What does religion have to do with the United States falling behind in math and science?

This morning on one of the Sunday morning political shows (probably "Meet the Press"), I heard a statement that troubled me. I may be misquoting, but I heard the moderator ask how we can afford to have a vice president who believes in Creation in a time when the United States is lagging so far behind in fields like science and engineering.

I call irrelevance.I’ll tell you why the United States is falling behind in science and engineering. It has little or nothing to do with religion (or lack of it) and everything to do with society and education.

I know several engineers. Some are practicing and licensed; others have the degree but haven’t had need for the license. One is the godfather of my son. He’s in church every Sunday and I know it, because I usually sit in the same section.

You can pretty much name any large company that makes something made of metal in the United States, and chances are he’s designed a press for them. Companies buy his presses because they are reliable, safe to operate, and cost efficient. I don’t know what he thinks about when he’s designing his presses, but it’s certainly possible to design one without thinking about God once. And being well-versed in biological evolution isn’t going to make his presses any safer or cheaper.

But if we want to debate Creation vs. Evolution, I’ll drag Dad into this. I have to speak for him, because he died in 1994. Dad had bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, physics, and biology in addition to his medical degree. He was also a practicing Lutheran, so he believed in God and could find his way around a hymnal and a Bible.

Dad believed in evolution and was told more than once he was going to hell because of what he believed. But the church elders never let Dad finish his argument. He and I had this talk once, and let me tell you the last thing Dad said.

Evolution’s dirty little secret is that at the very beginning, some force had to set it in motion. Dad said God set it in motion, and the same God gave Darwin the brain to figure that out.

As someone who was much stronger in English than any science, I’m not qualified to argue with my Dad. But I can say that more people would have listened to him, and the discussions would have been more civil, if he’d said that first instead of last. Dad was guilty of burying his thesis.

In 1998, I had a conversation with another doctor, one who had known Dad. Unlike Dad, this doctor wasn’t an evolutionist. He said it’s bad science, because its earliest stages are neither repeatable nor observable. So rather than plug God into it like Dad did, he preferred to throw out the theory.

If you want to say evolution disproves God, then you have to assume that original lifeform and the world it lived in happened by chance. There’s a word for that. It’s called faith. The difference is whether you believe in chance or in God.

When engineers set out to design a car or airplane, or part of one, their personal beliefs about the origins of life don’t help them design a better machine.

Personally, I couldn’t care less whether public schools teach evolution alone or side by side with some variant of intelligent design because that’s not going to make or break mathematicians and scientists and engineers. The educational system and popular culture is what’s keeping our country from being on top of those fields.

First of all, the portrayal of anyone who has any interest in math and science in popular media needs to stop. Now. Television shows like "The Big Bang Theory" and "Beauty and the Geek" reinforce the negative stereotypes of anyone with those inclinations. But it’s not new. Twenty years ago the same stereotypes existed.

I knew lots of science and engineering majors in college. And you know what? Most of them didn’t wear glasses. I never saw any of them with pocket protectors. One of them enjoyed Star Trek but wasn’t obsessed with it by any means. Most of them had girlfriends, and without exception they were all what any normal person would consider good girlfriend material. And perhaps most importantly, you could sit down with any of them and have a pleasant conversation about anything you would talk about with anyone else with a college education.

So there’s no more truth to that stereotype than there is to racial stereotypes. But how much does that stereotype dissuade kids with the gift from speaking up in math or science class when they know the answer?

I know it kept me quiet. I stopped speaking up, and probably on some level I stopped trying as hard as I once did.

But the educational system also bears some blame. Do you want to know why German kids score better in math and science than U.S. kids?

Because German schools know how to teach math and science and U.S. schools don’t, that’s why.

Twenty years ago, I was sitting at the kitchen table of my parents’ house with a German national named Peter. Peter was little more than a drunk and a con man, but I still learned something from him. For some reason, a math problem came up. I attacked the problem using long division, the proper, sanctioned, U.S. method. Peter came up with the same answer I did, and he came up with it a lot faster. He showed me the German way. I’ve long since forgotten the details, but it was quick and easy, unlike long division, which was one of the most difficult and painful things I ever had to learn in school.

Why are German cars better than U.S. cars? Maybe because German schools don’t use math as a way to torture their kids. And, heaven forbid, German kids might actually grow up knowing what they can do with the math skills they’re learning.

In high school, I quit math after trigonometry. The point of no return for me was when one of my classmates was building a speaker box for a car. He knew the size of the box that would fit the car, and wanted to know the maximum size of the speakers he could fit in that area. So he asked the teacher. The teacher tried some equations, but couldn’t figure it out.

The message to me (and the rest of the class) was pretty clear. We were learning this garbage because someone else before us had to learn it, not because it was something necessary for us to succeed in life. Let’s call it for what it is: institutionalized hazing.

Today, I’m 33 years old and I can tell you what basic trigonometry is good for, but that’s only because I watch This Old House on a regular basis and I see Norm Abram and Roger Cook using trig to figure out if something they’re in the process of building is going to be square or not. But I learned so little in trigonometry in high school that it’s a miracle I even know they’re doing trig.

So if we want to keep up with the rest of the world, I have a start. First, burn every math textbook currently in use. Second, launch a crash program to translate German math textbooks into English. Third, fire any teacher not willing to use those methods and replace them with teachers who are. Replace them with people like me who struggled to get Cs under the old method.

Yes, in high school and college, I got Cs in pretty much anything that required the use of numbers. Yet today I can look at business-related data and use statistical methods to figure out how to make that business more efficient and profitable. I almost always need help with the math, but once I manage to get past that, profits increase.

I struggled in Dr. F. Tim Wright’s Statistics 31 class at Mizzou, but his word problems always sounded like a something that might happen in the real world. He’s probably the reason I have that ability today.

Right now the biggest decision my son faces on a day to day basis is what toy he’s going to put in his mouth. So I don’t know what he’s going to decide to do with his life. I know when he reaches adulthood, there will be a shortage in several fields. Medicine and engineering will be among them.

He probably has the genetic disposition to be one or the other. Four of the six generations who preceded him were doctors–his father and great-great grandfather were the two exceptions.

What he decides to do with his life will have very little to do with the personal beliefs of the next president and vice president. It will have everything to do with the kind of education he receives. If a couple of math and science teachers show him how those subjects can change the world, he might head that direction. If it’s a language or social studies teacher who ends up wielding the most influence, he’ll be a lot more likely to go that direction.

I care about that, but I’m not under the illusion that Washington D.C. has much control over it.

3 thoughts on “What does religion have to do with the United States falling behind in math and science?

  • September 4, 2008 at 8:46 am
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    Evolution’s dirty little secret is that at the very beginning, some force had to set it in motion. Dad said God set it in motion, and the same God gave Darwin the brain to figure that out.

    Yep, that’s pretty much where I am. I even have a “Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian” t-shirt that has “You get to believe in dinosaurs” on it ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’d call it “Intelligent Design,” except that term has been co-opted by religion-based, political pressure groups.

    But from what I know about Palin, that’s not where she’s coming from. I’d like to be proven wrong, but everything I hear so far is that she’s in the “fossils are God trying to trick the unfaithful, the Earth is 6,000 yrs old” crowd. And if that’s really the case, then yeah – it’s anti-science.

    • September 4, 2008 at 9:46 pm
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      I don’t know a lot yet about Palin’s personal beliefs, but from what I have read about the churches she attends, you and me and she would agree on about the 10% that you have to agree on in order to be considered Christian–basically, the stuff in the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds–but probably not a lot else. She may very well not consider us Christian, or at least not me, since I don’t speak in tongues on a regular basis. (I’m guessing you probably don’t either.)

      But I would still argue that a politician’s beliefs–particularly a Washington politician’s–are largely irrelevant, since education is mostly regulated at the state level rather than federal. Not to mention vice presidents have very little power unless the president’s name is George W. Bush.

  • September 8, 2008 at 8:07 am
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    Heh, heh…no – the vast majority of Episcopalians don’t go for the “speaking in tongues” stuff. Well, unless you count the Locust Valley lockjaw of some upper-crust types from back East ๐Ÿ˜‰

    And yeah, the Episcopal Church (TEC) is a creedal church, not a confessional one. Basic beliefs are summed up here. That, plus being encouraged to not leave your brain at the door, pretty much sum up TEC (and most of the mainline churches, as far as I can tell).

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