Tom Jonard's Science Illiteracy PageShould we be worried about science education and the preparedness of the general population to deal with issues of science and technology?
The National Science Board's (NSB) Science and Engineering Indicators 2002 (SEI2002) report shows that the U.S. public still has high confidence in science, scientists and the outlook for a future in which science plays a prominent role. The support for public funding of science is unflagging.
At the same time most admit not knowing much about science or the scientific method. This lack of knowledge is easily demonstrated by survey and anecdote. Nor is there much interest in learning more about science -- few follow science news beyond the few breakthrough events. And most get their news from television where "sound bites" not detail dominate.
The same report notes widespread interest in "pseudoscience, including astrology, extrasensory perception (ESP) and alien abductions" and alternative medicine. It also reports a significant growth in that interest since 1990.
This might seem a contradictory and therefore questionable set of results -- a society that is reverent of both science and pseudoscience. But with great dependence on science and technology and respect for scientists and technologists in general and little understanding of how they work we are vulnerable to anything that claims to be science to get our attention.
Pseudoscience takes advantage of our vulnerability by masquerading as real science -- using pseudoscientific language and pseudoscientific methodology to adopt a mantel of scientism. A prime example is the current resurrection of creationism in a movement calling itself scientific creationism. As a result boards of education across the country find themselves under seige to modify science cirriculi and add "scientific creationsim".
A public that is confused about what science is is ill prepared to distinguish between real and false science.
Without other guidance we might be inclined to defer to "experts" on issues in science and technology. But this only changes the question from "What is science?" to "Who are the experts?" Pseudoscientific experts are just as willing (even more so) to fill this role as are real scientists. Indeed it is to their advantage to publish journals, present conferences, host debates and otherwise act like experts in order to enhance their prestige and further their acceptance and the acceptance of their ideas.
The confusion that results can leak into all our institutions and compound the problem. Galileo's Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom by Peter William Huber (Basic Books, August 1991) makes the case that pseudoscience already quite often masquerades as the real thing in our courts. This being the case we cannot look to other institutions for guidance in how to deal with science and technology issues. Interestingly enough the author of the idea of scientific creationism, Phillip E. Johnson, is a lawyer.
A citizenry unable to understand science is also unable to tell who can.
Suspicion of science and technology bred of bad news and bad images might cause us to eschew them althogther. Though scientists complain of their portrayals in entertainment and though we have created some intractable problems like nuclear waste and pollution using the fruits of science we don't really have this problem yet according to the SEI2002 report. But a common complaint heard about science news -- that it is hard to know what to believe when first one study result is announced followed soon by another contradicting it -- shows that the potential for mistrust exists.
An intellectual version of this suspicion and rejection of science and technology already exists in the form of post modernism and multiculturalism. Its proponents call for the abandonment of scientific methodology in favor of other "ways of knowing" that are assumed in their world view to be equally valid. This world view seductively addresses some of the abuses of western european civilization (though there is no reason to believe that in the long run a better society would result).
People without an understanding of science and how it works are vulnerable to confusion about its meaning, its results and wrong-headed philosophical attacks against it.
Science is a way of knowing through incremental advancement in the understanding of objective reality and the body of knowledge that results. Relativism of knowledge leads to unquestioned and unquestionable standing for any and every alternative and a concomitant loss of the ability to distinguish between what is and what is not. The genius of science is that it replaces opinion with a methodical process for describing reality and resolving facts. The new relativism just promises to return us to opinion.
Perhaps we should be cheered that the forces that oppose science today are on the one hand absolutist (pseudoscience always claims to know the Truth) and the other relativist (which is just as insistent that there is no absolute Truth). Neither side of this debate is particularly tolerant of the other. Perhaps they will wear each other out and there is no need to become concerned about the current situation.
But I wouldn't bet on it.
While our scientific and technical preparedness do not appear to be in a grave state neither is it as it should be. If the barbarians are not at the gate neither have they been vanquished. There is therefore no reason to be complacient about science illiteracy. Those who understand and value science and technology should consider what they can do every day to advance understanding among all people. The greater that understand the safer we are from abuse and collapse of a system of knowledge which has given us all so much. It does seem yet another situation for which our unending vigilence is required.
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Created July 20, 2002,