Andy DeLisle/Arizona State University
Most research on the scientific literacy of the American public show a population that is deeply ignorant of even some of the most rudimentary scientific facts. 26 % of the public thinks the sun revolves around the earth, 51% doubt the earth is 14 billion years old, 42% don’t believe in evolution, and 22 % reject the science of climate change.
It’s not just the American public, either, as some of our most influential politicians deny basic facts about science. Three of our four Presidential candidates in this election cycle have expressed skepticism of the idea that vaccines don’t cause autism, and who can forget Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe bringing a snowball into the halls of Congress to prove the earth isn’t warming.
Part of the scientific ignorance and denial has to do with individuals who may have conflicting belief systems that don’t allow them to accept evidence. On the other hand, lack of knowledge stems from lack of proper teaching, and that problem is on the shoulders of those in the domain of science.
Scientists fear reductionism
Simplification is completely taboo in the realm of science. Because scientists see their work as a sort of bastion of purity, untrammeled by opinions and subjectivity, they’ll be damned if they see it broken down into digestible form. The fear is that reducing numbers and complex chemical reactions down to soundbites will lead to misunderstanding.
Unfortunately, the result is often the exact opposite. Complex and complete evidence creates a barrier to entry, only accessible to those equipped with the knowledge to decipher or the time to study. Relatively few are afforded those luxuries, and thus ignorance abounds.
Understanding the ins and outs of the intricacies of evolution or climate change is a heavy burden to bear for the public. They need tangible evidence that can be observed and understood with ease if they are to accept scientific facts as a cohort. A discussion on why humans still have vestigial organs like the appendix is a far better approach to understanding evolution than tasking people with tracing the genesis and modification of the genome over millions of years. Not only is the simplified version more palatable, it’s a fun and engaging thought process that can be taught to any person of conscious age.
Scientists aren’t big fans of storytelling
The second major taboo of science is anecdotes. It’s certainly true that anecdotes can detract from scientific understanding, as stories of UFO sightings and haunting ghosts can lead to a deeply anti-scientific worldview. That being said, anecdotes are generally how the average person gets interested and engaged with science in the first place. We don’t tell third graders how dinosaurs were able to thrive because they evolved with mesothermic blood; we tell a story of how they roamed the earth and then were killed off by a giant asteroid.
Anecdote not backed by evidence may be the enemy of science and an empirically astute public, but when we pair the two together the results can be extremely powerful. Anyone who denies this hasn’t seen Carl Sagan’s Cosmos or Neil Degrasse Tyson’s reboot. Cosmos was extremely popular and influential with the American public because it gave scientifically accurate analysis within the realm of a broader story about the universe.
These taboos need to be broken carefully and systemically
Scientists aren’t misguided in their fears about science communication. The history of things like eugenics and slavery show how the dangers of anti-scientific sentiments can find their way into power structures that can have very real and dangerous impacts on the world. We shouldn’t simply abandon the idea of protecting science research by allowing emotions and opinions to detract from evidence and data.
That being said, we should be taking steps to form a relationship between scientists and educators simultaneously preserves scientific purity and informs as many people as possible, creating a palatable but data driven approach to scientific literacy. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but it’s certainly one worth pursuing.