IGNORANCE COMES WITH CONSEQUENCES…. Gallup released a new national survey the other day, noting public attitudes on the origins of life. The results weren’t exactly encouraging.

A 40% plurality of Americans seriously believe that humans were created by their God, in our present form, about 10,000 years ago. That’s two-fifths of the U.S. population. Another 38% believe evolution occurred, but was guided by divine intervention. Just 16% believe in an entirely natural process, though that number has nearly doubled in recent decades.

Not surprisingly, there’s a political dynamic at play — most Republicans (52%) in the United States embrace the notion of young-earth creationism, while Democrats and Independents accept this in much smaller numbers.

Reading these results got me thinking about a story President Obama told about a year ago, after he returned from a trip to Asia. He shared an anecdote about a luncheon he attended with the president of South Korea.

“I was interested in education policy — they’ve grown enormously over the last 40 years. And I asked him, ‘What are the biggest challenges in your education policy?’ He said, ‘The biggest challenge that I have is that my parents are too demanding.’ He said, ‘Even if somebody is dirt poor, they are insisting that their kids are getting the best education.’ He said, ‘I’ve had to import thousands of foreign teachers because they’re all insisting that Korean children have to learn English in elementary school.’ That was the biggest education challenge that he had, was an insistence, a demand from parents for excellence in the schools.

“And the same thing was true when I went to China. I was talking to the mayor of Shanghai, and I asked him about how he was doing recruiting teachers, given that they’ve got 25 million people in this one city. He said, ‘We don’t have problems recruiting teachers because teaching is so revered and the pay scales for teachers are actually comparable to doctors and other professions. ‘

“That gives you a sense of what’s happening around the world. There is a hunger for knowledge, an insistence on excellence, a reverence for science and math and technology and learning. That used to be what we were about.”

I’ve been thinking a fair amount lately about whether the United States is really in “decline” as an international power, and our ability to compete on the global stage in the 21st century. And in general, I think the push in some circles, including at the White House, for a renewed national emphasis on science and math will benefit the country tremendously.

But then I see a Gallup poll that suggests a plurality of Americans reject the foundation of modern biology, and may very well think The Flintstones were a documentary.

It’s not too late for the United States to bounce back from this decline, but we’re going to have to do a lot better than this. Our global competitors aren’t playing for second place, and the more societal ignorance reigns, the harder it will be for us to come out on top.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.