American technology executives often complain about the inadequacies of public education, and rightly.
They worry especially loudly about the lack of higher standards and attainment in the all-critical areas of maths and science.
There is self-interest involved, of course. If any industry needs a qualified workforce in an increasingly knowledge-based economy, it is theirs.
Yet they are all but silent on a threat to the science curriculum in particular, and to the scientific method in a more general sense.
Few of the technology elite have addressed the movement to elevate “intelligent design” – a proxy for biblical creationism – to a place equal to evolution in the classroom.
In Kansas, the state’s top school officials seem bent on requiring classes to offer intelligent design as a plausible alternative to evolution.
In a federal trial now under way in Pennsylvania, a judge is hearing arguments against a local school board’s decision to do likewise.
President George W Bush has leapt into the fray. In a statement that appealed to his political base but shocked his own science adviser, Mr Bush recently said he thought intelligent design should be taught in class as the other side of the issue.
Proponents of intelligent design have become experts in using language, if not science.
They point out, correctly, that Charles Darwin and his successors can’t fully explain some natural phenomena with the well-established scientific theory of natural selection. And they point to the astonishing complexity and beauty of our universe.
They also claim that intelligent design isn’t really creationism, the notion that God created the world in a week, with one day off, just a few thousand years ago.
No, they say, it’s the examination of life’s near-infinite complexity, and the inescapable conclusion that only an intelligent entity could have created it, not natural selection – intelligent as in God.
They artfully misuse the word “theory” as applied in science. Evolution is not just a theory in the lay sense. The evidence supports it overwhelmingly.
The scientific method does not support intelligent design. The latter’s proponents fill in evolution’s holes – tiny ones, by scientific standards – essentially with faith.
There is nothing wrong with faith, and a great deal right. Behind faith can lie great strength, and if religion has been the root of much conflict, it is also the root of much good, such as when religious leaders stand up for the powerless and against abusers of power.
But religion is not science. It does not belong in science class.
Bill Gates is one of the loudest worriers about the quality of US schools, and has given billions via his foundation and company to improving education and science, notably healthcare. Yet his foundation has also lent financial support to the intelligent design movement’s most prominent think-tank, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.
The money is directed at programmes other than intelligent design, but helps pay the director’s salary – and if anyone knows that money is fungible, it ought to be Bill Gates.
At least one member of the tech elite is not silent. Eric Benhamou – the former longtime chief executive of networking pioneer 3Com, currently an adjunct professor at Insead – addressed the issue at a recent public conversation in which I took part.
We were discussing the larger topic of corporate social responsibility. I asked Benhamou whether it was the duty of executives to speak out when the president of the US suggests that science classes be required to teach “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution.
They absolutely should speak out, he said. It’s a fact, he observed, that today’s knowledge-based companies need people “whose minds are trained on knowledge and scientific fact, and not mixed up with this creationism bullshit.”
I then asked if he could name anyone in a prominent corporate position who’d actually spoken out in this way. He could not, he said with what sounded like regret: “It’s hard to be caught on TV saying these things, but it’s particularly important now. I feel quite worried that we’re passive about it.”
Silence in the face of this challenge to basic education is not just wrong. It is damaging to America’s future. It gives advantage to nations where children learn science based solely on evidence.
Powerful people should be defending science. Why are so many so silent?