Sunday, February 28, 2010

Psychological Illiteracy

True or False:
  1. Some people are right-brained, others are left-brained
  2. When dying, people pass through a universal series of psychological stages.
  3. Individuals commonly repress the memories of traumatic experiences.
  4. Students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles.
  5. Individuals can learn information, like new languages while asleep.
  6. A positive attitude can stave off cancer.
  7. It’s better to express anger to others than to hold it in.
  8. Most children who were sexually abused in childhood develop severe emotional disturbances in adulthood.
  9. Adult children of alcoholics display a distinct profile of symptoms.
  10. Criminal profiling is helpful in solving crimes.
  11. Abstinence is the only realistic treatment goal for alcoholics.
Everybody is a psychologist. That is, if we define a psychologist as someone who is interested in human behavior, emotions, and thoughts. We, as humans, are continually talking about one another. We are interested in why people act the way they do. We want to know why we do the things that are not good for us and why we don’t do the things that are good for us.

Psychology is everywhere. It is talked about in all forms of media such as talk shows, movies, newspapers and news magazines. Friends talk about their psychologists, bookstores have entire sections devoted to the topic and it is splashed all over the Internet. A Google search for the word psychology returns more than ninety-four million hits.

Yet, as psychologist Keith Stanovich points out in his book, How to Think Straight About Psychology, the most important aspects of psychology are invisible to the public.

Few people are aware that the majority of the books they see in the "psychology" section of many book stores are written by individuals with absolutely no standing in the psychological community. Few are aware that many of the people to whom television applies the label "psychologist" would not be considered so by the American Psychological Association or the American Psychological Society.
Like a lot of scientific research, new knowledge in psychology can take a lot of time and effort. The public is generally aware of new psychological knowledge only when something exciting is reported by the mass media. Even then, the news may be based on unreplicated research, poor research, or an inaccurate description of the actual research.

The general belief is that if research was done by a psychologist and reported by a reputable media source, then it must be true. This perception can set up the public to be quite gullible. Dr. Stanovich lists a half dozen well-accepted claims routinely seen in the media that have been proven false by psychology: "astrology, psychic surgery, speed reading, biorhythms, subliminal weight loss, and psychic detectives." His book is meant not only for psychology students but also for the general public. It is a book that helps us all learn how to evaluate the abundance of psychology claims swirling around our real and virtual worlds.

Much of the public is confused between scientific psychology and popular psychology. Popular psychology (good or bad) emphasizes facts about human behavior; real psychology emphasizes a way of thinking about human behavior. Most (but not all) psychologists are trained to think critically about claims made by the public, so-called mental health experts, and even their own colleagues. Psychology no longer accepts claims merely because an expert said it is so. What is the evidence? This is the question psychologists are trained to ask in order to weed out the wheat from the chaff.

What about the non-psychologist who is not trained to tell the difference between psychology and pseudo-psychology? If one looks hard enough, there are several excellent resources for the lay person to help discover what really is and what really is not legitimate even though there may sometimes be an overlap between scientific psychology and popular psychology.

Often popular psychology has the backing of enormous amounts of money so that advertising can overrule critical thinking. A good example is what has been called the Mozart Effect. Simply put, this idea claims that if you play classical music to your baby, you can help your baby become smarter as she or he grows up. Richard Coff, founder and director of the Suzuki Music Academy has this to say about the Mozart Effect:
The buzzword, Mozart Effect, has been bandied about by popular print and broadcast media. It is featured in parenting, education, and music oriented publications, and in the mainstream general press. While it has renewed interest in classical music education and focused much deserved attention on the general field of childhood development, the phrase (and the popular notion of its meaning) has been used to sell music lessons, music products of all kinds, including Mozart Makes You Smarter product lines, and frankly, some music education snake-oil.
You can now check out claims for the Mozart Effect for yourself with a great new book that has just become available. Psychologists Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry Beyerstein have wirtten 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology in an attempt to look at psychological misconceptions. Even though the title says they examine 50 popular myths, they actually look at 300 "psychomythologies."

The beauty of this book is that the authors do not glibly dismiss outrageous claims. They carefully and thoughtfully look at the research regarding the myth in question rather than just giving their own opinions. For example, when they examine the claim that "there’s recently been a massive epidemic of infantile autism," they take six pages to investigate this claim and reveal the flaws and misconceptions about it.

As helpful as this book would be if the contents only dealt with looking at claims, the authors also teach us how to do this on our own. Some of you ask why myth-busting is so important. Three very important reasons are given for why the time and effort is important. Psychomyths can be harmful, cause indirect damage, and interfere with our critical thinking.

The reader also gets a mini-course in detecting false claims with ten tools called the Mythbusting Kit. Some of you may remember that Carl Sagan coined the phrase Baloney Detection Kit in his book, The Demon Haunted World. This idea is becoming more popular. Our friend, Google, gives us twenty thousand hits for the phrase "baloney detection kit."

As if this were not enough, the book’s postscript includes two more useful features. The first one, that I found truly enjoyable, was to take the book’s premise and turn it around 180 degrees. Three pages are devoted to "Ten Psychological Findings that Are Difficult to Believe, but True." Did you know that psychologists have taught pigeons to tell the difference between the music of Bach and that of Stravinsky? Yup, difficult to believe, but true. I know some people who can't do this.

This section is followed by a listing of twenty-two websites that are devoted to educating us for dealing with the ongoing onslaught of our society’s psychomythologies. And that’s not all. The reference section includes the books and research articles this book is based on. Although tracking this additional information down may seem tedious for some, reputable references are at the heart of mythbusting. These primary sources are all but absent in Internet articles, books, and news articles that promote common myths.

The fourteen pages in the index help to make this book a valuable resource for future reference when you need to check out specific claims. It’s like having your very own copy of the Snopes version for evaluating psychological myths and urban legends.

Maybe you want to know the answers to the eleven true-false statements at the beginning of this article. Here’s the condensed version. Get the book to get the full version. All eleven statements are false.
Gilovich, T. (1993). How we know what isn't so: The fallibility of human reason in everyday life. Washing, D.C.: Free Press.

Hines, T. (2003). Pseudoscience and the paranormal. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Kida, T. (2006). Don't believe everything you think: The 6 basic mistakes we make in thinking. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Lawson, T. (2006). Scientific perspectives on pseudoscience and the paranormal. New York: Prentice Hall.
Lilenfeld, S., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J. & Beyerstein, B. (2010). 59 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Randi, J. (1982). Flim-flam! Psychics, ESP, unicorns, and other delusions. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Sagan, C. (1997). The demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. New York: Ballantine Books.

Shermer, M. (2002). Why people believe weird things: Pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time. New York: Holt.

Stanovich, K. E. (1998). How to think straight about psychology (9th edition). New York: Addison-Wesley.

Vyse, S. (2000). Believing in magic: The psychology of superstition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Is Tiger A Sex Addict?

First of all, is there really such a thing as sexual addiction? If you Google the phrase you will get a million and a half hits. Google sex addict and you will find over two million references. These terms are definitely popular.

What is an addict? The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines it as "the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming." So why has society decided to describe habits as addictions? It all started when society accepted the notion that habits were a "disease" that needed to be cured by special programs, experts, or religion. This became official when the prestigious American Medical Association decided in 1956 that alcoholism was a disease. From this point onward addiction has had a complicated and controversial history.

And we all know diseases must be treated by experts. Well, not always. The medical community is well aware that many diseases automatically go away. This is called spontaneous remission. The basic problem with this perspective is that the vast majority of people who are addicted to something don’t change because of any treatment program. They give it up for other reasons of their choosing. Well over 75% of people with addictions quit on their own.

The concept of addictions began solely as an explanation for alcohol abuse. It caught the public’s fancy because it seemed like such a simple way to understand inexplicable behavior. Eventually, the term began to be used for any behavior that occurred outside some arbitrary social norm. If a person gambled more than others, she had a gambling addiction. If an individual spent too much time shopping, he had a shopping addiction. The same word is now used for any behavior a person spends a lot of time doing. The computer age has allowed the addiction vocabulary to grow like weeds in our lexicons.

Men of influence, money and power have always been on the prowl sexually since the beginning of time. Some societies accept the fact that their king, prime minister, president, or other head of state is going to have a mistress and several affairs. Other societies are appalled when this happens. People differ in their expectation and acceptance of multiple partners. As you know some countries even condone multiple wives as a sign of wealth and power.

Is there anyone alive today that hasn’t been told that Tiger Woods has a sexual addiction because he had sex with multiple partners? I wonder if he would have earned this label if he had not been married? Can you name a non-married male movie star who has had multiple sex partners. Are they thought of as sex addicts? Or do we refer to them as players, eligible bachelors? Are there any men who secretly or openly envy their behavior? Are there any women who dream of being one of those partners? Think George Clooney or Warren Beatty.

What do we gain by deciding that Tiger Woods is a sex addict? Actually, nothing. Maybe we feel comforted that there is a label for such behavior. Society loves labels because it simplifies things and helps us think we really understand something. In fact, labels often make us run in circles instead of giving us clarity. If the answer to the question "why is Tiger a sex addict?" is that he has had many sex partners, this seems perfectly clear. It gets a bit unclear when we ask another question, "Why has he had so many sex partners?" The answer is an unsatisfying, "because he’s a sex addict." Labels make us run in circles when we think are walking in a straight line.

How do we decide who does and who does not have an addiction? This is a murky question because there are few acceptable criteria for answering this question. Most people leave the answer to the "experts." Unfortunately some of these experts are self appointed with little expertise or background in understanding the controversy surrounding addictions. Many addiction experts are former addicts with little or no scientific training in medicine or psychology. It seems a bit like a social reprobate who gets religion and is immediately an expert on God and the bible.

Is it possible that addictions have gained such acceptance because money might be involved? After all, if any addiction is a "disease" then someone has to provide a "cure" — at a fee. The treatment for addictions is so popular that it has a special name, rehabilitation or "rehab" in popular parlance. Did I mention money? For the curious, you might be interested to know that the clinic Tiger has decided to use costs between twenty and forty thousand dollars for a mere six weeks. Unless you are wealthy, it is best not to become a sex addict.

Most psychologists who are scientifically trained in treating "addictive" behavior see it as a problem only if it interferes with normal functioning. This seems puzzling in the case of Tiger Woods. By all accounts, until his affairs became public, he was still the world’s greatest golfer. None of his liaisons kept him from winning tournaments. He was still loved by fans. His friends never left him. Where was the dysfunction? The only part of his life that really mattered was his relationship with his wife.

What is the problem here? The problem is a private one between he and his wife. In this country (not so in all countries) married men are not expected to have sex with other women even though at least a quarter of married men admit to having had an affair. This number could probably be doubled and still be accurate.

What are society’s expectations for famous people who get caught in an extramarital relationship. The drill has become fairly commonplace. Tiger is using the standard play book: Silence, then an acceptance of the "addiction," checking into a sex rehab clinic, and finally making a public apology.
Immediately after Tiger’s public apology on Friday, the reaction was mixed with 53% percent saying the apology was sincere while the rest didn’t think so. A local television station went to a golf course and asked golfers what they thought. The male golfer said he believed Tiger and people should now leave him alone. A female golfer thought the apology was phony and did not accept his apology. When asked what Tiger could have said that would convince here he was genuine, she said that nothing he could say would change her mind about him.

Could we as a public have lived without all the sordid details? Did we really have to insist that Tiger’s apology be broadcast for all the world to see and hear? Maybe the question is why we humans are so voyeuristic when it comes to celebrities. The answer is probably on an Internet blog somewhere.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Religious Illiteracy

According to the latest Pew Poll entitled U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 83% of Americans identify themselves as religious. This figure would make the United States the most religious nation in the developed world. Most religious people would be proud of this finding which proves how alive and vibrant religion is in this country. Religious conservatives never tire of reminding the rest of the nation that America is, and always has been, a “Christian nation.”

When we look more deeply into the details of this survey we find some interesting surprises. The number of people who claim "no organized religion" has doubled since 1990 (more men than women claim to have no religious affiliation). When age is taken into consideration, 25% of young adults say they have no religious affiliation.

From its founding, many Americans have insisted we are a “Christian” nation which has generally meant a Protestant nation. This Landscape Survey shows that Protestants are quickly losing ground. A mere 51% of Americans now call themselves Protestant. Since it appears this trend will continue, this country will very soon become a minority Protestant nation.

What Is Religious Literacy?

Before we go any further let’s decide what we mean by religious illiteracy. Of course, to be religiously literate is the opposite of being religiously illiterate. To be religiously literate has nothing to do with one’s faith. It has to do with a shared vocabulary and basic knowledge of what a specific religion is about. Professor Diane Moore, Religion Professor at Harvard Divinity School believes a person who is religiously literate should have an understanding of:

• the basic belief systems of world religions
• the diversity within each belief system
• how religion affects social events, culture, politics
• the role religion has played in history

You can see that Professor Moore makes a distinction between what she calls a “personal devotional practice and the academic study of religion.” Most scholars who study religion believe there is a difference between learning religion which is devotional and learning about religion which is more objective, cultural, and historical. One is not more important than the other.

The Scope of Religious Ignorance

I think religious illiteracy exists because there is a tendency today among religious people to put more emphasis on religious piety than on religious knowledge. There are about 4,200 religions in the world so it is understandable that most people cannot have much knowledge about all of these religions. However, you would think that most people would be conversant with their own religion. This assumption would be mistaken. American religion tends to be Bible-based — a Gallup poll in 2002 discovered that 93% of Americans own a Bible. But do they know what is in it? The answering is a resounding “No.”

The Christian Century magazine ran an article in November 2009 on Biblical illiteracy. The article referred to a survey in 2007 (Kelton Research) that was later captured in headlines across America: “More Americans Know Big Mac Ingredients Better Than Ten Commandments.”

A 1950 Time magazine article mentioned that Professor of Religion, R. Frederick West, had tested over 2,000 students in his years of teaching. Most of these students had religious backgrounds. In spite of this training, most of them could not even name the four Gospels or had the slightest idea what Jesus stressed as the two greatest commandments.

Another religion professor, Stephen Prothero, points out in his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t that 67% of Americans admit to treating the Bible seriously in that they believe answers to all of life’s basic questions can be found in the Bible. In spite of this elevated view of the Bible, only half of these same Americans can name even one of the four gospels. More astounding is that most of them cannot name the first book of the Bible. This adult ignorance of the Bible holds true for young people. Half of all high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah are the names of a married couple in the Bible.

The irony here is that Christians want the rest of the world to honor the Bible. They, themselves, only honor it by picking and choosing what they pay attention to in the Bible. Religious illiteracy is even more pronounced when considering any knowledge outside one’s own religion.

Why is Religious Literacy So Important?

At this point, you may ask, “So what?” Why is everyone making such a fuss about religious literacy? Remember, religious literacy has nothing to do with one’s belief system, whether devout Christian or confirmed atheist. For better or worse, Biblical knowledge is imbedded within Western art, music, literature, philosophy and politics. To fully understand how religion relates to cultural interests is to better understand life in general. Professor Prothero believes that a well informed citizen of this country needs to have a minimal acquaintance of basic information in the Bible. But that is not enough because the world is quickly becoming a global village. This means we need to understand the “core beliefs, stories, symbols and heroes of other faiths.”

Daily, we are exposured to global issues that are by shaped by religion. "If you think Sunni and Shia are the same because they're both Muslim, and you've been told Islam is about peace, you won't understand what's happening in Iraq,” says Professor Prothero. He further adds, “If you get into an argument about gay rights or capital punishment and someone claims to quote the Bible or the Quran, do you know it's so? If you want to be involved, you need to know what they’re saying. We’re doomed if we don’t understand what motivates the beliefs and behaviors of the rest of the world. We can’t outsource this to demagogues, pundits and preachers with a political agenda.”

Not only does religion affect politics and national decisions in all countries, understanding biblical allusions in Western literature is impossible without a basic knowledge of common bible stories. Think of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol and the reference the Ghost of Christmas Present makes to the nativity. What about John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath where he uses the biblical story of the Hebrew people to highlight the struggle of the Joad family?

Even Hollywood gets into the act. If you saw the movie Mission Impossible you may remember the character Tom Cruise played who receives a strange email from Job@Job3:14 (never mind that this is not a possible email address). Biblical names pop up all the time in the movies: The spacecraft in Deep Impact that was destined to save earth is named Messiah. Matrix Reloaded is loaded with people who have biblical names: Trinity, Seraph, Cain, Abel and Malachi.

Religions of other cultures can shed light on current events. Most people see the Somali pirates as desperate men trying to “make a living” in an impoverished country. What few Americans know is that this behavior is grounded in the behavior of Muhammad and his friends after they moved from Mecca to Medina in 622. This migration from a thriving commercial center to a remote farming location left them without work or a means of supporting themselves. To avoid starvation and death Muhammad used an old Arabian tradition called ghazu which we would call kidnaping and ransom. They would attack caravans and capture the camels and their drivers. The owners of the caravans could get their property back of they paid the appropriate ransom. The Somali pirates are using a time-honored tradition for making money.

Why is it important to know this? It is possible that official denunciations of these pirates will have more impact if they come from Muslim leaders. It’s as if a foreign country would denounce the evils of subprime lending practices in America. Many people here would discount these condemnations as mere un-American rantings. Americans would pay more attention if their own leaders said the same thing. This is not to say, for example, that other non-Muslim countries should not be involved in dealing with Somali piracy. Understanding the historical setting of Arab piracy can help countries find more effective solutions to this problem.

Religious illiteracy can greatly contribute to increased human prejudice, misunderstanding, and violence. This is not to say religious literacy is the sole cause of these human frailties but it certainly hinders humankind’s attempts to offer “respect of pluralism, peaceful coexistence and cooperative endeavors in local, national and global arenas” says Professor Moore. She wants people to know that “religious illiteracy is often a contributing factor in fostering a climate whereby certain forms of bigotry and misrepresentation can emerge unchallenged and thus serve as one form of justification for violence and marginalization.”

Examples of these tensions belong to a very long list: anti-Semitism and the treatment of Muslims in countries where they are a minority. Perhaps even worse is the belief religious bigots of all religions share that declares "we are right and you are wrong." We see this in Christianity between Roman Catholics and Protestants. How many hundreds of years have Sunni Muslims and Shi’i Muslims been fighting?

Can Religious Illiteracy Be Converted to Religious Literacy?

Many religion professors believe the answer is "Yes" if this country will put religion back into standard education. This suggestion immediately raises concerns about the separation between church and state. However, the the U.S. Supreme Court has made a distinction between teaching religion in the schools and teaching about religion in the schools. The former is prohibited, the latter is encouraged.

In 1963 The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that schools could not require Bible reading in the classroom. The ruling stood even after an appeal was upheld which meant that the case went on to the Unites States Supreme Court. The highest court in the land also upheld the notion that teaching religion was prohibited (only one Justice dissented) even if it was done indirectly such as reciting the Lord’s Prayer or reading Bible verses without comment.

Nevertheless, the Justices made the point that knowing about religion should be part of every child’s education. The majority opinion was written by Tom Clark who said, "It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion … and its relationship to the advance of civilization."

Professor Prothero strongly supports teaching about religion in our public schools.
"Training in religious literacy provides citizens with the tools to better understand religion as a complex and sophisticated social/cultural phenomenon and individual religious traditions themselves as internally diverse and constantly evolving as opposed to uniform, absolute and ahistorical. Learning about religion as a social/cultural phenomenon also helps people recognize, understand and critically analyze how religion has been and will continue to be used to justify the full range of human agency from the heinous to the heroic."

Another advantage of religious literacy is the ability of people to think more critically about religious claims that constantly assail our sensibilities. Once people are trained in religious literacy they can learn to question the accuracy of universal claims such as "Islam is a religion of peace" or "Judaism and Islam are incompatible."

These religious scholars are all in agreement that our country should start teaching courses in world religions in middle-school followed by a required course in the Bible during high school and then making college students take at least one course in religious studies. These classes would avoid all faith-based teaching and religious dogma. Even though these types of classes could not guarantee the abuse of religion, they just might “make it more difficult for such bigotry and chauvinism to be unwittingly reproduced and promoted.”


Apczynski, J. (1982). Foundations of religious literacy. New York: University Press of America.

Bowker, J. (2006). World religions: The great faiths explored & explained. New York: DK Publishing.

Kurtz, L. (2006). Gods in the global village: The world's religions in sociological perspective. New York: Pine Forge Press.

Moore, D. (2007). Overcoming religious illiteracy: A cultural studies approach to the study of religion in secondary education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nash, R. & Bishop, P. (2009). Teaching adolescents religious literacy in a post-9/11 world. Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age Publishing.

Prothero, S. (2008). Religious literacy: What every American needs to know--and doesn't. San Francisco: HarperOne.

Wright, A. (1993). Religious education in the secondary school: Prospects for religious literacy. New York: David Fulton Publishers.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Scientific Illiteracy

A few decades ago, Jon Miller who was the director of the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University, discovered that 95% of Americans are scientifically illiterate. That’s a lot of people!

This means that only 5% percent of Americans were scientific literate. What did this mean? In his survey he tried to find out if people (1) understood the scientific method, (2) knew its common vocabulary, and (3) appreciated its social impact. Dr. Miller did not expect the average American to understand the minutiae of science but merely be conversant with its broader concepts and aims. But even this was difficult for many people who believed the earth is only ten thousand years old; even more people didn’t believe the universe began with a gigantic explosion.

Another poll a few years later found similar results but with different questions. Half the people in this survey said they had been in contact with someone who had died; two thirds admitted to some type of extrasensory perception (ESP) event; one third said they had visions or were clairvoyant. We would expect these results from people living in a time of superstition and ignorance such as the Middle Ages. However, we now live in an age of science.

These polls were twenty years ago. Perhaps Americans have become a bit more knowledgeable since then. I’m afraid not. A more recent poll was conducted in December 2009 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Not much change. About a third of the respondents in this poll believed they had been touch with the dead; one-fifth had experienced a ghostly experience and one fourth believed in reincarnation.

Has science had no impact on our consciousness? There is almost nobody alive today who is not affected by science. We take for granted the innumerable advances of scientific without really understanding how hard scientists work to understand the universe and life within it. Because most people cannot fully understand the inner workings of science, we are ignorant of how laborious the quest for new knowledge really is.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, British scientist James Lovelock wrote in Science Magazine that people "take so much for granted, wholly forgetting how hard won was the scientific knowledge that gave us the comfortable and safe lives we enjoy. We are so ignorant of the facts upon which science and our scientific culture are established that we give equal place on our bookshelves to the nonsense of astrology, creationism, and junk science. At first, they were there to entertain, or to indulge our curiosity, and we did not take them seriously. Now they are too often accepted as fact."

Science has been too successful. It’s
contributions are legion. Scientists have become victims of their own successes. These successes are so stunning that the dividing line between fantasy and reality often becomes blurred to the average person. Many people think that if science can put a man on the moon, then it is reasonable to believe that people from other parts of our universe can visit us. The gap between what scientists know and what the layperson knows is diverging at an unbelievable pace. Because science is advanced by very smart people who use a tremendous amount of brain power to discover new knowledge, we lay people cannot hope to keep up, even marginally, with the scientific advance of knowledge.

As we can escape cultural and mathematical literacy by expanding our minds and learning new ways of thinking, so it is with scientific illiteracy. Yet, there are many forces holding us back from doing this. Some of these forces begin at an early age. For years, teenage girls have known that to be popular they had to hide their intelligence and interest in science and math. Until they became millionaires because of the Internet, Geeks were the marginalized arm of the youth culture.

Another force that fostered scientific illiteracy began in the universities in the 1990s among humanities scholars. They borrowed an idea from French intellectuals insisting that objectivity was a myth — merely a social ideal. In other words, students in non-science classes were being taught that the laws of physics were no more real than the beliefs of astrologers.

A major force for promoting scientific illiteracy has been television. Producers quickly discovered that illiteracy in matters scientific could make them wealthy if viewers were told they were merely being entertained. Pseudo-documentaries dealing with psychics and UFO conspiracies became popular fare for the American television audience. Even CNN’s Larry King got in on the act by promoting people who made money telling people they could communicate with the dead.

The politics of the Republican party, which had been hijacked by right-wing evangelicals, became another major force for spreading scientific illiteracy when it openly opposed mainstream science in areas such as global warming and stem cell research. These politicians got rid of the scientific advisory office for the legislature. Politicians then took aim at research budgets by under-funding projects and even doing away with some governmental science agencies.

Amid all this turmoil over science, the religious right decided they would try to convince people that evolution is "only a theory." What they didn’t say was that gravity is also a theory but evolution is a more solid scientific theory than the theory of gravity. They attempted to convince scientifically illiterate people that intelligent design was a scientific alternative to evolution. Curiously, they never promoted it as a science but as a media event. It was only when they had to prove their case in court before a conservative judge in Dover, Pennsylvania that their agenda was exposed for all to see. The verdict of the courts have consistently decided that Intelligent Design is a thinly disguised form of evangelical religion.

During this time, newspapers began trimming back and even dropping reports on what was happening in science. Movies jumped on the anti-science bandwagon and insisted on stereotyping scientists as social misfits who continually got in the way of non-scientists. Movie director, James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar) has publically stated that the movies generally "show scientists as idiosyncratic nerds or actively the villains."

A survey several decades ago at
Northern Illinois University found that the general public perceived a scientist as "a person who neglects his family; pays no attention to his wife; never plays with his children; has no social life and no other intellectual interests; bores his wife, children and friends; is always running off to his laboratory; and [gasp!] may even force his children to become scientists!"
These perceptions were not from people who had never finished grade school but from mainstream, educated Americans. When Harvard University graduates (really smart people) were asked to fill out a scientific literacy survey half of the graduating seniors did not know the difference between an atom and a molecule.

Why is all this concern about scientific illiteracy such a big deal? In what way does science matter? It matters because as citizens of a democracy we are asked to make important decisions on issues that our ancestors never confronted. Carl Sagan expresses this concern in his book
The Demon-Haunted World: "I know that the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time than in any that has come before. It’s perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant about [what is happening around her]."

Asteroids have hit the earth for millions of years. Small ones continue to pelt us regularly. It is highly likely another big one will hit us again sometime in the future. The last big one was so destructive it wiped out the entire population of dinosaurs on our planet. The next one could wipe out the human race. Only scientists can find one in time and then have the means to prevent a catastrophe. If Americans don’t support funding for this kind of science, the result could be the end of humanity.

Other serious issues that can have a dramatic effect on the planet we live on include: tropical deforestation, overpopulation, airline safety, disease and genetic defects, radioactive waste. The list is almost limitless. Dr. Sagan continues by saying, "How can we affect national policy — or even make intelligent decisions in our own lives — if we don’t grasp the underlying issues."

This responsibility extends to those we have elected to run our country. Of all the members of the U.S. Congress in the last hundred years, less than one percent have had any significant background in science. Is it possible that the last scientifically literate President may have been Thomas Jefferson? Perhaps President Obama, though lacking scientific training does not appear to lack sympathy and support for science.

Science also matters because a democracy depends on its citizens being able to understand public issues. If we cannnot understand what is happening around us on a daily basis as it relates to science, then we will be unable to make informed decisions about emotionally charged topics such as global warming, homosexuality, stem cell research, and evolution. Scientific literacy is not about knowing the details about the inner workings of science. It is about understanding just enough to be engaged in public debate. In their book,
Science Matters, Robert Hazen and James Trefil say that "every citizen is faced with public issues whose discussion requires some scientific background, and therefore every citizen should have some level of scientific literacy.

Another reason Hazen and Trefoil give for scientific literacy is that we live in a universe that is based on only a few laws of nature. From the moment of birth until our deaths, everything we do is a result of these natural laws. They believe that we can enhance our lives by embracing the "exceedingly beautiful and elegant view" of how nature operates. "There is intellectual and esthetic satisfaction to be gained from seeing the unity between a pot of water on a stove and the slow march of the continents."

They remind us that our understanding of our world has moved from mythology to scientific discoveries. Intelligent and sincere people used to believe that the sun rose in the east and set in the west because it was being driven by a god who carried this fireball in his chariot pulled by magical horses. Humans can now appreciate the sun as a star that is one of billions upon billions of stars. Hazen and Trefil ask the question, "How . . . can anyone hope to appreciate the deep underlying threads of intellectual life in his or her own time without understanding the science that goes with it?" We are fortunate to live in a time where we have the capacity to see farther and deeper than our ancestors.

Since science has discovered so much in the last four centuries, how can we laypeople possibly hope to understand the bare essentials of science? This is possible because all of science is built upon basic and simple ideas. A limited number of natural laws can explain almost everything we experience in our lives.

Hazen and Trefil suggest there are only eighteen laws of nature that "bind all scientific knowledge together." They go on to say that "the things you need to know to be scientifically literate tend to be a somewhat mixed bag. You need to know a few facts, be familiar with some general concepts, know a little about how science works and how it comes to conclusions, and know a little about scientists as people." If you are interested in furthering your own scientific literacy, I’ve provided a list of books below that you can read.

Science is not merely something we have to put up with. In the last 400 years, it has allowed us to fulfill the dreams of ancient people by flying through the air, curing diseases, communicating with each other over enormous distances and even leaving the confines of our planet. We have begun to understand life in ways unimaginable to our forefathers. As non-scientists the rest of us must not only support science but be able in small ways to enter the public dialogue about its power and benefits to humankind.

American Association for the Advancement of Science A. A. (1994). Benchmarks for science literacy. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Hatton, J. & Plouffe, P. (1996). Science and its ways of knowing. New York: Benjamin Cummings.

Hazen, R. & Trefil, R. (2009). Science matters: Achieving scientific literacy. New York: Anchor Paperback.

Mooney, C. & Mirshenbaum, S. (2009). Unscientific American; How scientific illiteracy threatens our future. New York: Basic Books.

Rutherford, F. (1991). Science of all Americans. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Sagan, C. (1997). The demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. New York: Ballantine Books.

Trefil, R. (2007). Why science? New York: Teachers College Press.

Wynn, C. & Wiggins, A. (1996). The five biggest ideas in science. New York: Wiley.