WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bitter debate about how to teach evolution in U.S. high schools is prompting a crisis of confidence among scientists, and some senior academics warn that science itself is under assault.
In the past month, the interim president of Cornell University and the dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine have both spoken on this theme, warning in dramatic terms of the long-term consequences.
"Among the most significant forces is the rising tide of anti-science sentiment that seems to have its nucleus in Washington but which extends throughout the nation," said Stanford's Philip Pizzo in a letter posted on the school Web site on Oct. 3.
Cornell acting President Hunter Rawlings, in his "state of the university" address last week, spoke about the challenge to science represented by "intelligent design" which holds that the theory of evolution accepted by the vast majority of scientists is fatally flawed.
Rawlings said the dispute was widening political, social, religious and philosophical rifts in U.S. society. "When ideological division replaces informed exchange, dogma is the result and education suffers," he said.
Adherents of intelligent design argue that certain forms in nature are too complex to have evolved through natural selection and must have been created by a "designer," who could but does not have to be identified as God.
AT ODDS WITH BUSH
In the past five years, the scientific community has often seemed at odds with the Bush administration over issues as diverse as global warming, stem cell research and environmental protection. Prominent scientists have also charged the administration with politicizing science by seeking to shape data to its own needs while ignoring other research.
Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have built a powerful position within the Republican Party and no Republican, including Bush, can afford to ignore their views.
This was dramatically illustrated in the case of Terri Schiavo earlier this year, in which Republicans in Congress passed a law to keep a woman in a persistent vegetative state alive against her husband's wishes, and Bush himself spoke out in favor of "the culture of life."
The issue of whether intelligent design should be taught, or at least mentioned, in high school biology classes is being played out in a Pennsylvania court room and in numerous school districts across the country.
The school board of Dover, Pennsylvania, is being sued by parents backed by the American Civil Liberties Union after it ordered schools to read students a short statement in biology classes informing them that the theory of evolution is not established fact and that gaps exist in it.
The statement mentioned intelligent design as an alternative theory and recommended students to read a book that explained the theory further.
Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller believes the rhetoric of the anti-evolution movement has had the effect of driving a wedge between a large proportion of the population who follow fundamentalist Christianity and science.
"It is alienating young people from science. It basically tells them that the scientific community is not to be trusted and you would have to abandon your principles of faith to become a scientist, which is not at all true," he said.
On the other side, conservative scholar Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, believes the only way to heal the rift between science and religion is to allow the teaching of intelligent design.
"To have antagonism between science and religion is crazy," he said at a forum on the issue last week.
Proponents of intelligent design deny they are anti-science and say they themselves follow the scientific method.
AMERICANS DON'T ACCEPT EVOLUTION
Polls for many years have shown that a majority of Americans are at odds with key scientific theory. For example, as CBS poll this month found that 51 percent of respondents believed humans were created in their present form by God. A further 30 percent said their creation was guided by God. Only 15 percent thought humans evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years.
Other polls show that only around a third of American adults accept the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, even though the concept is virtually uncontested by scientists worldwide.
"When we ask people what they know about science, just under 20 percent turn out to be scientifically literate," said Jon Miller, director of the center for biomedical communication at Northwestern University.
He said science and especially mathematics were poorly taught in most U.S. schools, leading both to a shortage of good scientists and general scientific ignorance.
U.S. school students perform relatively poorly in international tests of mathematics and science. For example, in 2003 U.S. students placed 24th in an international test that measured the mathematical literacy of 15-year-olds, below many European and Asian countries.
Scientists bemoan the lack of qualified U.S. candidates for postgraduate and doctoral studies at American universities and currently fill around a third of available science and engineering slots with foreign students.
Northwestern's Miller said the insistence of a large proportion of Americans that humans were created by God as whole beings had policy implications for the future.
"The 21st century will be the century of biology and we are going to be confronted with hundreds of important public policy issues that require some understanding that all life is interconnected," he said.