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Scientific Illiteracy

Posted: Sun, February 24, 2013 | By: TJL-2080



“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”   -   Isaac Asimov

“Scientific Illiteracy.” I didn’t come up with the term, but I took it. Illiteracy is a major problem, in every sense of the word. However, studies show that we may be moving toward a “post-literate” society. https://www.wfs.org/node/1000 I’m not going to discuss my thoughts on this right now. Post-literacy may-or-may-not be a good thing, actually, but that is a discussion for elsewhere. The problem is not how the information is being transmitted, it is the ability of the population to understand, comprehend, even grok the information they receive. Watching a film adaptation of Moby Dick will not replace reading the thing, but it allows those who have not read it the ability to understand the material, even if in a different context. Someone who is illiterate would still be able to discuss the plot, even the intent of Moby Dick after seeing one of the films based on it.

But how would you respond to someone who not only didn’t read it, but refused to watch it, saying that it goes against their deeply held belief to know what Moby Dick is about, and that they have been told never to discuss it, think about it or speak to anybody that had read or watched it? That may sound strange, but one can live their entire life unaware of Moby Dick and be just fine.

However, scientific illiteracy is not about Moby Dick. It is not about ignorance of a fictional story or character, and you cannot go through a lifetime ignorant of certain things about the world around you. Just what is Scientific Illiteracy? Here are a few instances…

-   Recently, a group of scientists were charged, tried, and found guilty of manslaughter for failing to predict that a deadly earthquake was about to strike an area of Italy. They are awaiting their appeal, but there is a good chance that these people will serve time in prison for not doing something that it has proven nearly impossible to do.  Here is a more complete write up of the case. 

-  In certain parts of the United States and Great Britain (and possibly many, many other countries), some children are removed from school and taught at home according to their religious beliefs. Now, that may not sound terrible at first, until you see the textbooks that these children are given, specifically when it comes to science. They are taught that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs and humans lived together, and that nobody understands electricity, because it is unknowable, just like God. Their proof of these claims? We still live with dinosaurs. The Loch Ness Monster (which is apparently absolutely real) is a plesiosaur and things like radiocarbon dating are frauds committed by evil people who are trying to turn otherwise intelligent people into Satan worshippers. I am not exaggerating. Here are some pages from these textbooks. 

-  In September, the Chairman of the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) said that all he had been taught “about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory” are “all lies straight from the pit of Hell.” He goes on to claim that these well-known, researched, peer-reviewed topics are meant to “keep me and other folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a Savior.” Don’t believe me? Look here…   

As the fantastic writer David Brin said, “That’s the chairman. Of the Science Committee. Of the House of Representatives. Of the United States of America.” Amen, David.

THAT is Scientific Illiteracy. Hundreds of years of experimentation, questioning, reproducing, publishing, peer review, etc. (you know, the friggin’ SCIENTIFIC METHOD) is completely disregarded by those in authority, who replace it with their personal beliefs, which they present as iron-clad fact, in some cases even legislating their views into law. This whole discussion goes far beyond the evolution/creationism/intelligent design argument and takes a turn into dangerous territory.

I recently saw an argument about global climate change. One person used numerous facts, graphs, extrapolations, quotes from scientists, trends, etc. The other person, when confronted with these facts said “So what?” The first person said “What do you mean `so what?’” The second person responded with “It doesn’t matter, because God will always provide for us. He will never give us any more or any less than we can actually handle. Even if these things you say are true, it won’t matter because God won’t allow me to come to harm.”

America is the most advanced country in the world, depending on your point of view. Yet nearly half of all people in this great country truly, deeply, completely believe that even basic concepts like evolution, the Big Bang and even electricity are entirely fictional, and that those who “believe” in these ideas are lost at best, or at worst pure evil. And, this being America, one of our most cherished ideals is that people in this country are free to believe whatever they choose and are even more free to express their beliefs. So where does the right to freedom of religion and the freedom of speech/expression end and the right to advance the knowledge of our species begin?

This article is not meant to pass judgment on religion or religious people. It is meant to start a discussion regarding how to make science ‘sexy’ again. Go back about 100 years. Who were the heroes in America and around the world in the first half of the 20th Century? Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. Who are the most discussed people now? The Kardashians, Snooki and Honey Boo Boo. The presidential candidates were asked to openly explain their policies regarding science. Both refused to answer and sent form letters that summed up their respective party views.

When elected officials, the very people we ask to lead our country, are ignorant of how the world works, how can our country be expected to survive much longer? We have congressmen like Todd Akin talking about how women who are being “legitimately raped” being able to shut their reproductive systems off like a light switch. Others, like Richard Mourdock, say that if a pregnancy occurs from a rape, it is a “gift from God.”  Then we have the aforementioned Rep. Broun’s statement. It is time to begin the discussion of making our candidates for public office give their opinions of issues regarding science, religion, biology, geology, climate change, etc. while they are campaigning, publicly and definitively.

There is some reason to be hopeful for the scientific future of America. The amount of outrage from both sides of the political aisle in response to those comments was encouraging, although I think that some of it may have been just to appease the equally outraged constituents. How many politicians would have even responded if there had been little-to-no outcry from the people?

Also, there has been a massive amount of exciting science and space news this year. NASA landed an SUV-sized rover on the surface of Mars with pinpoint accuracy. The scientists at CERN announced that they believe they have discovered the existence of a particle that is “consistent” with the hypothetical Higgs-Boson. However, in order to get the average American to even look up at the news, the media insisted on calling it “The God Particle.”

This year, a privately-owned spacecraft docked with the International Space Station. This means that space is now within reach for everyone, not just the government.

It was announced in 2012 that nearly every star in the Milky Way Galaxy could potentially have planets. They estimate that the average is 1.6 planets per star. Hundreds of exoplanets have been discovered just this year, many of which are not too far away, relatively speaking. I have noticed that when space makes the news, there is a spike in other science-related news. That is encouraging.

The most important thing for the future of our nation is to make science education a priority again. How that can be implemented or even acknowledged is a whole other discussion. But I believe that once it is made a significant part of our culture again, our future will seem a whole lot brighter.

This essay was originally posted at Travis’s blog HERE



Comments:

As a science educator for almost half a century, I find the argument in this article pertinent. Successful science education allows one to be more rational, pragmatic and objective in life. Most importantly, less dogmatized.  (btt1943, vzc1943)

By venze on Feb 25, 2013 at 5:07pm

One of the strangest figures in America was William Jennings Bryan, who went from being fairly progressive to being a Creationist-defender at the Scopes trial. It’s this wavering that marks America: oscillating between faith and science;
that it is little different in most parts of the world, is cold comfort.

By Alan Brooks on Mar 01, 2013 at 2:57pm

Interestingly enough, while education is studied scientifically, the findings are almost never applied to the education system (in any place I’ve heard of). I think if it were, quite a few of these problems would go away, AND, the system would get better and better.

Ultimately, the system in place for electing officials will always be deficient, since it doesn’t promote anything except a person getting re-elected, in whatever way possible, even if it means pandering to people who have strange beliefs. If these people are swayed by anti-science points, then that’s where politicians will go. Why would they do anything else? They are going in exactly the direction we would expect them to given the current system.

AND, people who insist on listening to science and using science to produce good policies (this sounds like a dream to me), end up getting beat out by people who claim not to believe in evolution. It sounds strange, but not when considering the demographics of the US.

I don’t have a solution unfortunately. People who know science matters have to keep pushing it and eventually, hopefully, people will come around.

By Travis Cottreau on Mar 10, 2013 at 4:44pm


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