Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future
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For all these reasons, scholars working in the field of science and technology studies (STS) have largely discarded the idea that our problems at the science-society interface reduce to a simple matter of scientific illiteracy, traditionally defined. Instead, these thinkers have grown skeptical of what they sometimes call the “deficit model” that has come to dominate many scientists’ and intellectuals’ views of the public—the idea that there’s something lacking in people’s understanding or appreciation of science, and that this in turn explains our predicament.
The “deficit” outlook usually takes a benign form, casting scientists in the role of benevolent tutors to a public starved for knowledge. But it can also turn nastier, morphing into what we might call the “you’re an idiot” model. All too often we find scientists saying things to their peers and colleagues, or even to the press, that sound something like this: “I can’t believe the public is so stupid that it believes X” or “I can’t believe people are so ignorant that they’ll accept Y.” At this point the scientist ceases to be a friendly instructor and becomes a condescending detractor and belittler.
Either way, the “deficit” approach fails to offer effective ways of reaching people with accurate scientific information and making it stick. Members of the public aren’t empty vessels waiting to be filled with science; the refusal to tailor such information to their needs virtually assures it won’t be received or accepted. And pointing fingers at the public or its surrogates—politicians, journalists, celebrities, and so on—is not only insulting and alienating but discourages reflection about the role scientists might be playing in the equation. Perhaps most troubling, as science-communication scholars have noted, the finger pointing approach can trigger a vicious circle:
A deficient public cannot be trusted. Mistrust on the part of scientific actors is returned in kind by the public. Negative public attitudes, revealed in large-scale surveys, confirm the assumptions of scientists: a deficient public is not to be trusted.
So although we share with scientists the concern that their work isn’t adequately appreciated or heeded in our culture, this book will not unfold as a litany of all the ways in which the public falls short in its scientific knowledge. Neither will we proceed by exposing all the nonsense that people are regularly fed in place of good science: quack alternative medicine claims, fringe attacks on mainstream environmental research, paranormal obsessions, and the like. We’re more interested in divides and how to bridge them.
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