Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future…and It’s Scientists’ Fault

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Published on August 3rd, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

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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.

(Image credit: Chaotic Good01 through a Creative Commons license.)

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Comments: Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future…and It’s Scientists’ Fault

  •  Comment from Walter Dodds

    Peter is wrong. People just mostly care about people, and mostly themselves. They love news about science if it directly is related to their own health or wealth. People tune in to shows on tv and movies about other people, only a minor portion tune in to nature or science shows no matter how hard the people who make the shows try to make an interesting show. It is how we evolved. The relationship between basic human nature and global environmental issues is outlined in my book, Humanity’s Footprint. It is difficult to lay blame with scientists any more than most other groups of society. Bankers and traders are not such sexy communicators, and business news is dull, but every paper in the US reports the Dow every day, and most devote an entire section to business.

  •  Comment from JMH

    Pardon me? I’m a scientist, and I think most of my associates & friends would agree that I am not boring. People tune out when they hear information they don’t want to hear. I have colleagues that do this. If it is outside their own discipline, they don’t want to know about it. Scientists could be much better about minimizing jargon, speaking in “pidgin scientist” to communicate both to the non-scientific public and to scientists outside of their own discipline.

    Please keep in mind that there are boundaries to effective public communication for scientists in all sectors. Public sector scientists are strongly discouraged by management from releasing information that may not be taken well by some Congress members and “stakeholders”. Private sector scientist often come up against information that is proprietary and cannot be released. Academic scientists are under pressure from their deans to pull in large grants, produce a large number of graduate student progeny and to give students passing grades in classes regardless of knowledge gained in the classroom (ever hear the term, helicopter parents… deadly phenomenon).

    It’s simple enough to point the finger at scientists for our poor communication skills. I strongly suggest evaluating society’s interest in processing the hard facts of their existence in increasingly stressed ecosystems.

  •  Comment from Matt

    If you check that link about 1 in five Americans thinking that the Sun goes around the Earth, it also mentions that two surveys in European countries have been done recently. Actually, a higher proportion of Americans answered the question correctly than Brits or Germans. So does that mean that Americans are smarter than Europeans? I doubt it.

    Maybe these general surveys are not really a good indication of knowledge.

    I think it’s tough to draw the conclusion that because Americans have a lower general scientific literacy than Europeans, Americans are less supportive of measures to combat climate change. There are many reasons why Americans might not support these efforts: generally less willing to have government “interfere with their lives”, in general, lower concern for the environment, more open space in American (it still is not crowded here compare to Europe, especially in the Intermountain West where people tend to be more conservative), more miles driven, etc.

    I think that Europeans might also be a little more trusting of government technocrats to solve complicated problems.

  •  Comment from j vetter

    i just think its easier for [eople to worry about their own immediate problems rather than the issues that will affect our childrens children a lot worse than us. it is also a fact that most people become aware of these circumstances when these “t.v.” shows are on, yet, it is not fully absorbed into the brain – it goes in and out – just like a sunday morning cartoon. only when you can see the serious effects ( like living near a power plant or something) the more immediate danger to youre own life = do you really start to want to change things. this can be related to smoking, drugs, and everything else that effects us.

  •  Comment from Donald Morse Jr.

    This author is missing the point. Knowledge is power. If more Americans were more educated, the current economic situation would not exist. The big money interests that run this country would have little success if people had more knowledge. Think about it. The reason college costs so much is not because of the “cost”. By making college so expensive, it is an attempt to insure that only money driven people are able to succeed. This is all a part of the deliberate dumbing down of the US. By having an ignorant populous, more people become servants to institutions that provide credit. They become stuck in low paying jobs, choosing not to go to school (college, dropping out of HS) just so that they can live. This is deliberate. It is not scientists fault, it is all Americans fault for allowing the current situation to exist. This is a much bigger problem than any scientist or TNC can conquer. The solution involves a transformation of or society. It is all a power struggle and knowledge is power.

  •  Comment from Melissa Soule

    Peter makes some valid points, especially in his three-point tip section (listen, reframe, be concise), but the blame can’t fall entirely on to scientists. The larger and perhaps more important point is to quit navel-gazing, see what’s going on in the rest of the world, and how our work relates and adapts to that. We can all play a role in slowing down, reading and listening more, and helping each other translate key points into relatable language.

  •  Comment from Kelly Cotten

    I’m a wildlife ecologist. I voluntarily teach free science enrichment classes for kids 3-12 yrs old at my children’s school. Here’s my perspective:

    Most Americans know little beyond pop culture. We’re a vapid & materialistic society. Yet I’ve met very few parents who didn’t want their young children to be well-educated. Especially, if someone else does it.

    The most important time to teach science to kids is 2-9 years of age. Their brains are EXTREMELY receptive then. They desperately want to understand the world and how it works. This passionate curiosity is evolutionarily programmed to kick in during these years.

    There is something to be said for making science entertaining, especially when dealing with children. I use many gimmicks, metaphors and theatrical devices to communicate. I also use a lot of real experiments, hands-on activities, nature-based activities and outdoor experiences. I DO NOT use a book or any other text. I’m not interested in the finer details at this age. I want to make a lasting impression and to give the kids a basic framework on which to hang future learning.

    We did 9 units last year, each leading naturally to the next, and covered everything from the star cycle to atomic structure to the rock cycle and plate tectonics to the water cycle to photosynthesis and the carbon cycle to food chains and the nutrient cycle to evolution and speciation. To this day, many of the 3-yr-olds can tell you what DNA is and, in VERY broad terms, how it works.

    So, establish (early!) a basic understanding of how the world works; make it fun, concrete and relevant to their own lives; let them get their hands dirty; don’t sweat the details, but impart to them a sense of the complex inter-relationship of it all; leave them awed and hungry to discover more. And you’ve set their path.

    Wait until they’re 9 or older to begin, and it’s almost a lost cause.

  •  Comment from Marilyn Walker

    Research!America, a non-profit advocacy organization that I work for, provides tools and messages to help scientists and researchers be better communicators with the public. Our emphasis is on advocacy for more funding for health research, including talking to members of Congress.

  •  Comment from Eco-Friendly

    Thank you Peter! I think you touch on a very important essential point which in my opinion is very valid indeed.
    While in completing my BS undergrad in Biology, I found that most professors preferred very complex, detailed and frankly, boring writing styles. Pick up any science journal and show it to an average joe and you will see what I’m talking about.

    As scientists, we need to adapt our writing to suit our audience a bit better, and that by no means results in a dumbing-down of the subject matter. Take a look at articles in The Nature Conservancy newsletter, National Geographic and the like. They are entertaining, full of photos, and intuitive, interesting graphics. The science behind it still remains and can be attached in an appendix for those interested in methodology and the like.

    In a way, scientists must become bi-lingual, speaking one language with colleagues, and shifting to a more engaging straightforward talk for the public.

    Maybe we could use a few Biologists with Marketing degrees ;)

  •  Comment from TL Smith

    I think your’re right in general, but I also think that conservation may be more about human nature than it is about science. Who needs more science? I expand on this idea on my blog, check it out: http://conservationstation.wordpress.com/2009/08/04/is-conservation-more-about-humans-than-science/

  •  Comment from Dov Henis

    Unscientific America Leads Unscientific World

    Book: “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future”
    by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum
    http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/49201/title/Unscientific_America_How_Scientific_Illiteracy__Threatens_Our_Future_by_Chris__Mooney_and_Sheril_Kirshenbaum

    I have not read the book, but I have been e-posting about the subject during the past ten years. E-posting and not print-publishing, because IMO the print-published science-world is polluted and science-stifling. And IMO and at my advanced age it’s about time that science accept and treat and exploit e-media as an equal to print-published media.

    Having e-posted about the Societal Implications Of The 20th Century Science And Technology Culture, IMO the core essential scientific illiteracy is inherent and common to BOTH the public at large AND the “scientists”, who are an integral part of the public at large. The illiterarcy-uncertainty starts right at the foundation with the vagueness of the term “scientist” that is rightly placed here in quot’n marks.

    IMO the 20th century science and technology culture is inherently a world-wide unscientific
    culture, fostered and led by an unscientific American culture, originated, developed and made omnipresent and omnipotent by the AAAS, essentially a “scientists” old-style trade-union evolved by now into a political guild-establishment.

    See
    http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/45198/title/Science_Future_for_July_18,_2009

    Science future and scientific literarcy face a challenge of assessing the nature of the Science Establishment and considering if-how-whereto change its nature, organization and its charter.

    Dov Henis
    (Comments From The 22nd Century)

  •  Comment from V for Vendetta

    If more Americans were scientifically literate, they’d be making bombs all over the place!

  •  Comment from Roger Applegate

    I believe that most Americans I basically in denial and are as scientifically literate as they wish to be. IF science confirms what they believe, they favor it, if it is counter to their belief, that reject it. Personally, a weakness in science education is the inability to teach evolution, which is the foundation of ecology, to EVERYONE. Without equal footing, the Leopoldian land ethic is pie in the sky.

    As to scientific communication; it would be unnecessary to dumb down facts if people were more scientifically literate. I communicate a lot with other scientists, all of whom have or should have the same level of training that I have; yet I must dumb down to them as well.

    Our society is now relying on Twitter, Facebook, WWW, TV, and radio talk shows for its frame of reference with the world. Most have no idea how to judge fact from entertainment. This has to change.

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