The pride of Finland, the shame of America

young_scientist.jpgFifteen-year-olds in Finland are tops in the world.  In terms of science literacy, that is.  That’s according to a survey soon to be released by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the summary of which can be found here. The survey data come from tests conducted in 2006 in 57 countries that together account for 90% of the world’s economy. The survey tested students on knowledge of science and ability to use scientific knowledge to address questions in daily life.

The USA, in contrast, comes in at (are you ready for this?) . . . number 29. Roughly in the center of the pack —  behind Estonia, Slovenia, Latvia, and Poland, among others, but ahead of Serbia, Uruguay, and Kyrgyzstan.  One would have to interpret this as a grade of C. 

I surely have nothing against Finland — I’ve been there and it’s a beautiful country full of wonderful (and scientifically literate) people. But one has to ask: How can this be?  The US is the richest nation on earth, home of most of the world’s greatest universities, first to put a man on the moon,  the nation that invented the automobile, the airplane, the personal computer, the internet, the post-it note, you get the picture.  Time was, this country was the mecca for aspiring scientists worldwide, and for the most part it still is.  So why can’t 15-year-old Johnny figure out which end of the microscope to look through?

Forgive me for reflexively picking at this scab but might it have something to do with the dominance of hard-core ideologues that has spread like a cancer throughout this country’s national leadership over the last decade or two? America’s standing in this report is no surprise when candidates for the nation’s highest office can argue on TV with straight faces about whether the physical world was created in six days out of nothing a few thousand years ago.  I will avoid the temptation to vent at length (again) about where this country’s religious fundamentalism, which is unique among the major industrialized nations, is leading us.  But it is getting harder and harder to ignore the idea that it is a major factor behind the USA’s sorry showing in this report. 

elephant.jpgThe hostility toward rational, evidence-based science that we hear about in the news every day regarding evolution, climate change, and so on are profoundly destructive to our long-term interests.  This hostility has become an epidemic in the right wing of our national government and punditocracy over the last decade or so, and the infection is now clearly spreading to the next generation.  We are beginning to reap what we’ve sown.  And it’s not the trickle-down effect that Ronald Reagan had in mind. 

When will we wake up and realize that we live in the real world, and that policies that ignore understanding of cause and effect in the physical world are not going to work, regardless of how much faith we have in them?

It’s a national disgrace.

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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6 Responses to The pride of Finland, the shame of America

  1. i was working at uc berkeley when the timms report (third international mathematics and science study–now called trends study)

    the tests showed U.S. fourth-graders performing poorly, middle school students worse, and high school students unable to compete internationally in math and science…

    say what you will about the value and importance of standardized tests as barometers of learning… but the take home i gleaned from the report was that apparently the longer a student spends in the US public school system, the more disastrous to math and science aptitude…

    we’ve come a long way from sputnik indeed…

  2. Emmett Duffy says:

    Hey Rick. Yes, it’s been a long slow slide. And it has consequences,as described elegantly in this great essay on scientific literacy by Gentry Lee from 2000.

  3. emmett…
    looks like your above link is broken…

  4. Emmett Duffy says:

    Thanks Rick – I think it works now.

  5. Larry Ayers says:

    A good essay, Emmett; of course I say this because I agree with your premises and conclusion! A well-written piece and I hope that it is widely read.

    Allow me to nitpick a bit; in the fourth paragraph I imagine you meant “dominance of hard-core ideologies that has spread” rather than “dominance of hard-core ideologues that has spread”.

  6. Emmett Duffy says:

    Thanks Larry. Actually I did mean spread of ideologues (as opposed to individuals who base decisions on the best available evidence).  But of course the two are closely related — the spread of hard-core ideologues also implies spread of hard-core ideologies!