Neil deGrasse Tyson Is Wrong: Schools Don’t Cause Science Ignorance
By Jeff Bryant
Aug 3 2017
It’s true that a lot of Americans don’t have a very good grasp of science. Only about half of Americans believe that human beings evolved over time, fewer parents are vaccinating their children, and while most people accept that climate change is happening, they don’t think it will affect their lives.
But are public schools to blame for this?
That’s what astrophysicist and “Cosmos” star Neil deGrasse Tyson seemed to saywhen he recently tweeted, “The rise of flat-Earthers in society provides some of the best evidence for the failure of our educational system.”
Tyson also told an interviewer for the Huffington Post, “I blame the education system that can graduate someone into adulthood who cannot tell the difference between what is and is not true about this world.”
Tyson was likely reacting to news stories about the dramatic growth in the flat Earth movement. Yes, there really are people who believe the Earth is flat. Among them, in fact, is NBA star Kyrie Irving who says, “The Earth is flat,” and any evidence of its alleged roundness “is a lie.”
Anti-science views may indeed be in resurgence. President Donald Trump is slashingthe budgets of science-related agencies and appointing officials with well-known anti-science biases.
But the hallmark of any good scientist, which Tyson certainly is, is to create a hypothesis and then weigh the evidence. So what’s the evidence that public schools are the main cause of science ignorance?
School Bashing, A Time-Honored Tradition
First, bashing public schools for America’s perceived disadvantages in science education is practically a time-honored tradition.
In 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched its Sputnik satellite, the Eisenhower-era political establishment, fearing the nation was losing the “space race,” pointed a blaming finger at American schools.
Driven by paranoia that Communists were spying on us, “the nation responded to the security threat by targeting education” as the reason why the nation was falling behind, noted a Harvard review on the 50th anniversary of Sputnik.
“The schools never recovered from Sputnik,” the late Gerald Bracy wrote in 2007. “Sputnik wounded their reputation and, as the scab formed, something else always came along to reopen the lesion.”
The scab would reopen again during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
In the early 1980s, Bracey recalled in a 2003 article, the danger was not “the Red Menace” but the competitive threat posed to the nation’s economy by German, Japanese, and Korean manufacturing.
A new report commissioned by the Reagan administration, called “A Nation at Risk,” blamed public schools for “a rising tide of mediocrity” that was allegedly crippling the nation’s ability to compete with the new industrial titans of the world. Using that report, Reagan helped launch a campaign for “greater accountability” from public schools that would stretch into the current century.
Battling False News
Today, when public schools and science teachers aren’t contending with the continued bashing by lawmakers and policy leaders, they have to address an around-the-clock onslaught of propaganda and “false news” which their still highly-impressionable students encounter every day.
As NPR reports, “Kids come in with all sorts of questions about things they’ve read online or heard elsewhere,” and teachers have more false information they have to dispel.
Conservative think tanks know this, the NPR reporter notes, and are carpet bombing schools with glossy information packets designed to provide teachers with convenient – albeit false – answers to students’ myriad questions about climate change and other scientific subjects.
Media celebrities frequently ply students with erroneous “facts” about the world. Among those celebrities is Kyrie Irving with his flat-Earth theory.