7.09.2009

This Is What Keeps Me Up At Night

A new study of 2,000 members of the public and 2,500 scientists tells us what we already should know: The degree of scientific illiteracy in this country is downright alarming.

The most frightening part about the thick language barrier that exists between scientists and nonscientists (even well-educated ones!) is that most nonscientists aren't even aware that it exists. Consequently, they buy the "it's only a theory" attack line without a second thought. Sure, Glenn Beck has theories just like Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton did. The big difference is that Glenn Beck's theories aren't based in rigorously replicated experimental data, they aren't disqualified when proven wrong, and they do not adjust to new facts.

Thus, we are left with this situation:
Almost a third say human beings have existed in their current form since the beginning of time, a view held by only 2 percent of the scientists. Only about half agree that people are behind climate change, and 11 percent do not believe there is any warming at all.

Contrary to what Congressional Republicans might want you to believe, scientists are not a band of socialists with hidden political agendas. In fact, most steer clear of politics. It's not their game. Their game is to discover, and, along the way, to prove each other wrong. Their only tool is a method so useful at uncovering truth that the period in which it was created is known as The Enlightenment.

Still, too many nonscientists take the word of desperate politicians who have manufactured "debates" only because they see re-election as paramount to the truth:
According to the survey, about a third of Americans think there is lively scientific debate on both topics; in fact, there is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution and there is little doubt that human activity is altering the chemistry of the atmosphere in ways that threaten global climate.

Scientists are not free of the blame for this mess. In their communication with the public, they must to find ways to compensate for widespread illiteracy. They can't just cite scientific consensus. Too many people don't even get what scientific consensus is--how could they begin to appreciate its significance?
In a telephone news conference announcing the survey, Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), said scientists must find new ways to engage with the public. “One cannot just exhort ’we all agree you should agree with us,’ ” he said. “It’s a much more interactive process that’s involved. It’s time consuming and can be tedious. But it’s very important.”

This is the brutal truth. And this is what keeps me up at night. Hence The Biosphere, Now.

5 comments:

Ian said...

What if the public is simply more apt to adopt the point of view that is the least scary or the most convenient? In other words, maybe it's not about how scientists are transmitting information, but the information itself. It's easier to fall asleep at night believing your Yukon has nothing to do with the drought restrictions your state just implemented and that the kindly old preacher who was such a big part of your childhood was 100% right about adam and eve.

Drew said...

What if, in fact, there is a large percentage of American's who are just completely ignorant and truly believe that Global Warming doesn't exist,dinosaur bones are placed by Archeologist's in order to maintain their jobs, or the Earth is only 6,000 years old? Looking at the numbers, about 25% of the voting public backed candidates that promoted issues such as these mentioned above, which are extreme, so imgaine what that percentage increases to when it comes to less extreme beliefs?

Mike Orcutt said...

Ian: You've hit on the bottom line. But what then? My answer for today: Since I'm already awake, I may as well try and describe what I see.

Mike Orcutt said...

Drew: You are also right, and you inspire two questions in my mind: 1.) Assuming a high rate of ignorance in this country, how much should that alarm us? 2.) Assuming we see it as a problem, how can we begin to solve it?

Ry Guy said...

There is definitely a gap between the scientific and the nonscientific. I think one of the reasons for this divide has to do with the arrogance of the scientific community. This puts lay people off.
All too often, scientists are prone to declare the infallibility of their claims, and sometimes too slow to accept/re-examine new facts. Their careers can hang on the validity of their theories.
And don't forget that scientists are human too and subject to political and financial pressures.
Please don't mistake this as a knock to science, simply a word of caution to not accept everything a scientist claims as absolute truth. Science should breed skeptics, not sheep.