It was so cold for a couple weeks in January, a teenage girl declared, “Global warming, my a_ _!” Aside from the derriere reference, this attitude actually reflects a recent poll indicating increasing numbers of Americans do not believe the planet is warming or that human generated greenhouse gasses are a problem. This is in spite of a spate of scientific evidence to the contrary.
Surveys have shown that Americans are having difficulty comprehending basic science, even among our best and brightest. For example, at a recent commencement at Harvard University, fewer than 10 percent of graduating seniors polled could explain why it’s hotter in summer than in winter. Less than half of seniors polled at George Mason University could explain the difference between an atom and a molecule. Half the population in general thinks antibiotics kill viruses, and lasers work by focusing sound waves (the word, laser, is an acronym for ‘light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation’). Perhaps nowhere is the disconnect between the public and science more evident than in biology. Fewer than 4 in 10 Americans believe in evolution, thinking of it as ‘just a theory.’ Divine presence is credited with “creation.” But among scientists, evolution is “gospel.” After all, it’s a “scientific theory.” The word, theory, is part of the problem. But it’s also not just evolution per se that comes into question… it’s astronomy, physics, genetics, geology, and paleontology, all of which are integrated in evolutionary theory.
A theory generally is thought of simply as a hunch or an idea as to how something works. But in science it is an entirely different concept. One scientist cannot create a theory; she or he can only create a hypothesis, which is an educated guess based upon observations. A ‘scientific theory’ (such as the theory of evolution, or gravitational theory) is more like a scientific law than a hypothesis. It is an explanation of a set of related observations or events based upon proven hypotheses and verified multiple times by detached groups of researchers. In general, both a scientific theory and a scientific law are accepted to be true by the scientific community, as a whole.
Thanks to gaps in science literacy, the ‘nattering nabobs of negativism’ so prevalent in conservative right wing media, may actually impact attitudes of people toward such important concepts as global warming. Rush Limbaugh stated, “the bottom line is, the whole global warming — manmade global warming movement is a fraud. It is a hoax. It’s made-up lies.” He speaks convincingly, as if he knows. Sean Hannity said, “climate change is a hoax, something I’ve been saying for a long time.” Never mind that the science of this is universally accepted. Syndicated columnist, Cal Thomas, commonly ridicules scientists in an attempt to promote “creationism” over science.
The National Science Foundation, in their biennial report on the state of science understanding, research, education, and investment, reports that while science literacy has improved slightly since the last survey, 70 percent of American adults do not understand the scientific process. This may help to explain why belief in pseudoscience is so prevalent in America, or why Republicans at their convention last year, chanted, “drill baby drill,” as a response to our energy and environmental challenges. Some conservatives have even suggested that God wouldn’t allow global warming to destroy creation. Mark Twain pointed out, “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.”
Former President, George W. Bush, famously suggested that intelligent design be taught in science classes to provide a balanced perspective. The problem with this is that, like many philosophical concepts, it simply does not fit the definition of “science.” It would be as inappropriate in a science class as sentence diagramming would be in math class. It would confuse students.
Scientific literacy is not to suggest that people become scientists, but only that they have a basic understanding, of what science is and what it isn’t. The “scientific method,” for example is a way of observing, formulating ideas, and testing them. Science helps describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena.
Literacy implies an awareness of accepted scientific principles that are important to children’s understanding of the world. For example: the sun is at the center of our solar system and a year is the amount of time it takes for the Earth to travel all the way around it one time. Molecules are made up of atoms. With a basic grasp of science, people can better comprehend such things as global warming, or evolution, or disease control.
Unfortunately, disinformation is plentiful. Shortly after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Evangelist, Pat Robertson, stated that the disastrous quake was punishment, resulting from a Haitian deal with Satan, some 200 years ago, to drive out the French. Apparently Robertson doesn’t buy into concepts of Earth science, such as tectonic plates, subduction, or continental drift. He thinks earthquakes are caused by feisty spirits. And there he is in a national spotlight!
Rush Limbaugh is another high profile disseminator of disinformation who commands a significant following on his radio show. Here is just one example of his irresponsible “humorous” take on science, which he takes every opportunity to denigrate. “There is no global warming. There’s no manmade global warming… All we’re doing is rolling back a standard of living that is the envy of the world and all of it under the guise of saving the planet or whatever.” What he obviously doesn’t get is that we are at a time when the world’s most worrisome problems, from climate change to pollution to diseases to nuclear proliferation to species extinctions, require scibased solutions, as well as public support.
For America to maintain or regain our preeminent position in science we must overcome, not just economic and educational challenges, but domestic propaganda as well. These media masters of mendacity need to be held accountable. Historically, America has long been a bastion of scientific learning and innovation. But today the trend is unsettling. For every 5 hours of cable news, less than one minute is devoted to actual science. Newspapers have cut way back on science stories. Considering that China has more gifted students than America has students, it would seem there is pretty good competition out there.
Thomas Jefferson was a believer in literacy and saw public education as fundamental to democracy. “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code, is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness…”