Today I’m at North Georgia College & State University and can already report that I’m falling in love with the town of Dahlonega–known as the gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the site where the Gold Rush began in 1928. I’m here as the speaker for the university’s information literacy initiative and will be talking to students and the community about scientific illiteracy in the United States.
Tonight’s event is free and open to the public so if you’re in the area, come on by! It takes place at 7:30 in the Health & Natural Sciences Building. You can read more about this terrific initiative and my participation at The Gainesville Times…
Today we have an ideas piece in The Boston Globe about the disconnect between science and American culture–and the role of scientists in the bridging the gap.
At the outset, lest we are misunderstood or misread, we want to emphasize that this does not mean there aren’t many other forces–such as poor education and scientific illiteracy and the unreliable media–contributing to the gap between science and society. However, scientists can also be a contributing factor, as we explain in the piece:
Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science unveiled the latest embarrassing evidence of our nation’s scientific illiteracy. Only 52 percent of Americans in their survey knew why stem cells differ from other kinds of cells; just 46 percent knew that atoms are larger than electrons. On a highly contentious issue like global warming, meanwhile, the gap between scientists and the public was vast: 84 percent of scientists, but just 49 percent of Americans, think human emissions are causing global warming.
Scientists are fond of citing statistics such as these in explaining conflicts between the public and the scientific community. On politicized issues like climate change, embryonic stem cell research, the teaching of evolution, and the safety of vaccines, many Americans not only question scientific expertise but even feel entitled to discard it completely. The reason, many scientists infer, is that the public is just clueless; perhaps we wouldn’t have these problems if the average citizen were better educated, more knowledgeable, better informed.
Yet while scientific illiteracy is nothing to shrug at, the truth is that it’s only part of a broader problem for which scientists themselves must shoulder a significant portion of the responsibility. Decrying ignorance and scientific illiteracy, many scientists treat their fellow citizens as empty vessels waiting for an infusion of knowledge. That is exactly wrong, and exactly why so many people, in turn, see science and scientists as distant, inscrutable, aloof, arrogant. Rather than blaming, scientists ought to be engaging with the public, trying to personally make their knowledge hit home and to instill by example (rather than from a distance) the nature and virtues of the scientific mindset – while also encouraging average Americans to ask their own questions and have their say. Scientists must make it clear that while they don’t have all the answers, science is about searching for the truth, an imperfect process of doing the best one can with the information available, while knowing there is always more to learn – the epitome of humility….
Read our full article available online here.
While I’m preparing for Saturday’s education panel, let’s venture back to a related topic discussed here over the past several weeks. I’m curious to find out how our new readers feel about the term ‘science literacy‘…
Do you think it’s something learned in the classroom or acquired by way of natural curiosity and keen intellect? Is a student well versed in facts about photosynthesis and planetary orbits more scientifically ‘literate‘ than the poor test taker who spends afternoons reading about dinosaurs and searching for fossils in her backyard? In other words, how might we best define the term–even before assessing it?
Comments on earlier threads suggest folks mostly agree that many heavily cited surveys using standard pop-quiz parameters do not convey much useful information about society at large. So can we ever measure this term satisfactorily?
Furthermore, when does science literacy matter most?