Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future

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. 

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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