Yesterday I appeared on a panel at the 2010 National Association of Science Writers meeting, along with public opinion experts Jon Miller and Carolyn L. Funk. Two write ups of the panel appeared on the event blog subsequently–here and here. To describe the event, then, let me just quote:
If you had $1 to spend on improving science literacy in America, how would you spend it? That was the question posed by Rick Borchelt, an organizer of today’s Civics of science session, to panelists Carolyn L. Funk, Jon Miller, and Chris Mooney.
Miller proposed spending half his dollar on improving pre-college science education, with the remainder on adult learning, a small portion of which would be used for science journalism. Mooney suggested spending the whole dollar on creating jobs for science journalists and young scientists, building an army of people devoted to improving public science literacy. And Funk said most of her dollar would go into the education system, with spending divided on efforts to incorporate science standards into elementary and lower-level education and on adult learning and informal adult education, the area where mainstream science journalism has its greatest impact.
Although the session raised more questions than it provided answers, the Agronsky & Co. style discussion, as promised, led to some interesting debate about the place of science journalism in science literacy and education in the United States. Science journalism is concerned mainly with delivering information about the latest developments in scientific discovery, and today most science reporting operates within the “just-in-time” model of new media. The cultural importance of science, the future of which could hinge on fitting into the new media scene, was perhaps most entertainingly discussed within the context of music and Rock Stars, a topic introduced by Mooney. Whether science and science journalism would benefit from riding the coat-tails of mass media remains to be seen.
As you can see, I talked a lot about the Geoffrey Beene Gives Back® Rock Stars of Science™ campaign at the panel–my current attempt to contribute to part of the solution.
One central issue that arose yesterday was how to identify the most important measure of scientific “illiteracy”–and how to assess whether the decline of science journalism is affecting that measure. Here, I argued that we should focus on the public’s engagement with science, and on science’s cultural standing, rather than strictly considering citizens’ knowledge of scientific facts.
I think the former is what’s really critical, as well as more closely tied to how journalism and media are faring. And in this sense, I don’t doubt that using celebrities and rock stars to draw greater attention to science is a solution that’s going to work.
I’ve got a piece at Huffington Post today about scientific illiteracy and public disengagement–and some possible answers. An excerpt:
Take clean energy, the industry of the future. Globally, the clean energy economy is booming–and China is now its clear leader. The U.S. fell into a distant second place last year in clean energy investment and finance, as China spent $ 34.6 billion to our $18.6 billion.
A similar story emerges in the biomedical arena, where our research investments haven’t kept pace with national health priorities. For instance, Alzheimer’s disease is now the seventh leading cause of death in the US, and accounts for 34 percent of total Medicare spending. Yet in terms of research, it’s a stepchild: Funding through the National Institutes of Health is currently less than $ 500 million per year.
How do you make Americans more focused on the centrality of science to our future? It isn’t easy given the nature of our national conversation–with serious science news vanishing from the media–and our already limited attention constantly directed elsewhere, including debating whether to elect global warming denying candidates to Congress this November 2. Read More
At the AAAS meeting in San Diego last month, I spoke with EarthSky’s Lindsay Patterson, and the resultant podcast just went up. You can listen here, or by playing the embedded audio below, and I’ve also pasted some transcribed sections below:
And now, the write-up: Read More
The writing is engaging and should find an important audience. As opposed to many science-centered books, this book will appeal not only to teachers, but, more importantly, to undergraduates who are slowly becoming aware of political issues. This book should therefore find readership beyond just science students to all students interested, or becoming interested, in current issues important to politics, education, and the general state of our nation.
This book doesn’t complain about how the public doesn’t get science, it actually has advice — good advice — for how people can take up this charge.
You can read Phil’s full take here. We’re very gratified by the new wave of attention the book is receiving this holiday season, and are just about to begin updating it for the paperback due out next summer. So, more soon….
In our forthcoming book, Unscientific America, Chris and I mention those national surveys where regularly, a large percentage of U.S. citizens fail to correctly answer basic science questions that they supposedly learned in school.
Last Friday, the latest results were released from the most recent quiz by the California Academy of Sciences and Harris Interactive. (See how you do answering test questions here).
From Science Daily:
Despite its importance to economic growth, environmental protection, and global health and energy issues, scientific literacy is currently low among American adults. According to the national survey commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences:
* Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
* Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
* Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water.*
* Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.
Knowledge about some key scientific issues is also low. Despite the fact that access to fresh water is likely to be one of the most pressing environmental issues over the coming years, less than 1% of U.S. adults know what percent of the planet’s water is fresh (the correct answer is 3%). Nearly half didn’t even hazard a guess. Additionally, 40% of U.S. adults say they are “not at all knowledgeable” about sustainability.
But, wait a second… Before rushing to attack the American education system, first consider: What do such quizzes actually reveal? Is it fair to use the results as evidence of scientific illiteracy? Furthermore, what does that term really mean?