Ignorance is expensive

IGNORANCE IS EXPENSIVE…. Kathleen Parker has a worthwhile column today on Francis Collins, the physician-geneticist who led the Human Genome Project for the National Institutes of Health. Apparently, Collins is also an evangelical Christian who was home-schooled until sixth grade.

In addition to his work in science, Collins, Parker explained, devotes quite a bit of time to explaining to those who share his faith that there’s nothing incompatible about religion and modern biology. To that end, Collins has created the BioLogos Foundation as part of a larger effort to “raise the level of discourse about science and faith, and to help fundamentalists — both in science and religion — see that the two can coexist.”

Parker said Collins can “advance an alternative to the extreme views that tend to dominate the debate.” I’m not sure which “extremes” she’s referring to — accepting modern biology without a supernatural explanation hardly seems “extreme” — but Collins’ efforts seem worthwhile, especially given the woeful state of the public’s scientific understanding.

Having earned a PhD and a medical degree, Collins is nonetheless a scientist with little patience for those who insist that evolution is just a theory that one may take or leave. Most human genes, he points out, are similar to genes in other mammals, “which indicates a common ancestry.”

Even so, a Gallup Poll found last year that 44 percent of Americans believe God created human beings in their present form within the past 10,000 years.

“You can’t arrive at that conclusion without throwing out all the evidence of the sciences,” says Collins.

The problem of not believing in evolution as one might not believe in, say, goblins or flying pigs has repercussions beyond the obvious — that the United States will continue to fall behind other nations in science education.

The point about falling behind other nations is probably one of the key parts of the larger issue, at least for me. At first blush, if millions of Americans choose to be wrong about science, it doesn’t seem especially consequential.

But I think Collins is right about the national interests here. The country just can’t afford confusion on a grand scale about scientific basics. The competitive advantage the United States used to enjoy is vanishing, and an anti-science push comes with too high a burden for the country.

The country needs to start taking science seriously again — our economy depends on it — and ignorance costs far too much. If Francis Collins can help turn some people around who reject biology for religious reasons, he’s a welcome addition to the discourse.