The Sciences

The Crisis of Scientific Illiteracy

The IntersectionBy Sheril KirshenbaumDec 2, 2009 12:06 AM


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As a Tufts alum, I was thrilled to read

The crisis of scientific illiteracy

by Michael Shusterman in The Tufts Daily. It's a terrific piece describing why the disconnect between science and American culture is so vital to address immediately. He begins:

Today the United States is faced with a serious crisis in scientific literacy and education. In the midst of debate over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, health care reform and the economy, this issue has receded further and further into the background. And yet the topic remains as salient as it has ever been. Our world is driven by scientific innovation and technology. Twenty-first century economies will be knowledge-based, science-oriented and dependent on workers in sectors like energy, biological sciences and information technology. The early by-products of this paradigm shift are already evident with the advent of personalized genetic testing, pharmacogenomic research, hybrid vehicles, advanced power sources and hundreds of other innovations and discoveries.

He goes on to discuss science literacy and the implications of a public that cannot grasp concepts like evolution or keep up with emerging fields such as genetics. Michael considers competitiveness with China and India and points out we may be falling behind in an increasingly globalized world. He also names many of the social and historical reasons that led to the current crisis which Chris and I have also outlined in Unscientific America.

It can be argued that there are four key areas that must be addressed: media and journalism, scientist-directed outreach, government programs and instructor training. Science journalism and the media’s portrayal of science represent one of the most visible venues for public interaction with science. But the economic realities of a dying print medium have resulted in layoffs of veteran science journalists, fewer science stories being published in favor of snazzier topics and a decrease in major newspapers with science sections or departments. At the same time, science journalists have been criticized by scientists for trying to serve the journalistic adage of presenting both sides of issues when two sides do not exist in the scientific discourse — such as intelligent design and evolution — or for oversimplifying material to the point of obscuring the science behind it. Proponents of fringe ideologies are given equal time with the bulk of the scientific community. Public and government officials are led to believe that debate exists where there is none.

What I love most about this piece is the way Michael recognizes there are many overlapping layers to the problem and demonstrates an understanding of what will be required to change the state of things.

There is a great deal of work and discussion still ahead if we are to begin the process of addressing the problems of science illiteracy and ineffective science education. Sagan noted that we have created a world “in which most critical elements profoundly depend on science and technology.” It has become a world in which a minority understands or can even reasonably assess that same science. A society in which science illiteracy and ineffective education reign is one in which the distortion of public opinion regarding science can be achieved easily, in which technocrats can wield disproportionate influence and in which innovation and new discoveries are stifled by a lack of individuals to make them. There is no time left, the time for action to address this crisis is now.

CM and I agree he is spot on and encourage everyone to go read the full article. Directly to Michael Shusterman--we look forward to hearing more from you…

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