A Back-to-School Column

Bill Gates and the tide of American stupidity.

Last weekend, I watched a bunch of suburban drivers fill up their black SUVs and 4x4s at an Eastside gas station. One of the vehicles sported "W" bumper stickers, and everyone seemed jolly. The source of joy was a gas station giveaway: a free plastic cup filled with soda pop for every driver who filled up with premium gas. That's right, with a $45 tankful of $3-per-gallon gas, you get a few pennies' worth of sugary battery acid.

And people wonder what's wrong with Kansas.

Democrats continue to be baffled as to why so many Middle Americans vote against their interests. Why is it that the great American heartland, which is most shafted by Bush and Republican policies, remains so steadfastly in the GOP's corner?

One answer is that many Americans are ignorant fools.

Let me state for the record that these ignorant Americans who enjoy being ripped off by the oil companies in exchange for a bubbly moment of bliss with a straw are not all Republicans. Many idiots vote for Democrats, too, or at least attempt to. They include the legions of folks who cannot do something as simple as walk into a polling place and fill in a written ballot properly because this involves the incredibly difficult task of coloring inside the lines of a small circle.

This "skill" is the kind of thing we used to learn in nursery school or kindergarten, and the fact that our public educational system is so broken that it cannot teach coloring in circles—let alone reading, writing, and arithmetic—means that while the country's rarest bird is the ivory-billed woodpecker, the ignorami americanus, otherwise known as the American peckerwood, is quite common.

If I sound like I'm being too hard on my fellow Americans, it's because I have been reading the polls. Last week there was a lot of coverage—including in this column—of "intelligent design," the notion being popularized by Seattle's conservative Discovery Institute that an unspecified creator (who sounds an awful lot like the Christian notion of God) is responsible for the creation and development of everything, including human beings. In short, the Darwinian theory of random natural selection is all wrong. Many of our country's most important political leaders, including the president, believe intelligent design should be taught in schools as an alternative to evolution, even though it has no basis in science.

They, too, have apparently been reading the polls.

Pollingreport.com cites a Harris poll in June that revealed that 54 percent of Americans believe that humans did not evolve from an earlier species; 47 percent do not believe we share a common ancestry with apes; 48 percent disagree that fossil evidence offers proof of evolution; and 64 percent believe humans "were created directly by God." Another 10 percent said God guided things through "intelligent design." Only a measly 22 percent believe in evolution.

An NBC News poll in March found that 57 percent of Americans believe God created the universe, and 44 percent say he did it in six days, just as described in the Bible.

In a CBS News/New York Times poll late last year, when asked if Darwinian theory was well-supported by evidence, 35 percent said "no" and 29 percent said they didn't know enough to make a judgment. That means roughly two-thirds of the country is either wrong or totally ignorant about one of the fundamentals of modern science.

Now here's a humorous sidelight. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a major contributor to the Discovery Institute. And while the money doesn't go toward "intelligent design" work per se, it does support the institute's own intelligent designer, Bruce Chapman, who runs the place. Bill Gates has also been a vocal advocate for improving public education in this country and has lamented loudly the low level of science education in particular. His foundation has poured at least $1 billion dollars into the effort of remaking schools, and he is reportedly prepared to spend at least $1 billion more. Gates is making a concerted effort to be education reform's own intelligent designer, a worthy and noble cause.

But the Discovery Institute is a bit like a hole in his pocket: For every dollar he spends abetting the "intelligent design" agenda, he is setting back his own effort to promote good science and learning.

The challenge of education reform that Gates has taken on is big enough without this self-imposed burden. Turning around overcrowded schools that are held back by too many lousy teachers, bloated bureaucracies, and clueless parents who drop their kid off for 12 years of state-run, underfunded day care is no easy task, even for one of the world's richest—and smartest—men. Actively funding the march toward a dumber America by enabling the creationist crowd is ultimately self-destructive.

Gates is famous for announcing to Microsoft employees that one idea or the other they've offered is "the stupidest thing I ever heard." Well, Bill, when it comes to funding Discovery, right back at you.

kberger@seatttlewekly.com

 
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