March 15, 2006

Scientific Ignorance Dooms Democracy

Increasingly hi-tech nations need informed citizens, making scientific literacy a human right and scientific illiteracy a disability

By George Dvorsky, December 22, 2003

I recently put a painting on my fridge door by my six-year old son, Lucas. In this particular composition, Lucas portrays a scientist diligently working in his "nanotechnology lab," operating what appears to be (to me anyway) a molecular assembler. When I asked Lucas if he knew what nanotechnology was, he replied, "Sure, Daddy, it's technology and robots that work at a microscopic size."

The kid's in grade one and has already picked sides in the Drexler-Smalley debate. He can also already describe the human digestive system in detail. And he knows that humans evolved from apes, that the fastest that anything can travel in the Universe is the speed of light and that hypotheses aren't set in stone—he acknowledges that the current theory of how the dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago is just that, a theory. So passionate is he for science that once, at an observatory open house, he overheard an astronomy professor teaching a class and felt compelled to correct him about how many moons orbit Saturn.

In addition to his insatiable appetite for all things scientific, Lucas has the advantage of a scientifically inclined father and exposure to excellent educational programs such as Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Magic Schoolbus, as well as Websites such as BrainPops.

With all this, I don't have to worry that Lucas will grow up scientifically illiterate. It's good to know that he'll be able to count off facts and figures, and even more comforting to know that he'll grow up with the broader, softer skills that science teaches, namely skepticism, empiricism and a dedication to formal methodologies. In other words, through learning about science, my son is becoming a critical thinker.

But he's probably in the minority. Ignorance of how science and technology works is rampant in our society, leading to a stunningly dependent, suggestible and ill-informed populace.

We all need to know about science. Without this knowledge we are powerless, forced to live in a fog about how things work. Without it, we are utterly dependent on others to form our opinion. Without it, we cannot properly participate in society as informed, critical and responsibly opinioned citizens. Moreover, in today's hi-tech information age world, democracy cannot work without a scientifically literate society.

On my way to work each day I pass a bus shelter ad that reads, "Literacy is a Right." Well, I'd take that further and declare that today scientific literacy is a basic human right. As with the inability to read, the inability to understand science and scientific methodology is nothing less than a disability.

Embarrassing ignorance

Most of those who live in the West, particularly North Americans, are guilty of an anti-intellectual bias. Scientists are supposed to be nerds, right? And who wants to be a nerd? This sentiment, combined with a general suspicion of science and the predominance of aggressive theological and pseudoscientific memes, has resulted in much of the scientific illiteracy that now pervades our society.

It doesn't help that the educational system is in shambles and without focus, and that fatuous postmodernism and its insistence that nothing can truly be known now dominates many disciplines at most universities. Consequently, too many people wear their ignorance like a badge of honor, as if being clueless about science is something to be proud of.

Well, there's nothing noble about ignorance, and if anything scientific illiteracy should be considered downright embarrassing. A 2001 poll conducted by the National Science Foundation in the US revealed the pervasiveness of the problem. Results showed that only 48% of Americans knew that the earliest humans did not live at the same time as the dinosaurs, and that only 22% could properly define a molecule. The survey also showed that only 45% knew what DNA was and that lasers don't work by focusing sound waves, and that 48% knew that electrons were smaller than atoms.

Just as significant, only 21% of those surveyed were able to explain what it means to study something scientifically. Slightly over half understood probability, and only a third knew how an experiment is conducted.

Cognitively disabled

The trouble with ignorance is not so much what people don't know but what this causes them to believe.

There is a direct correlation between scientific illiteracy and a propensity for belief in superstitions, religion, the paranormal and pseudoscience. Those unacquainted with science also tend to be more prone to scam artists, unwise investments, fiscal schemes and bogus health and medical practices. On this last note, a number of opportunistic hucksters are beginning to take advantage of the hype created by pending life extension technologies and stem cell research, making grand promises to hopeful people that can't possibly be fulfilled; the scientifically illiterate make for easy targets.

It's safe to suggest, therefore, that those with a deficiency in scientific comprehension have underdeveloped critical thought faculties. In other words, they might as well be suffering from some kind of cognitive disorder.

A consequence of this disability is that some will be left behind. As neuroscientist Steven Pinker has noted, "As our economy comes to depend increasingly on technology, and as modern media present us with unprecedented choices—in our lifestyles, our workplaces, and our political commitments—a child who cannot master an ever-increasing body of skills and knowledge will be left farther and farther behind."

Crippling society

The late Carl Sagan similarly worried about the effects of a scientifically illiterate society. "We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology," he lamented. "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."

Indeed, scientific illiteracy cripples culture, justice, democracy and society in general. When you have misinformed individuals you get unhealthy societies.

The way the media works today, with its problematic approach to "balanced" reporting instead of accurate reporting and its propensity for sensationalism, it is guilty of much of the misinformation and frequent fear-mongering that imbues news and pop culture.

Similarly, the judicial system is not immune to the problems posed by a scientifically illiterate populace. Judges and jurors, with little background in the hard sciences, tend to be easily swayed by so-called expert witnesses who, despite taking sworn oaths, spew weak and bogus science to help lawyers defend their case.

Scientific illiteracy also has political implications, resulting in such things as the rise of the religious right in the Bush administration and the prominence of orthodox office holders at all levels of its government. A misappraisal of science has also resulted in backwards legislation in the US, Canada and Europe for stem cell research, cloning and genetically modified foods. A recent Eurobarometer poll revealed that 60% of Europeans believe that ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes while genetically engineered tomatoes do, while 50% believe that eating genetically modified fruit can cause a person's genes to become modified.

As early as the 1950s, scientist and novelist C.P. Snow was already sounding the alarm about increasingly ignorant electorates. Snow coined the term "two cultures" to refer to the growing divergence between those in society who understand science and technology sufficiently to make informed choices and those who do not.

Biologist and education critic Stephen Schneider recognizes the threat that a scientifically illiterate society poses to a functional democracy. "We all share a strong belief in democracy," he notes, "but it can only function well when the people understand the choices they need to make and are in a position to make trade-offs rationally." He believes that as issues get increasingly complex, "ignorance decouples the people from the knowledge they need to help guide policy choices that can shape our future."

Psychologist Barry L. Beyerstein agrees. He contends that it is essential for a well-functioning democracy that "we all be conversant with the basics of science so that we can cut through political rhetoric and the daily news when these issues arise."

Science fuels democracy

Like the right to vote, those living in a democracy should demand the right to scientific literacy so that they may become informed and discerning citizens. As Carl Sagan noted, "Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works." A central lesson of science, argued Sagan, is that to understand complex issues, people must try to free their minds of dogma and to guarantee the freedom to publish, contradict and experiment. He strongly believed that arguments from authority were unacceptable.

Skepticism is one of the greatest tools that a person can have, and science teaches this as a matter of course. But the business of skepticism can often be dangerous. As Sagan observed, skepticism challenges established institutions. "If we teach everybody, including, say, high school students, habits of skeptical thought, they will probably not restrict their skepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials, and 35,000-year-old channelees," wrote Sagan, "Maybe they'll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Perhaps they'll challenge the opinions of those in power. Then where would we be?"

Science helps us to be free of gross superstition and gross injustice. "Often, superstition and injustice are imposed by the same ecclesiastical and secular authorities, working hand in glove," Sagan argued. "It is no surprise that political revolutions, skepticism about religion, and the rise of science might go together. Liberation from superstition is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for science."

Indeed, as Schneider has observed, science literacy is not just about the "facts"—knowledge of chemistry, physics, biology or economics per se. "More important for non-specialists," says Schneider, "is to understand the process of science, and how science interacts with public policy issues and gets communicated via the media."

What can be done?

All this begs the question: What can be done?

First and foremost there must to be a push for education reform. According to Pinker, most high school and college curricula have barely changed since medieval times mostly because "no one wants to be the philistine who seems to be saying that it is unimportant to learn a foreign language, or English literature, or trigonometry, or the classics." He worries about how classroom practices are set by "fads, romantic theories, slick packages, and political crusades." To alleviate the problem, Pinker believes that a scientific mindset needs to be applied to the educational process and a renewed commitment to the sciences, including the fields of economics, biology, probability and statistics.

Education reform also rests with the scientists themselves. Education critic Neal Lane, the former assistant to the US president for science and technology, has proposed the idea of the "civic scientist." "What we need," says Lane, "is the science community's leadership to educate the nation about the value of science and technology to our national well-being." Neal envisions a proactive and socially active scientific community.

We also need educational systems that are accountable—ones that respect the human right to a liberal education and high academic standards. It's preposterous that Creationism is still taught in some schools. This issue has nothing to do with freedom of religion and everything to do with one's right to be free from religion. Otherwise, schools might just as well teach that the Earth is flat and that the Moon is made out of cheese.

And finally, we all need to promote science as an attractive discipline and as a means to personal empowerment and social betterment. As science educator Nye has said to children across North America, science is cool.

And indeed it is—and more so than ever before. Today, scientists are busy discussing the possibility of infinite universes, microscopic robots that will operate in the body, cyborg and artificial citizens, plants that can clean toxic waste in the soil and a manned expedition to Mars.

While exciting, however, all these things are prone to misunderstanding and apprehension. Unless we have a populace that can fully understand and assess these and other pending issues, we risk squandering what should be wonderful opportunities for individuals and the species. We also risk creating the "two cultures" envisioned by Snow—the intellectual haves and have-nots.

The time to act is now, for those who fail to grasp the scientific issues of our time will find the future truly incomprehensible.

Copyright © 2003 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, December 22, 2003.

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