There was a lot of press on this today, and I myself contributed–I talked at length to Alan Boyle of MSNBC, Pete Spotts of the Christian Science Monitor, and Dan Vergano of USA Today. The reason, of course, is that we have a book out about the disconnect between science and the American public even as Pew adds considerable new data that helps us further delineate the nature of the problem.
You can read the full stories above, but I’ll just add a few snippets showing what my interviews added to them. In Vergano’s piece, I’m quoted explaining what’s new (and what isn’t) about the Pew/AAAS study:
“I don’t think this is hugely surprising. We’ve seen these kind of differences before,” says Chris Mooney, author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. “But I think this is hugely important in telling people in science that maybe they need to reach out to the public better.”
That’s co-author! Anyways, I do believe that the new report is giving added impetus to something we also centrally call for in the book: A grand new project of outreach, on behalf of science, to the public. Alan Leshner, the head of AAAS, is also giving lots of interviews about the report, and this is something that he has been centrally emphasizing: the responsibilities of scientists.
Let’s move on to Pete Spotts and the Monitor. Spotts frames the Pew report by focusing on the gap between science and the public:
When scientists talk about trying to close the gap, they often focus on what the public and educators need to do to boost scientific literacy. And they focus on the media, which communicates at varying levels of accuracy, as to what researchers are up to and why.
But these may not be at the core of the problem, suggests Chris Mooney, who has written widely on science and public policy in the US.
“I don’t think the gap you see is attributable to ignorance,” he says. People form their political positions based on a variety of factors, and scientists don’t know how or don’t try to reach out to them, he says.
“A very small percentage of Americans know a scientist personally,” he explains. “Scientists are just not on their radar.”
To change that, “scientists need to reach out to America,” he continues. Personal contact may not change an individual’s worldview, Mr. Mooney suggests, but it does have the potential to demystify scientists and the way they approach their world more than huddling in a lab would.
Policy debates involving science will continue long after those over global warming or stem cells fade, he says. “Knowing every last fact on the part of the public would be nice, but it’s not as essential as being in tune in a deep and engaged way with the role of science in the country.”
Just to add–I do think the media are a major part of the problem, and their role in it is only getting worse. We strongly argue as much in the book.
But we have to distinguish between the knowledge of facts on the one hand, and awareness of the centrality of science to what we’re trying to achieve as a people on the other. And we’ve got to stop pointing fingers at the public. We can’t just look at average Americans, call them dumb, and then think we understand what the real issue is.
Alan Boyle’s MSNBC piece is lengthy, and generously gives us plenty of ink–and mainly you’ll find me saying things similar to the above. However, Boyle uniquely closes with a great discourse about Pluto, about which he is himself writing a book. (Go Pluto!)
In this context, Boyle lets me explain why we think the Pluto issue is not solely scientific in nature–and also why, although seemingly trival, it is actually vastly important:
“It’s a big deal,” Mooney said, “because how often does something happen in science that most people are aware of? It is exceedingly rare that they hear something [about a scientific issue] that they know as well as they know who’s winning ‘American Idol.’ So when Pluto was demoted, we thought that was one of those moments.”
Yup. Scientists rarely get the attention of the whole of society. When that happens…well, there are better things we could be talking about in such moments than Pluto’s demotion.
Links to this Post
- Republicans reject Science; Scientists reject Republicans | July 12, 2009