by Angelo Niosi
We have a problem. We live in a civilization based on science and almost no one understands how science works. Our health, communications, technology, and food industries, water management, energy sector, and our understanding of the environment and the natural world all depend on science. Carl Sagan warned us of this when he said,
“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”
We are seeing real repercussions of this right now with climate change denial, the anti-vaccine movement, policy makers trying to insert intelligent design into the science classroom, the anti-GMO movement, and the anti-birth control movement. Also with the perseverance of pseudoscience frauds, who are taking advantage of people. The most recent example being the alternative medicine practitioners, who encourage those infected with ebola to abstain from science based medicine. One of the worst things about these issues is they disproportionately affect the poor, the hungry, the sick, the elderly, women, and children.
Furthermore, life on this planet is in great peril because of human activities. As a species we have evolved the unique ability to care for and preserve the other life forms we share this planet with, life evolved to take care of itself. However, we need a science literate public to influence public policy, and science literate politicians. Unfortunately we live in a world where only a small minority of our leaders understand science.
What do I mean by understanding science? I certainly don’t expect a public where everyone has memorized the enzymes involved in DNA replication or the molecular formula for petroleum, (though it would be nice). What I mean by understanding science is for the public to understand the method that scientists use, why they use it, and what it means when scientists are in consensus. To use a computer metaphor, one could argue that in these modern times, it would empower people to be computer literate. This doesn’t mean they need to know how to build a computer or program software, it does mean they should know how to turn on a computer, go online, type, use a word processor, etc. The ability to evaluate a scientific issue is a skill that can be taught, and it is a very important one if we expect to thrive as a civilization.
I believe there are two major causes for our current scientific ignorance, and I have an idea on what we can do about it.
The first cause is that scientists in general have not done a good job communicating to the public.
Science is done in universities and for private research. The results are published in journals which are specific to the respective field of research. A subscription to these journals are often costly. Scientist are a small community of inter communicating professionals and experts, that are primarily concerned with their own research. There aren’t that many scientist that are writing for the public, making websites, YouTube videos, movies, Facebook pages, tweeting, or running for public office. Even when some scientists try to do these things, they often turnout to be stuffy or lack understanding of current popular culture. Most scientists, (and thankfully so), are detail oriented, logical, technical… and otherwise… geeky. I personally love this about scientists and I believe this has been one of the attributes that gives science such an advantage. However this leads me to my second cause.
The curriculum required to get a degree in science is best completed by individuals who excel at math, are capable of spending insanely long durations studying, are detail oriented, and conform easily.
This, unfortunately, weeds out a lot of very creative and charismatic minds. I’ve met many art, theatre, and literature majors who have told me they were interested in marine biology, botany, or astronomy, but during their attempt towards a degree in these fields they struggled in a chemistry course,or calculus, or physics. While studying biology I personally saw these courses start out fully enrolled, but by midway through the course, one third to one half of the students dropped. These creative and intelligent students many times decide that science just isn’t for them, and they go on to study art, media, acting, film, journalism etc. My point here is that these are the exact people who would make great science communicators.
Whether we like it or not, we live in a reality where actresses like Jenny McCarthy and radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh have enormous power to influence public opinion and potentially undermine science. We need to flip the tables and get more people in these types of positions that are science literate. We need more and better science communicators!
While we’re on the topic of groups who are underrepresented in science, we need more women in science! We need women communicating about science for other women. Science literacy empowers people, and empowered educated women are incredibly valuable and important for our civilization.
So how do we get more and better science communicators? How do we get more women and underrepresented groups in science? We need to create a new path to science!