The latest international exams — which show that students from the U.S. rank 21st and 26th in science and math, respectively — once again confirm a pattern that emerged in 1964 with the First International Mathematics Study: Compared with their counterparts abroad, American kids are decidedly mediocre.
It would certainly be nice if our students performed better. A first step would be ending the election of politicians who merely pay lip service to science over those who are scientifically knowledgeable. But don’t expect that transformation anytime soon.
Why? Because once elected, our leaders are forced to answer to the voters who put them in office. And those voters are, just like our K-12 students, scientifically ignorant.
That’s not meant to be an insult. It’s just sadly true.
Surveys suggest that 28% of American adults qualify as scientifically literate. That’s far better than, say, China, whose citizenry is only 3% literate. Even so, it doesn’t inspire much confidence that Americans have the requisite knowledge to pick the best and brightest to represent us in Washington.
Then there’s the problem of irrationality. We humans like to think of ourselves as a sophisticated bunch. We are not.
Psychologist Maria Konnikova describes how people are fairly good at predicting the outcome of elections based solely on photographs of the candidates. Disturbingly, this would imply that — no matter how hard we might analyze a candidate’s policy positions — part of our voting behavior falls back on subconscious, instinctual “gut” feelings that are in many cases not entirely rational.
Think you can change a friend’s mind about an important issue? Think again. Other psychological research suggests the existence of a “backfire effect.” Simply mentioning facts that another person won’t like will cause him to double down on his original position. Anyone who has ever read an online comments section has seen it in action.
Lamentably, if American voters aren’t as deliberate and enlightened as we would like them to be, then we certainly can’t expect our elected leaders to behave any better.
The unfortunate reality is that when faced with a choice, politicians will almost always decide in favor of their electoral interests rather than in favor of data-driven policy. In certain parts of the USA, politicians get a much larger return-on-investment by questioning the safety of genetically modified organisms, or decrying evolution and the Big Bang as “lies straight from the pit of hell,” than by endorsing the scientific consensus. Indeed, a survey out this week shows that Republicans are growing less likely to believe in evolution over time.
And this is not a uniquely American phenomenon. This common dilemma extends well beyond the borders of our country.
For instance, after the meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed forward a scientifically and economically dubious plan to shut down her nation’s nuclear plants. Merkel’s decision was puzzling because Germany is not known for earthquakes or tsunamis. The move was disappointing because she holds a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry and really ought to know better.
Merkel’s enigmatic position, however, makes sense in the light of electoral politics. When she made the decision, she was thinking about the 2013 campaign. By agreeing to abandon nuclear power, Merkel essentially eliminated the only reason Germans had to vote for the Green Party. Her gamble paid off: Not only did the Greens lose votes, but Merkel cruised easily to re-election.
For science advocates, the question that lingers from this is grim: If a quantum chemist is willing to throw nuclear power under the bus for a few extra votes, then how can a democracy ever expect to have rational science-based policies?
Regrettably, there is no easy answer.
Indeed, it seems that every democracy suffers from an inherent paradox at the intersection of science and politics: A politician often cannot support scientifically sound policies while simultaneously being responsive to the concerns of his or her constituents. The cold, calculative nature of scientific reasoning simply has little in common with emotional voters.
Therefore, until all of us are willing to relinquish our own irrational beliefs and punish politicians who indulge them, we should not expect — nor should we deserve — a government any different from the one we have.
Courtesy of USA Today