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The Sciences

Is America scientifically illiterate?

The IntersectionBy Sheril KirshenbaumAugust 25, 2009 7:41 PM


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Dan Vergano poses this question in the title of his USA today column.

Science enjoys the best and the worst of times today, celebrated as the secret sauce behind economic growth, but embattled in high-profile areas such as climate change, stem cells and evolution.

"Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before," said President Obama, in April at the National Academy of Sciences.

At the same time, Obama noted, federal funding of physics and related sciences has fallen by nearly half since the 1980's, U.S. schools trail in math and science versus Japan, England, South Korea and others. "And we have watched as scientific integrity has been undermined and scientific research politicized in an effort to advance predetermined ideological agendas," he said. Vergano discusses our book Unscientific America


They argue that the science establishment needs a new career path for science communicators (folks like Kirshenbaum, a marine scientist at Duke, who previously interned in the office of Sen. Bill Nelson, D- Fla., and who once worked as a disc jockey.)

"We're not saying every scientist needs to become another Carl Sagan," Kirshenbaum says. Or Comedy Central regular, astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson. But scientists need to open paths "jobs, positions, and incentives," for their brethren to communicate the role science plays in modern life, the books argues.

He also interviewed political scientist Jon Miller who thinks more emphasis should be placed on public education:

"No one should graduate from high school without knowing what a molecule is," he says. That's because your odds of understanding other science concepts, for example, nanotechnology, the manipulation of materials on the molecular scale, increase greatly — from nearly zero to two-thirds — once you understand that a molecule is a chemical combination of atoms. "You can't fix this problem without fixing public schools."

We agree that it's important to improve early education, however, much of the public is beyond this stage and we need to foster a culture where citizens are engaged in (and voting on) science issues now. Author Stewart Justman is quoted asking:

"Shouldn't scientists just let the evidence speak for itself?"

I argue no. Much of the public does not have access or subscriptions to expensive journal articles and instead, people shop for information on the internet as easily as they do for Christmas presents, choosing whatever 'science' best suits them. In the age of new media, absolutely not. Spend a few days walking around Capitol Hill and it will be very clear the "evidence does not speak for itself." Furthermore, the psuedoscience out there--the folks denying climate change and more--are organized, articulate, and prepared to speak for us. If scientists aren't communicating more about what we do and why it matters... someone else will. And often with a different agenda.

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