Is America scientifically illiterate?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | August 25, 2009 10:41 am

Dan Vergano poses this question in the title of his USA today column.

Science enjoys the best and the worst of times today, celebrated as the secret sauce behind economic growth, but embattled in high-profile areas such as climate change, stem cells and evolution.

“Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before,” said President Obama, in April at the National Academy of Sciences.

At the same time, Obama noted, federal funding of physics and related sciences has fallen by nearly half since the 1980’s, U.S. schools trail in math and science versus Japan, England, South Korea and others. “And we have watched as scientific integrity has been undermined and scientific research politicized in an effort to advance predetermined ideological agendas,” he said.

Vergano discusses our book Unscientific America:

They argue that the science establishment needs a new career path for science communicators (folks like Kirshenbaum, a marine scientist at Duke, who previously interned in the office of Sen. Bill Nelson, D- Fla., and who once worked as a disc jockey.)

“We’re not saying every scientist needs to become another Carl Sagan,” Kirshenbaum says. Or Comedy Central regular, astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson. But scientists need to open paths “jobs, positions, and incentives,” for their brethren to communicate the role science plays in modern life, the books argues.

He also interviewed political scientist Jon Miller who thinks more emphasis should be placed on public education:

“No one should graduate from high school without knowing what a molecule is,” he says. That’s because your odds of understanding other science concepts, for example, nanotechnology, the manipulation of materials on the molecular scale, increase greatly — from nearly zero to two-thirds — once you understand that a molecule is a chemical combination of atoms. “You can’t fix this problem without fixing public schools.”

We agree that it’s important to improve early education, however, much of the public is beyond this stage and we need to foster a culture where citizens are engaged in (and voting on) science issues now. Author Stewart Justman is quoted asking:

“Shouldn’t scientists just let the evidence speak for itself?”

I argue no. Much of the public does not have access or subscriptions to expensive journal articles and instead, people shop for information on the internet as easily as they do for Christmas presents, choosing whatever ‘science‘ best suits them. In the age of new media, absolutely not. Spend a few days walking around Capitol Hill and it will be very clear the “evidence does not speak for itself.” Furthermore, the psuedoscience out there–the folks denying climate change and more–are organized, articulate, and prepared to speak for us.

If scientists aren’t communicating more about what we do and why it matters… someone else will. And often with a different agenda.

Comments (27)

  1. @James: Scientists are well-aware that they need to communicate better with the public. In fact, they often become downright giddy whenever press officers or journalists begin to call or show up in the lab. The amazing number of science articles churned out by the media (new and old) tells me that the science is getting out there. However, there is a significant question as to its accuracy. Whether an article oversells or “hypes” a finding is usually the fault of the article’s author and his/her editor [with help from the scientist, of course, who is providing the quotes. ]

    I believe that besides improving scientific education, we need to get the public used to thinking about science as an interesting topic without headlines or advances such as “ALZHEIMER’S IS CURED!!! TAKE THAT DISEASE!!!!” In addition, around the time of graduate school, scientists need to be trained in the art (and it is an art) of speaking to the broader public and especially, communicating with journalists. Avoiding the miscommunication of misinformation is bound to make America more scientific.

    The key sentence in the above post is the following:

    “If scientists aren’t communicating more about what we do and why it matters… someone else will. And often with a different agenda.”

    I think they are, they just have to be trained to do it better.

  2. Constructive advice:

    “It is true that surveys show again and again that members of the public cannot be counted on to know any specific piece of scientific information, however basic (Durant et al. 1989). Thus studies of the Public Understanding of Science have tended towards what have been called deficit models (Wynne 1995), attempts to account for the boundless ignorance of people who don’t know the difference between a virus and bacteria, or don’t know how DNA works. But if one starts at the other end, and asks what members of the public do know, about the areas of science and technology that concern them, one might be surprised (Irwin and Wynne 1996). The parents of a child with a rare medical syndrome may have a considerable knowledge of that syndrome. Opponents of nuclear power (as well as companies promoting it) have a considerable knowledge of the science of nuclear hazards and the technology or nuclear waste storage… These areas of specialist knowledge are unevenly distributed; more people are interested in health and risk issues than in, say, algebraic theory or materials science (or linguistics). But there is no reason to expect the specialisms of contemporary science to map onto the categories of contemporary public interest.”

    (“Discourse Studies of Scientific Popularization”, Greg Myers)

  3. gillt

    After reading the book, I don’t get why M/K dismiss as a model other developed nations with better science literacy among the populace. It would seem there would be at least a good place to start.

    And it seems obtuse to say that pushing for more rational and critical thinking and basic science education at the K-9 level is inadequate when their alternative is simply to promote better communication skills for young professionals.

    Take a lesson from religion. Get ‘em while their young and impressionable.

  4. Gill, that may be true for what it’s worth, but I’m sure that religions also make a lot of hay through born-again conversions.

  5. Woody Tanaka

    “Furthermore, the psuedoscience out there–the folks denying climate change and more–are organized, articulate, and prepared to speak for us.”

    The problem is NOT that scientists are supposedly not speaking out well enough. The problem is that there are simply too many people who are delusional in their thinking. This includes elected officials and their staffs.

    If the world (or at least the US) wasn’t infested with people whose brains are addled with religion and other irrationalilty, someone selling insane nonsense like creationism, anti-vax, climate-change denialism, religious indoctrination in schools, market-based health care “reform” etc., etc., would be laughed at and run out of town on a rail, regardless of whether scientists spoke out. Solve the problem of muddle-headed thinking — especially the chief muddler, religion — and your problem would be 9/10 solved.

  6. Jon

    Picture the New Atheists on this blog as Phil Hartman’s Frankenstein:

    http://kaiser.dreamhost.com/OT_stuff/snl_phil_hartman_skit.wmv

    Hint: substitute “Religion” for “Fire”, and “Science” for “Bread.” (Like Hartman’s Frankenstein, they return to these themes even when they’re off topic.)

  7. Megan

    I absolutely agree with Kirshenbaum. We need scientists to be able to explain their findings to the public. However, I see two things to keep in mind – one a fact of life and another something that could actually change.

    The first is that not all scientists have the necessary skills to explain to the general public the importance of their findings. Some scientists can only think in molecular codes or are just unwilling/undesiring to stop their work to explain it to someone not directly in the field. There is a reason, for instance, why some people are medical doctors and others are medical researchers. Some people lack the people skills to be good doctors. This is just a fact of life.

    The second factor is based on a system where the government and the general public are not actually given access to the scientists but are required to work through lawyers. For instance, many scientific programs are filtered to the public through the FDA. While I agree that the FDA is important – the process that the science goes through to get to the FDA creates barriers between the general public and science. The scientists have to explain their findings to lawyers, who then write the forms that are given to the FDA for approval. The scientists do not necessarily talk directly to the FDA.

    I do not believe that simply hearing science directly from the scientists will be all that is needed … I think educating the general public in school is also important. A multi-tiered solution will be needed to tackle these issues.

  8. One of the big problems is not that the media does not report science but that it always tries to present science in terms of Breakthroughs or Arguments. And if it is an Argument they present both sides as if they are equal even when the science overwhelmingly favours one answer while a few contrarians grab equal billing. This has happened with climate change, gm crops, vaccine safety etc. We need media savvy scientists AND science savvy editors in the media.

  9. ARJ

    “We agree that it’s important to improve early education, however, much of the public is beyond this stage and we need to foster a culture where citizens are engaged in (and voting on) science issues now.”

    I’m sorry, I believe the grown-ups you’re talking about are a lost cause; “early education” and reaching the next generation is everything. There is plenty of good scientific material out there right now, even if not as many good communicators,as one might like, but most of the public chooses to ignore it and you simply can’t engage them if they have no interest in being engaged. I somewhat shudder at the thought of the mass public ‘voting on science issues.’ Sad but true… Scientists can organize themselves better perhaps to have more impact on politics/policies, but not by appealing to the mass public.

  10. Brian

    My take on it: scientific communication with the public is hard. We don’t want to face this but it must be faced in order to make gains. Here’s why (feel free to add you own reasons):

    1). Science tends to advance in relatively small steps, which don’t often lend themselves to large scale take-home ideas for the average citizen;

    2). The larger truths that science uncovers are often things that citizens find uncomfortable. For instance: eat fewer potato chips and exercise more. Most people know these things but potato chips are tasty and exercise feels like work. People can acknowledge the validity of the knowledge while ignoring the applicability to their lives. Knowledge is not motivation;

    2). Sorry, but communications is a discrete skill, just like science is. One of the best scientific educators I know is very clear that he is NOT A SCIENTIST. Just because scientists are aware of the communications issue, or think they don’t have it, doesn’t make them the best at solving it. Public relations is a career path for a reason.

    3). Many in our populations have strong affiliations to countless subject areas other than science. If you come from a business background and think that business solutions to business problems are fascinating, you may have a weakness for trying to apply that model to other areas in your life where it doesn’t work as well. You are biased and may not even know it. Science and scientific thinking will probably be approached with scepticism, because “those scientists either don’t understand the real world, or don’t have anything of interest to me” in this view. Just as an example.

    4). Starting with the answer. This might be just the extreme version of point 3, but it bears talking about. Lots of people start from the perspective that they already have the answer and make any facts fit that answer. If that means disregarding the facts (by undermining the source, referring to prior failures, bringing up irrelevant detail, or a thousand other tactics) then so be it. A less extreme adaptation would be to spin the fact so that it supports the prior belief system, even if that requires logically improbable contortions.

    5). Non-specialists in science usually like simple, easy to understand lessons, and science does have these lessons. However the truth is that the important ideas in science don’t change much and may not take much time to communicate (if done well). This may be a problem when public attention is understandably on what’s new, what’s changing, what’s “in the public’s face”.

    Maybe science needs to pick it’s opportunities to communicate with the general population, because it doesn’t really need a 24×7 platform? I realize this may be a fantasy given political, social and economic realities. And of course, some members of the non-scientific community are more interested and want more information, more often.

    The problem is hard and science hasn’t cracked this one. If it had we wouldn’t be talking about the issue. There are a whole range of problems with acceptance of science truths and at the highest levels of public discourse too. I don’t want to divert the discussion and attract unwanted attention, but we can all mentally list at least a half-dozen issues that science has definitively closed the book on, sometimes centuries ago. Yet we have important people, decision makers, espousing views that wouldn’t stand up to 30 seconds of questioning by any knowledgeable person. Not even an expert, just someone with a decent high school education and a good head on their shoulders!

  11. Matti K.

    “We agree that it’s important to improve early education, however, much of the public is beyond this stage and we need to foster a culture where citizens are engaged in (and voting on) science issues now.”

    Just face it: there are no quick fixes. The media is market-orientated and cannot be “fostered” by a narrow “enlighted front”. Even the hero of M&K, Carl Sagan, did not make a real impact in science literacy in USA.

    Please, spread the word about the problems that scientific illiteracy causes. There is no chance to fix the problem before there is a large consensus that scientific illiteracy is an imminent problem worth heavy investments. So far, there is no such consensus.

    But, please, do not pretend that you know how to fix the problem. Many of your suggestions are outright naive (IMHO) and in any case premature. However, once the problems of scientific illiteracy are widely accepted, there will be a lot of brains searching for a solution, as well.

    So the most imminent job is to spread the awareness of the harmfullness of scientific illiteracy, not to act as a know-it-all on how to fix the problem. Bashing “new atheists” does not help to spread this kind of awareness, it might even slow down the process by making part of the public think that atheists shutting up is a prerequisite for anything to happen on the illiteracy front.

  12. The issue is that scientist have a unconcient authoritarian aproach to treat scientifics themes wit no scientist.Including politician.Hey believes that more knowledge in a cery specific matter give some kind of power over public opinion.A kind of superiority based in intelectual training.But the forget that life process is so complex that they dont have a intergal view oveer the relationships expertice and social realities,even human life of citizens.Is a lack of democracy in science american world one of the guilty and a explanation of the decalage problem

  13. dugmaze

    Did you ever stop to think that parents are tired of being bashed for trying to find answers? Do you think we do it for sport? Or to be right about something?
    Or is it because they have a 12 year old in diapers who breaks out the tv set with their head.

    I’m not an atheist, anti-vaxxer, anti-science, anti-climate, or any other name you can come up with to belittle someone. My 7 year old has better manners than name calling. And he autistic!

    You guys have all the answers without having any of the answers. You really should think about that.

  14. GM

    I’m sorry, I believe the grown-ups you’re talking about are a lost cause; “early education” and reaching the next generation is everything.

    Exactly. However, and here is where M&K are their deluded best, it is extremely naive to think that a change can come from scientists and just by them being better able to communicate their science. You are dealing with people who 1.) don’t want to listen and 2.) even if they wanted, they are way past the stage of their life when brain damage becomes irreversible.

    The only viable solutions to the problem involve top-down approaches, i.e. things like mandatory nation-wide educational standards (needless to say, orders of magnitude higher than what they are now) combined with centralized testing of the enforcement of those (we already have computerized standardized tests but they are a complete joke, however, the same approach and infrastrcuture can be used to make sure that people who leave school do so with something left in their heads) and actual negative consequences for those who fail/refuse to satisfy the requirements (from mild to severe, preferably the latter). And of course, we need to successfully attack superstitious thinking early in school (that does not mean promotion of atheism, just explaining why the whole range of lunacies, from astrology to the teachings of the major religions are intellectually indefensible).

    It is quite simple, but it requires unimaginable at the present political will. That doesn’t mean that this isn’t the area where efforts should be targeted at though, because given the nature of the problem, there is no other working solution.

    What isn’t simple is dealing with anti-intellectualism because you can achieve all of the above and still fail to foster an appreciation for knowledge in children (although you will certainly increase that to a certain extent ), and I see no way out of that without major changes in the way our society works and we view the world and our place in it

  15. Jon

    Wow, GM, are you sure you’re not a right wing sock puppet/agent provocateur *exaggerating* the positions of a technocratic liberal? You sound like H. G. Wells in the 1930’s.

  16. Jon

    And I’m speaking as a liberal with technocratic sympathies, by the way.

  17. GM

    Wow, GM, are you sure you’re not a right wing sock puppet/agent provocateur *exaggerating* the positions of a technocratic liberal? You sound like H. G. Wells in the 1930’s.

    I’ve always thought that the people who get scared by the slightest mention of governmental regulation are generally considered right-wing. In this case I am the one who proposes more regulation and you are the one who is scared by it.

    Or maybe this was the first accusation that came to your mind so you felt it was sufficient to throw at me?

  18. Jon

    I’ve always thought that the people who get scared by the slightest mention of governmental regulation are generally considered right-wing.

    You would have a point if the government action you were advocating was “slight”, but needless to say it’s anything but.

  19. GM

    So according to you literacy is a bad thing???

  20. Jon

    Well teaching in school that the “teachings of the major religions are intellectually indefensible” doesn’t strike me as literacy.

  21. GM

    probably because you are illiterate, ignorant and deluded yourself

  22. Jon

    And you are a self-parody of the position you’re arguing for.

  23. Michael Kingsford Gray

    A lack of eloquent scientists is not, and has never been the major problem.
    The major problem is socially sanctioned lifelong indoctrination in infantile superstition.
    (Mainly via the respective churches, but also the media who push such garbage as horoscopes and homeopathy.)

    M & K’s “solution” that we should further the obsequious pandering to this child abuse in order to make it vanish is more than bizarre.
    It is pathological in the extreme.

  24. Jon

    The major problem is socially sanctioned lifelong indoctrination in infantile superstition.

    First, are peoples’ spiritual traditions synonymous with “infantile superstition”? It sounds like you’re saying that. Second, do we know that peoples’ spiritual traditions are the “major problem”, as in, the root cause of those problems? That’s quite an assumption and I’d ask what, empirically speaking, you’re relying on to make that assumption.

    Third, if you’re calling peoples’ spiritual traditions “child abuse”, I’d agree with the author of this piece on that point.

  25. Jon

    The major problem is socially sanctioned lifelong indoctrination in infantile superstition.

    First, are peoples’ spiritual traditions synonymous with “infantile superstition”? It sounds like you’re saying that. Second, do we know that peoples’ spiritual traditions are the “major problem”, as in, the root cause of those problems? That’s quite an @ssumption and I’d ask what, empirically speaking, you’re relying on to make that @ssumption.

    Third, if you’re calling peoples’ spiritual traditions “child abuse”, I’d agree with the author of this piece on that point.

  26. sinz54

    GM: For a public school teacher or ANY government official to state in his official capacity that “the major religions are intellectually indefensible” would represent a CLEAR violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

    That’s why it’s not done. It’s blatantly unconstitutional.

    I don’t know what you know about science, but you don’t know anything about the U.S. system of government.

  27. JFB

    Funny how angry liberals and atheist clamor for government directed education in public schools then are disatisfied with the results? Standardized testing shows education is on the decline so the only answer is to double down and increase the indoctrination, then as GM suggests test them to insure they drank the koolaid.

    Maybe we should ditch government run public education (heresy I know), give the US citizens their own money that is wasted in the current system to attend private schools then test for math, grammer, reading comprehension, critical thinking, logic etc… see which system is superior and let the more fit system (to put it in Darwinist terms) the opportunity to propagate? That’s how science works right empirical evidence, expirimentation, observation and repeatabillity?

    GM will cry but they won’t be forced to watch “An Inconvinient Truth” how will we reach them, they will grow up and think differently than we do, they might question the validity of everything we told them thousands of times over, they will hear dangerous ideas and possible think that scientist can’t answer everything, who will protect the children, they might find out that Newton wrote about biblical prophecy yet he was a real scientist, that Einstien understood God existed, this must be stopped!!! Sensorship is a must show them religion is supertstition, it can’t be questioned.

    Thank God for the Constitution, and I pray for Godly men to defend it.

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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.

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