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Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future

Science matters- to politics, the economy, and our future. But do Americans really understand and appreciate that?

From Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum.  Excerpted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2009.

Rethinking the Problem of Scientific Illiteracy

As Mark Twain put it, “The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, it’s that they know so many things that just aren’t so.” Take the army of aggrieved parents nationwide who swear vaccines are the reason their children developed autism and who seem impossible to convince otherwise. Scientific research has soundly refuted this contention, but every time a new study comes out on the subject, the parents and their supporters have a “scientific” answer that allows them to retain their beliefs. Where do they get their “science” from? From the Internet, celebrities, other parents, and a few non-mainstream researchers and doctors who continue to challenge the scientific consensus, all of which forms a self-reinforcing echo chamber of misinformation. 

The anti-vaccination advocates are scientifically incorrect; there’s little doubt of that at this point. But whether they could be called “ignorant” or “scientifically illiterate” is less clear. After all, they’ve probably done far more independent research about a scientific topic that interests and affects them than most Americans have.

The same goes for other highly informed, and deeply wrong, groups—the global warming deniers, anti-evolutionists, UFO obsessives, and so on. Ignorance isn’t their problem, and neither is a lack of intellectual engagement or motivation. Anyone who has ever discussed global warming on national radio—as Chris has done countless times—can expect to be besieged by callers who don’t accept the prevailing scientific consensus and have obviously done a great deal of research to back up their prejudices. If anything, such individuals want to make a show of their erudition and proceed to rattle off a mind-boggling string of scientific-sounding claims: Global warming isn’t happening on other planets; urban heat islands (cities) thwart global thermometer readings; the atmosphere’s lowest layer, the troposphere, isn’t warming at the rate predicted by climate models; and the like.

Or consider the late Michael Crichton. He was a brilliant science fiction novelist, screenwriter, and movie producer who backed up his best-selling narratives with considerable scientific research. Yet in his late-life novel State of Fear, he penned a wholly misleading and revisionist attack on the science of global warming. Faced with such people, intellectually driven and empowered as never before by the profusion of “science”—good, bad, and awful—on the Internet, one soon recognizes that the lack of scientific knowledge probably isn’t our real problem. 

Almost inevitably, improvements to our educational system are put forward as the primary solution to the problem of scientific illiteracy. It is a lofty goal, of course, and nobody is against improving K-12 science education. But to look to education alone as the silver bullet is to write off as unreachable anyone who has already graduated from the formal educational system. That includes vast stretches of the population, including most voters, our political and cultural leaders, and the gatekeepers of the media. 

The most troubling problem with the standard “scientific illiteracy” argument, however, is this: It has the effect, intended or otherwise, of exempting the smart people—the scientists—from any responsibility for ensuring that our society really does take their knowledge seriously and uses it wisely. It’s an educational problem, they can say, or a problem with the media (which doesn’t cover science accurately or pay it enough attention), and then go back to their labs. 

The Pluto saga, which captured vastly more attention than most science news stories ever do and deeply engaged many members of the public, utterly explodes this conceit. There isn’t any obvious “true” or “false” answer to the question of whether Pluto is a planet, and people certainly weren’t ignorant about it. Rather, they were outraged by the sudden, top-down, seemingly arbitrary change by the science world, and they weren’t necessarily wrong to have that reaction. 

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