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.


Anonymous said...

Terry: Nice post...what is of concern is the vast scientific illiteracy of the voting public, who have been turned into mindless babbling consumers. It would be a shame if an asteroid destroyed humanity, but even more a shame if humanity destroyed humanity...
Saving the planet is a misnomer...saving humanity from themselves is not. - MarkD from GVCC

Michael said...

Interesting post. I would definitely agree that in today's western culture fields like science and mathematics seem to take a backseat to entertainment and performing arts. Science and engineering have made wonderful advancements in man's understanding and ability to harness the natural world around him.

One thing I would slightly disagree with is science's proper place and focus. Science deals with the materialistic world, ie: things that can be seen, heard and felt. When employing the scientific method, experimentation is key to test and evaluate hypotheses. Science can be used to draw conclusions but does not prescribe courses of action. When referring to global warming, science may suggest that carbon emissions have led to increases in planetary temperature (though I doubt this is close to being definitively explained). Science does not address what we as a society ought to do in response. This is where I think most of the rub lies. This second issue is more philosophical/moral in nature and science does not have an answer. Science says "If you do X, Y will occur." Science cannot say "You must not do X."

The other point tied specifically to the global warming debate that gives pause is the whole idea that "The science is settled. The debate is over." Science by its nature is skeptical and is constantly refining its view and assumptions. Had Einstein never looked further into Newtonian physics, man would have never discovered relativity and unlocked the power of the atom. Science is one floor that must encourage open debate and explore all possibilities. The debate in the halls of science is never over; science is never settled.

Julian said...

Good article which emphasizes the importance of science for a functioning democracy as well as increased understanding and perception in our daily lives. What I object to is your opposition to religious interferences in science. For example, you mention stem cell research. This is a question of ethics, and whether just because it can be done does that mean it should be done. These questions are understood best by many through religion. Science can help us understand the world, but it cannot delineate what is right from what is wrong. Advancement at any cost is not a view I subscribe to.
True religion and true science have the same aims, which is truth. If one is misaligned with the other, either one is true or false. Sometimes science is wrong, with later theories contradicting current ones. Science is always advancing and changing, and nothing is written in stone. If there is a contradiction between science
And evolution is definitely not as clear cut as the theory of gravity, there are many issues with the theory of evolution, some quite valid ones.
The false opposition between religion and science is so prevalent but religion has fostered science for the most part, especially in its early stages.
"Religion without science is blind. Science without religion is lame" - Einstein
"We do not destroy religion by destroying superstition" - Cicero

Julian said...

A point to my past comment. It is not stem cell research that is controversial, but rather embryonal stem cell research, as opposed to adult stem cell research. It is a question of ethics with the former.