You have all heard the statistics that nearly one-half of all Americans do not think humans evolved from apes, and that about one in five American adults think the sun orbits the Earth.
Scientific illiteracy is not just a matter for elitist smugness — it can endanger the innocent. For example, there is a movement in the United States that opposes childhood vaccinations on the claim that these vaccinations cause autism — in spite of overwhelming scientific analyses showing otherwise. One of the celebrity vaccine critics — actress Jenny McCarthy — boasts about her degree from the “University of Google.”
Meanwhile, our government’s and society’s ability to choose its future is wrapped up with some pretty sophisticated and important scientific information. We live in a world that depends on science and technology that almost no one understands. This is nuts. It should be especially disturbing to supporters and staff and collaborators of The Nature Conservancy, which operates under the banner of being “science-based.”
Unscientific America is the title and topic of a new book by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum (Basic Books, 2009). The theme is that scientific illiteracy threatens our future, and after making that point the book goes on to discuss the many reasons for us being in this dark cave of scientific ignorance. I am not going to review the book (it is a great book) — but I want to pick up on a central point it makes that really resonates with my experience as a professional scientist for over 30 years — at major research universities, at government laboratories, in consulting firms and now at The Nature Conservancy:
The blame lies to some large extent with us scientists — not with the media, and not with an intellectually lazy public.
As my Conservancy colleague Rebecca Goldman pointed out in a Cool Green Science post last month, scientists by and large do not know how to communicate. Even worse, when when one of us does communicate, it is viewed by other scientists as an indicator of some sort of lack of rigor, and “less serious science.”
Too few scientists think about audience and how to reach it. We are boring instead of entertaining — in fact, we would probably be embarrassed if we were called entertaining. What is up with that? Instead of presenting just the facts, we need to be able to use our science to address the topics most people care about — job security, health, children, national security.
I was a professor in what was perhaps the best ecology research group in the country (if not the world) at the time. We looked down on our colleagues who were masterful communicators as somehow lesser scientists. We were fools. Since leaving academia, I have learned how hard it is to reach a congressional committee, or the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, or Nature Conservancy trustees, or a town hall meeting of farmers and fishermen. It is not just talking:
- You have to first listen, observe and scope out your audience and know how they look at the world.
- Then, using those data, you have to frame your talk in terms to which the audience relates.
- Then you have to have the courage to select only the few most salient numbers and facts or results, and discuss those facts in a way that makes the point you seek to make. Yes, you need real numbers and metrics — but they have to be chosen and talked about in a way that suits the audience, not the way scientific colleagues are comfortable talking about.
Between 2002 and 2007, nearly 32,000 Ph.D.s in science were awarded in the United States. These not so-young Ph.D.s (median age for receiving a Ph.D. is 33) are trained to become like their mentors — college professors, even though at best only one in 10 will actually land a tenure-track job. And that was before the recession. These scientists are deft at statistics and experimental design, and have been schooled in writing passively, without adjectives or storyline or anything that could capture the interest of anyone other than the 17 other specialists working on the same research topic.
The Nature Conservancy now hires these Ph.D. scientists where they truly can make a huge difference. But even within the Conservancy, the gift of being able to communicate with the public is rare. And when it exists, it usually takes the form of scientists who play well with certain audiences — as opposed to being able to size up any audience — from members of the National Academy of Science to ranchers, to MBA senior managers to 18-year-old student interns and volunteers.
Newspapers do not cover science anymore. From 1998 to 2005, the number of newspapers featuring weekly science or science-related sections shrank from 95 to 34. CNN shut down its science, technology and environment unit in 2008. Does anyone reading this think that science has less to do with the modern world now than it did in 1998? Does anyone think science is not essential to figuring out what are the biggest threats to biodiversity and in turn what are the most effective strategies for protecting biodiversity?
Half a century ago, C.P. Snow gave a famous public lecture at Cambridge University lamenting the division between the two cultures of science and the humanities, emphasizing that neither was superior — they were just different. Mooney and Kirshenbaum end their book with a quote from Snow’s lecture:
“We require a common culture in which science is an essential component. Otherwise we shall never see the possibilities, either for evil or good.”
The Conservancy has a role to play in this — by training, rewarding, hiring and promoting science staff who can unite the cultures and who are not consummately boring scientists, speaking passively with caveat after caveat and invented jargon or management-speak where common words would do just as well.
The snail’s pace with which the United States has admitted to and acted on climate change is testimony to the human and economic costs of an unscientific America.