Sarah Palin, John McCain's choice for Vice President should he win the November elections, is a worrisome character from the point of view of science education. It is hard to tell whether Palin herself is a creationist or not and, frankly, that's far less important than the policy positions she holds in the matter. (Though, of course, having a Vice President who is deluded about basic aspects of reality would not be exactly reassuring. Oh, right, we already have had something along those lines for the past eight years, though Dick Cheney's most dangerous delusions were not about who created the world.)

An article in the Anchorage Daily News dating back to when Palin was running for governor of that state (hmm, a mere two years ago, talk about experience and being fit to be commander in chief), reports her response to a question during a debate about teaching creationism. Here is the full quote:

"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. Growing up with being so privileged and blessed to be given a lot of information on, on both sides of the subject -- creationism and evolution. It's been a healthy foundation for me. But don't be afraid of information and let kids debate both sides."

Now this is disingenuous at best. Education is not about having "kids debate both sides," since most kids would probably conclude that the earth is flat and at the center of the universe (after all, the sensorial evidence is overwhelming in favor of the flat-earth, Ptolemaic system). Education is, at its core, about two things: a) We want our students to have access to the best of what humanity has produced, be that in science, philosophy, literature, economics or what have you. b) We want to provide students with the necessary tools to engage in critical thinking and serious analysis of whatever claim comes under their scrutiny.

According to criterion (a), "teaching both" isn't going to cut it, because creationism is simply not even in the ballpark of the best ideas ever produced by humanity. On the contrary, it is superstitious nonsense that harks back to an earlier era of ignorance about how the world works. But things aren't much rosier for creationists under criterion (b) either, despite all the talk about "teaching the controversy." Learning critical thinking is not a matter of being exposed to a "fair and balanced" view of everything and be told "you decide." Rather, it proceeds through learning about logic, about assessing evidence, and about the many ways in which human senses and reasoning abilities can fail us if we are not on guard. If students really do assimilate all of that, just one look at creationist claims would make it painfully clear that they don't need to be further entertained.

Unlike Mike Huckabee (who is also now campaigning for McCain), Palin was at least smart enough not to outright claim that she does not accept evolution. The former governor of Arkansas plainly stated that "I believe god created the heavens and the earth," and that he "wasn't there when he did it, so how he did it, I don't know." These are lines straight out of the Institute for Creation Research talk book, which explains why "Left Behind" author Tim LaHaye said during the Republican primaries that Huckabee was "the most electable candidate who shares our commitment."

And therein lies the problem: exactly what are Republicans committed to when it comes to science and education? To raise a nation of ignorant bigots whose understanding of the world is no better than that of a tribe of ancient middle eastern people wandering around the desert thousands of years ago? To allow individual states to decide just how misinformed about science their citizens can be? That way if you are from Alaska, Alabama, Mississippi or a variety of other places along the Ignorance Belt you can keep falling behind in quality of life and ability to compete in a world where science plays an increasingly central role in our lives. Now, there's a platform worthy of LaHaye and his readers.

These are questions that Mrs. Palin and Mr. McCain have to answer to voters before the November election. But considering that they disagree about some of those answers, perhaps the two should first get better acquainted and straighten things out a bit. They've got two months to do it.

Massimo Pigliucci blogs for