“Science is a way of equipping yourself with the tools to interpret what happens in front of you.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson
America has long been known by the world as one of the leaders in scientific research and innovation not just because the many famous scientists that called America home, but also because our nation has always placed a heavy emphasis on science education for our youth. Unfortunately, America’s position in the contemporary scientific community is in danger. American students are now known for underperforming on science tests, and their parents aren’t doing much better.
This scientific illiteracy isn’t limited to just the general public, as many of our elected officials have shown in recent years that they too suffer from the same ignorance that afflicts the American people. The United States House of Representatives specifically has been a hotbed of controversy when it comes to scientific knowledge, as Representatives have been caught saying things that just don’t make any sense scientifically.
Take for example the recent controversy started by Representative Todd Akin, from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District. By know most people know about his infamous claim that in cases of “legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Akin used this argument to explain why abortions aren’t needed in cases of rape, in the process offending millions and demonstrating his lack of knowledge about medical science. What most people don’t know is that Akin serves on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, which has jurisdiction over non-defense federal scientific research and development. Specifically, the committee has partial or complete jurisdiction over NASA, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the National Science Foundation, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, the U.S. Fire Administration, and the United States Geological Survey.
Obviously, it’s concerning that one of the people responsible for regulating and funding scientific research in America hasn’t taken the time to gain a basic scientific education, but Akin isn’t alone in his obliviousness. Representative John Shimkus, who represents Illinois’s 19th Congressional district, is notorious for his statement in late 2009 that climate change wasn’t real and that “the Earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over. Man will not destroy this Earth.” Unfortunately, Shimkus wasn’t punished for his scientific illiteracy; rather, he became the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment and Economy in the current Congress, and he remains a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Shimkus now has enormous control over legislation that impacts the environment, even though he has made it painfully obvious that he knows next to nothing about environmental science. His colleague Representative Paul Broun, who represents Georgia’s 10th District and also sits on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, echoed this ignorance by stating in 2009 that “Scientists all over this world say that the idea of human induced global climate change is one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated out of the scientific community. It is a hoax. There is no scientific consensus.” Even though this statement is obviously false, Broun still used it as the reason for opposing the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which would have established a cap and trade system under which the government could set a limit on the total amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted nationally.
Scientific illiteracy in the House of Representatives isn’t a harmless thing that can be taken lightly. Unlike schoolchildren, government officials have a vast amount of influence on how science is used by our government and understood by its citizens. By remaining scientifically illiterate, Representatives are more likely to oppose science-based solutions to problems such as comprehensive sexual education and support unproven solutions such as abstinence-only education. They are more likely to ignore warnings about climate change, preferring instead to turn to religion and other supernatural ideologies to understand changes in the natural world. Unfortunately, the result of this ignorance is real world suffering, as young women that never received a comprehensive sexual education become pregnant in their teens and farmers see their crops destroyed by an increasingly hostile climate. These government officials also set an example to our children that understanding science isn’t important, which in turn creates an entire generation that is less prepared to understand the world we inhabit and unable to get jobs in the global scientific community.
If those that represent us in Congress continue to promote scientific ignorance our ability to improve our lives and those of our children will be drastically impacted, and we will see our country overtaken by others that place a heavy emphasis on scientific education and literacy.
Matthew Bulger is the legislative assistant for the American Humanist Association.