Let’s look at a few specifics. On evolution, John McCain has waffled. In 2005, he supported the teaching of creationism in the classroom, in this newspaper interview:
Arizona Daily Star: Should intelligent design be taught in schools?(By the way, I’m not falling for the ploy by the Discovery Institute and other creationists that “intelligent design” is different from creationism. It’s not, so I will call it what it is.) The following year, in 2006, McCain reversed himself, saying: “I think Americans should be exposed to every point of view. I happen to believe in evolution… I respect those who think the world was created in seven days. Should it be taught as a science class? Probably not.“ And again in 2007, McCain stated explicitly to CNN: “I believe in evolution.”
McCain: I think that there has to be all points of view presented. But they’ve got to be thoroughly presented. So to say that you can only teach one line of thinking I don’t think is - or one belief on how people and the world was created - I think there’s nothing wrong with teaching different schools of thought.
Daily Star: Does it belong in science?
McCain: There’s enough scientists that believe it does. I’m not a scientist. This is something that I think all points of view should be presented.
However, McCain’s VP choice, Sarah Palin, is a firm believer in creationism. She is a fundamentalist Christian who has stated explicitly, when asked if creationism or evolution should be taught in science class:
Palin: Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both. And, you know, I say this, too, as the daughter of a science teacher.This is the standard “teach the controversy” argument made by creationists. But it’s a bogus argument: within the scientific community, there is no controversy. Evolution has been widely accepted for over one hundred years, and virtually all of modern biology is built upon it. This argument is used merely as a ploy to get creationism into the classroom. It doesn't belong there.
How about the Democrats? Obama has made it clear he supports the teaching of evolution:
Obama: But I also believe our schools are there to teach worldly knowledge and science. I believe in evolution, and I believe there’s a difference between science and faith. That doesn’t make faith any less important than science. It just means they’re two different things. And I think it’s a mistake to try to cloud the teaching of science with theories that frankly don’t hold up to scientific inquiry.“ (from the York, PA Daily Record)That’s a refreshingly clear statement for a political candidate. And Joe Biden too has said that he strongly opposes teaching creationism alongside evolution.
McCain, as you can see above, has been wishy-washy about this topic, clearly trying to placate the Christian right, who would like to see their religious views on creationism taught in science classes (not to mention all their other views). And by picking an outspoken supporter of creationism who is anti-science in other ways too (Palin doesn’t agree with the scientific consensus on global warming, for example), McCain has placed himself solidly in the pro-Creationism camp, despite his attempts to avoid being pinned down.
This is serious business. Sometimes I feel like politicians treat all these topics as a game, and maybe it is – to them - but it shouldn’t be. If science education is going to be taken over by religious fundamentalists, then we are in big trouble as a country. Our science education is already well behind many other countries, and we are pathetically behind on educating students about evolution. We can’t elect leaders who would put us further behind, but that’s exactly what Sarah Palin would do.
I realize there are many other issues separating the candidates, some of them perhaps more important. But for our long-term future, we need to restore respect for science, not only in our classrooms, but at all levels of government. On this topic, Sarah Palin would be a huge step backwards.
Other blog posts on this topic (a selection among many):
Brian Switek on scienceblogs
Matt Nisbett on scienceblogs
Brandon Keim at Wired
Jonathan Eisen at phylogenomics