be explained easily enough with an account of why the US is (quite defensibly) different. Some things, though, like the popular support of the ID/Creationism in Science lessons nonsense, are difficult to explain away in a way that isn’t going to appear derogatory (in this particular case, to US education standards in public education). Poor standards in US science education at school are giving us this particular harvest, where the (now grown) former students are apparently suspicious of scientists and ignorant of the nature of the scientific endeavour.

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    So, Mark, what are the comparable statistics in your native country of Elbonia (or whatever)?

  • spyder

    satirically gagging on my proverbial silver spoon: do these stats reveal that more people believe in non-earth based intelligent alien life forms than do in Creationism and thereby an intelligent designer??? Or do they reveal that it was all part of the design that alien UFO type beings would encounter secret agents of the US government?? I wonder how many of the 20% that think the sun revolves around the earth thinks that the sun is an alien base??

  • Adam


    I was in fact a science teacher in Mark’s native country of Elbonia, and if there was any significant ‘pro-Creationist/ID in school science lessons movement’ it passed me by (I have taught at Church of England, Catholic and non-denominational schools). Mind you, only 50% or so of the country believes in Gawd (the next most atheist country, in a BBC survey of (I think) 11 countries was Israel, which wasn’t far behind; the US was pretty much more religious than every country surveyed after Nigeria, I seem to recall). Of those who [i]do[/i] believe in Gawd, I’d guess that most believe in evolution, as well. I’m catholic and I never heard any significant debate on it; two of my coworkers believed in creationism, so far as I was aware (at the catholic school); one was in Opus Dei and the other was a former Seminarian, and the kids mostly thought they were nuts.

    I’m not sure where the nation stands on the subjects of Flying Space Aliens.

  • Adam

    As an addendum, I don’t think that the Elbonians are buying the idea of Saddam-11/9 links, either. Belief in Gawd is probably significantly more common than belief that Saddam was involved in the events of 11/9.

  • Mark

    Thanks for doing my work for me Adam. I also agree entirely with your comment 6. I really like living in the U.S. and admire many things about it. This just makes the craziness all the more frustrating.

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    Adam – Though I seem to recall that Elbonia is a member of the coalition of the willing.

    But the stat that interests me the most is the Sun around the Earth one. Even I was shocked that only one in five Americans knew that!

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    Gosh, I wouldn’t want anybody thinking I took offense at Mark’s smug and supercilious lecture. Especially when Britain, Israel, and, no doubt, Elbonia have shown us the way to get rid of religious influence – just adopt a state religion and make it part of the government. Too bad our founders failed to see the wisdom of that strategy.

  • David Landy

    I grew up in a british school system. First a state school till I was 13 and then a private school till I was 19 (but the fact that it was private had no great influence on the curriculum).
    And you know, now that I think about it, every week we had “religion class” when we read the bible and were “indoctrined” with all sorts of religious/creationist rubbish. At the time, I remember thinking “obviously there is no such thing as Adam and Eve and the ‘seven days of creation’ and Jesus walking on water etc etc”. Rather I thought “you know, if I sift out all the crap about ID I really like this religion class, it allows you to sit back and enjoy thinking about moral issues, in fact it allows me to sit back and enjoy *thinking*, period. (religion was never examined so there was no pressure) I think that children should be given more credit in their ability to discern the rational truth. I also think, it is the parents of the children that influence their religious and moral beliefs an order of magnitude more than a school teacher. So I don’t think that this ‘creationism in schools stuff’ is as apocalyptic as you are making out to be Sean and Mark.

  • erc

    It is not creationism in schools which is the worrying thing. It is creationism in Science classes.

  • Clifford

    Brilliantly put, erc! That’s exactly the point!


  • Moshe Rozali

    One comment, perhaps reinforcing a point made by CIP. Growing up atheist in a country where religious indoctrination is part of the education system, there is also something uplifting about the Dover case…

    Incidentally, I can certainly believe the above random statistic above atheism in Israel, and it is a direct consequence of that indoctrination. Coming first to the US I was surprised by presence of religion on campus. Maybe paradoxically, religious organizations do not participate, and are mostly unwelcome in campus life in Israel.

  • Adam

    CIP: The noble Elbonians never bought into the idea that Saddam was involved in 11/9. Indeed, Blair and his cabinet, for all their failings, didn’t try to repeatedly juxtapose mention of 11/9 with mention of Saddam in an effort to convince the rubes that there was in fact some substantive connection between the two. The pro-war Elbonian (a narrow majority) was in favour thanks to a mix of WMD concerns (exacarbated by Blair’s infamous ’40 minutes’ claim and the like) and ‘Saddam = Bad Man’.

    Blair’s lucky that the conservatives are in such horrendous disarray, or he’d have been nailed to the wall. Off point, but I fear that the Conservatives may be about to shoot another fat bullet into their feet when it comes to selecting their next leader (but hopefully I’ll be wrong).

  • David Landy

    Erc, you got me, fair point.

    The quotation from the Observer above said “64% of americans…believe that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in schools”, from this I briefly (quite stupidly) failed to make the “in the science class” connection. An apology is in order to the blogowners!

  • Mark

    Nice work with “smug and supercilious” CIP – really gets to the heart of the matter!

  • Richard

    Aside from the obvious damage to science education threatened by ID, I have to note that those who are conditioned to reject empiricism, embrace fairy tales, and generally believe what they wish to believe despite obvious evidence to the contrary, are also conditioned to be extraordinarily amenable to political manipulation.

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    Well Mark, I started by asking what the comparable statistics were in your country. It’s quite true that many Americans believe some truly foolish things, but I wonder how much that varies from country to country. The specific foolish things probably very a lot, but I doubt that the proportions change that much. I happen to be an Elboniaphile myself, but I wonder how enlightened the Elbonians really are, over all.

    I’m not sure who you were addressing your remarks to, but I’m pretty sure you aren’t striking a big blow for intellectual rigor just by calling Americans stupid. I might have been less annoyed if there were anything thoughtful about your analysis of why many Americans cling to religion.

    By the way, the word amen means “certainly” or “verily.” Writing it seems unlikely to contiminate the purity of your irreligion.

  • Mark

    Yes, I know how you started, but you ended by being a little insulting.

    The extent to which silly fanciful nonsense pervades science classes varies greatly in different countries and is much worse here than it is in England. I base this on experience, not just “I feel that way” or “I doubt it is that way”.

    I was educated primarily in that country, would rather not have had religious education classes but, since they were taught like history, they didn’t seem to present a great threat to science. If you actually read what people like Adam, who has been involved in the education system over there even more recently, have to say, then it seems like these days one still doesn’t find this nonsense in science classes. This is the difference and the problem we face.

    There is a national religion in England, which I really dislike – sounds like we’re in agreement there. However, it seems very clear that religion has less influence on politics in England than it does here, which is an extremely important practical matter.

    Finally, I did not call Americans stupid. Rather I’m implying there are many who are ignorant and uneducated about the real world. This is not an inate problem, but is one of the education system, the political system and the influence that religion, a particularly malignant form, found mainly in the US, has on politics. There are lots of posts on this blog and others, some by me, about why Americans cling to this malignant form of religion. This post was about how this country’s current problems are being viewed in the foreign press, and how some sensible voices, albeit from a religious side, are doing to help.

    Thanks for the definition – fortunately the religious education mentioned above means I didn’t need your help. However, it is often the case that the associations that a word carries that are much more important than the dictionary definition, so I’ll continue not using it.

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    OK, my apologies for being insulting, though I’m not sure exactly how I insulted you, except by not recognizing your native country without Adam’s prompting. I was certainly peeved, though I have to admit you called Americans “ingnorant” rather than “stupid” – my bad. I did and do find the tone of your post, and the Observer’s story to be smug and condescending.

    I’ve been a frequent critic of American teaching of science myself, and the evidence shows that Americans are relatively ignorant of science. I’m more concerned at the moment about our stupidity about politics.

  • Mark

    I certainly share your concern about the way politics is going here. Obviously I’m very concerned about science also. I guess I also feel that the two are related,(although they’re not the same thing of course).

    It’s definitely a hard problem, but blogs like this one are full of people (I’m including commenters here also) who spend a lot of time discussing what can be done. I don’t know if we’ll make a difference, but we try, although we certainly don’t agree on everything.

    Speaking of opportunities to make a difference, this Tuesday I’m speaking at our cafe Scientifique about cosmology. I don’t know if I’ll get creationists there, but will report later in the week on how it goes and on whether there was useful discussion.

  • Moshe Rozali

    One more comment, responding to erc and Clifford above- it makes very little difference if the religious (or otherwise ideological) indoctrination of children is done in the disguise of science, history, literature, cultural studies or whatever. Lots of ways to sneak it in, and I can give examples of all of the above.

    I find it wonderful and unique to the US that there is a mechanism to protect personal freedom regardless of details of current political and sociological situation. If a religious nutcase took power in any other country, I am not sure there would be much discussion about religious freedom.

  • Clifford

    Hmmm, I agree with the spirit of your comment, to some extent Moshe, but I don’t agree that it makes no difference. Somehow I think that the oft-trotted-out dubious business “let the kids decide”, might have a chance of happening if at least science stays in science class and religion stays in religion class. They can then compare and contrast without the additional blurring of the boudaries thrust upon them by the grown-ups.



  • Moshe

    Maybe I am off, but I thought the issue was precisely that there are currently no religion classes in public schools, since it is unconstitutional. I think the religious camp will be perfectly happy with that dubious “let the kids decide” strategy, as long as they are allowed to sneak in their propaganda in some form or another.
    The Dover case is certainly not about religion being taught as science, it is about religion being taught period.

  • Clifford

    You’re not off. The discussion segwayed into the issue in schools in the UK. There, you have religion classes where you can place that kind of thing, and keep it separate from the science. Intereting approach. I think this is what erc and Eric Landy were getting at. It is not an approach that would work in the U S of A. given the constraint that you mentioned.


  • Elliot

    I hate to open a cosmological can of worms here, but some people might consider the Anthropic Principle tantamount to introducing a quasi-religious belief into a scientific debate. Yet it seems (to some) that discussion around the A. P. is considered reasonable scientific discourse. Isn’t there some philosophical similarity between the Anthropic Principle and Intelligent Design? I am not saying they are identical but my own view is that the A. P. integrates some of what I consider “throwing in the towel” on scientific methodology.

    As you might surmise I am not a fan of the anthropic principle.


  • bittergradstudent

    This is somewhat tongue in cheek, but General Relativity does leave one perfectly free to choose a reference frame in which the sun does move around the Earth.

    As a point to reiterate to some, and to explain to others who don’t necessarily know, I would like to note that a major, major difference between the US educational system and that of most countries in Europe (and around the world for that matter) is the level of local control given to US school districts. Each state has extremely significant over curriculum, and each school district enjoys considerable autonomy within that system, outside of minimal constraints imposed by the state, and by the Federal Constitution (i.e., it is ostensibly illegal to treat people differentially based upon race, and any explicit endorsment of religion is contrary to the US constitution), the local (local meaning township, or small neighborhood within a major city) school board has almost complete control over what goes on in US schools. This makes many of the blanket criticisms I’ve seen here difficult to apply, unless they are directed at the inequities created by this system.

  • Scott

    Somehow I think that the oft-trotted-out dubious business “let the kids decide”, might have a chance of happening if at least science stays in science class and religion stays in religion class. They can then compare and contrast without the additional blurring of the boudaries thrust upon them by the grown-ups.

    exactly Cliff, except school is not the only venue that the kids hear about this, as I am sure you know(due to what i have read here before) there is a propaganda campaign going on in america, trying to convince people that ID and creationism is actually science and that it should be in science class. If it is not explained to them in science class why this is not so, there is nothing stopping this propaganda. This is hardly a waste of the classes precious time as you seem to think, It gives the teachers a chance to address how evidence supports theories and what science in general is. I’m not talking about explaining why every random crackpot idea is wrong or unscientific ect, there is no propaganda campaign trying to make pastafarianism into a seemingly scientific idea or any other crazy thing like that. How do we expect these kids to figure out this propaganda and put ID in its respective place as some sort of religous philosophy, if there teachers do not inform them that it is in fact not science(or those parts that “are” are simply wrong).

  • Jim

    A few things:

    The statistic on the question about the sun revolving around the Earth is no more meaningful than one on the question of whether red is a better colour than blue. Everyone agrees the question is scientifically meaningless— its only purpose is to test people’s willingness to repeat what they learned in school or ally themselves with a particular side in a moot historical debate. (In fact, you might argue that the most natural frame of reference is… the observer’s. I assume that all the Americans they polled were in fact on the Earth.)

    I think what these statistics really show is the ornery reluctance of many Americans to take on faith what people in positions of authority (e.g. school teachers, scientists, government officials, …) who don’t reflect their values tell them. I know that many religious people are in positions of power now, but that’s pretty recent.

    Regarding evolution, can someone give me a reference to an experiment of the following kind? An evolution proponent and evolution opponent set up an experiment. They agree to divide up the set of possible results into three subsets: those that would support evolution, those that would contradict it, and those that wouldn’t say either way. The experiment is performed. They agree on the result.

    I would think that because evolution is so well accepted by scientists, there must have been dozens, if not hundreds, of such experiements.

    Probably many people will say that the evolution opponents, being non-scientific, would never agree beforehand that anything would support evolution. That’s OK, I’d be happy with an example where the first subset is empty. I would imagine there are plenty who would agree to such a test.

    What I’m really saying is that it’s completely obvious that creationism and ID are not scientific theories. What I’d like to know is the extent to which evolution is, that is, the extent to which it predicts the results of future experiments. I myself have never doubted it, but now I see that’s mostly for reasons of ideological elegance, which is not at all scientific. I have no doubt that if the public is shown that evolution can predict the results of controversial experiments, most people would believe it.


  • Michael D

    Australian Education Minister Brendan Nelson has said that “ID could be taught in schools” although, it seems he would want it in religion/philosophy classes.

    Is there a difference between AP and ID? ID just seems to designate the Christian creator as *the* one that made the universe suitable for human life.

    Or did I not listen carefully enough in my philosophy course “Does God Exist?”


  • Mark

    Jim, you raise several different points. On one, it is entirely obvious that ID and creationism are not scientific theories – they are essentially untestable, and where there is the odd prediction, they are already ruled out. On the other point, take a look at


    I think what these statistics really show is the ornery reluctance of many Americans to take on faith what people in positions of authority (e.g. school teachers, scientists, government officials, …) who don’t reflect their values tell them. I know that many religious people are in positions of power now, but that’s pretty recent.

    the entire point here is that there are huge chunks of nonsense taken on faith, so I don’t agree. Religious people have been in positions of power throughout the entire history of this country, so I don’t agree with that statement either. However, the particularly backward, science denying versions that have a lot of political power today are relatively recent in their influence.

  • Jack

    Bittergradstudent wrote: “This is somewhat tongue in cheek, but General Relativity does leave one perfectly free to choose a reference frame in which the sun does move around the Earth. ”

    Nope. The worldline of the sun is [to a good enough approximation] a geodesic. The worldline of the Earth is a geodesic of a different shape. There is no isometry that allows you to bend one of those shapes into the other. [In special relativity there are always enough isometries to map any timelike geodesic to another of the same length. This trivial and not very interesting fact has, for historical reasons, given its name to the theory. In GR generally, and in the earth-sun spacetime in particular, things are different. As somebody once said, “there’s no relativity in GR — it’s that general!”] A good rule of thumb in these situations is that if you find yourself arguing that you can do something with frames of reference in GR that you can’t do in SR, then you are probably misunderstanding something basic.

  • blah

    You’ll have to excuse my ignorance (this isn’t my area, after all), but is there a particular reason the coordinate transformation must be an isometry? It may not be a particularly bright idea for actually, you know, calculating something, but I thought that it was perfectly reasonable to choose any coordinate system you wanted in general relativity. It’s not like I could make the wrong observer-invariant predictions.

    Of course, now that I think about it, I probably couldn’t make this coordinate choice everywhere, only locally. But that’s not necessarily a problem either, is it?

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  • Moshe


    I see your point, if you are really in the unfortunate position to be forced into religion classes, it is good for them to be separated from science classes. In fact this is exactly what my education was like: interesting and useful science classes, I learned both calculus and special relativity in high school, but then the social sciences which are harder to separate from the predominant political viewpoint usually degenerated into “great stories about the great leaders” etc.

    In the US the starting point is superior, you are already protected from having your kids taught religion, and the current fight seems to be about keeping this right- which only exists in the US. In this context the fact that religion is masked as science and not something else is not all that important, in fact that is the essence of the argument presented against teaching ID.

  • Adam

    Moshe, I think that France is pretty strong on secularism (to say the least). So is Turkey, for that matter. I don’t think that it’s just a US phenomenon in governmental law (and, indeed, it might be stronger in those other countries).

    Religious Education classes in the UK in the school that I went to as a kid were basically studies of the beliefs of various religions. We didn’t sit down and read the bible and have it explained to us. Additionally, they were often discussions about general ethics and other philosophical topics. Not to mention that we got to watch Cool Hand Luke. I personally don’t see it as a bad thing at all to learn about religious beliefs. The problem would be if it’s taught (heh) as gospel, which was more the case at the catholic school at which I taught (although, again there were studies of other denominations and religions even there, there was certainly a fair amount of ‘bible interpretation according to the Catholic Church’. If it’s any consolation, most of the kids didn’t give a toss about any of it).

  • Moshe


    What I specifically find useful in the US is the stability the constituional rights give you. Of course there are enlightened places with progressive governments, and then your rights are safe, but if you live in Dover PA and Bush is the president, that is far from being the case. Being able to protect yourself despite being an unpopular political minority is really incredible.

  • Adam


    I think that France has the same sort of legal restrictions (in fact, stronger) as there are in the US.

    And, don’t forget, the issue of Church-state seperation in the constitution, and the supporting documents such as Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists, aren’t uncontentious in themselves. Constitutional protection for what we might nowadays consider to be church/state seperation isn’t a done deal, I don’t think. And the Establishment Clause itself isn’t designed (according to some, at least) to prevent religion and government mixing so much as it is to stop the government giving primacy to one denomination. The debate over exactly how limited government and religion are, in terms of their interpenetration, isn’t dead.

  • serial catowner

    The Anglican Church in England is a government church, not so the church can control the government, but so the government can control the church.

    In America, the churches, with their tax exemption, can pretty much levy any financial strain on the government treasury they wish. In England the government has put limits on what the church gets, and what the church does.

    I say, call their bluff- demand a government church, and fair representation in the leaders of the church. We all get to vote on what’s right and wrong, and if the majority think God favors abortion or drinking, that’s the way things are. And a good stiff tax on non-conformers.

    After all, that was the Pilgrim ideal.


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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