Sunday, February 18, 2007


Telling America's Fortune

First the good news:

A slightly higher proportion of American adults qualify as scientifically literate than European or Japanese adults ...
Then the bad:

We should take no pride in a finding that 70 percent of Americans cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times.
That's the conclusion of Michigan State University researcher Jon Miller, the Hannah Professor of integrative studies at MSU. Participating at an American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium, titled "Science Literacy and Pseudoscience, Miller said that Americans, are slightly ahead of their European counterparts in scientific knowledge but that is, as might be expected, relative:

A slightly higher proportion of American adults qualify as scientifically literate than European or Japanese adults, but the truth is that no major industrial nation in the world today has a sufficient number of scientifically literate adults ...
According to Miller, around 28 percent of American adults qualify as "scientifically literate," which Miller defines as being able to understand approximately 20 of 31 scientific concepts and terms similar to those that normally found in articles in the New York Times weekly science section or in the PBS program "NOVA." This is up from around 10 percent scientific literacy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Of course, it is not exactly a high bar.

Miller opined that one reason for the slim lead Americans hold is that the U.S. is the only major nation in the world that requires its college students to take some general science courses. But perhaps we can do even better:

Although university science faculties have often viewed general education requirements with disdain, analyses indicate that the courses promote civic scientific literacy among U.S. adults despite the disappointing performance of American high school students in international testing.
It certainly could not hurt if universities made general science education even more a priority and if there was a little more enthusiasm from the faculty for such courses, making them solid educational experiences rather than mere "ticket punchers." Also, Carol Susan Losh, an associate professor at Florida State University, said that discussion of what is wrong with pseudoscience is often absent from the classroom, so "we have basically left it up to the media."

Even that mild good news is balanced by plenty of bad news. Losh said that when it comes to pseudoscience, "the news is not good." Americans are giving increasing credence to such things as visiting space aliens, lucky numbers and horoscopes. Losh points out that pseudoscience can speak to the meaning of life in ways that science does not.

"What does astrology speak to? Love relationships," Losh said, noting that belief in horoscopes is much higher among women than men.
Miller noted that most readers of horoscopes are women, contributing to the listing of "female" as a leading negative factor in science literacy, as did the tendency of women to take fewer college science courses.

Of course, our old friend, creationism, figures prominently, making religious fundamentalism and aging a major negative factor to scientific literacy:

Raymond Eve of the University of Texas at Arlington had mixed news in surveys of students at an unnamed Midwestern university.

The share that believed aliens had visited Earth fell from 25 percent in 1983 to 15 percent in 2006. There was also a decline in belief in "Bigfoot" and in whether psychics can predict the future.

But there also has been a drop in the number of people who believe evolution correctly explains the development of life on Earth and an increase in those who believe mankind was created about 10,000 years ago.
I'll let Miller have the last word as to why we need to do better:

Over recent decades, the number of public policy controversies that require some scientific or technical knowledge for effective participation has been increasing. Any number of issues, including the siting of nuclear power plants, nuclear waste disposal facilities, and the use of embryonic stem cells in biomedical research point to the need for an informed citizenry in the formulation of public policy.

While requiring more science education might increase understanding, I'd argue we need to find more creative ways to make science understandable and appreciated by policy makers/community members. We need to bring the art of communication to science.
Part of the problem is that science can't necessarily be successfully made understandable and appreciated (otherwise known as "dumbed down" or "popularized") to the extent of making it easy or capable of being digested in YouTube time segments. It takes a certain amount of intellectual work on the recipient's part, which is why college is a good place to concentrate, since most people understand that they have to do such work there. Also, the people in charge of colleges and universities have the most (though not universal) incentive to see intellectualism, including science, become more appreciated by the average American. Those out of academia, particularly in government and commerce might have quite different motives.

There is nothing wrong with making science as understandable and entertaining as possible but the fastest route with the least resistance is probably through higher education.
One of the ways people learn is thru story-telling, and unfortunately even stories said to be science-based (novels, films) are poor when it comes to accuracy. See my brief essay at and a similar account on the LabLit homepage about a non-fiction science book - Episode 1 of Meet My Dragon.
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