Science on the Web (2)

[April 29, 2011] 

While the idea of promoting science literacy online is easy to grasp in principle, in reality it’s a huge task. For one thing, the number of interests you’d need to address is only slightly larger than the number of available presentation media:

• Learning
• News
• Global Impact
• Society
• Legislation
• Quality of Life

• Video (Animations)
• Video (Lecture Series)
• Interactive Tools
• Still Images
• Text (including e-newsletters)

Add to this the vast amount we’ve learned over the last 300 years and it’s easy to appreciate the immensity of the challenge. Yet it needs to be faced. From making medical decisions, to evaluating legislation, to addressing the interrelated cost factors, residents of our technological society can’t survive if they remain scientifically illiterate. In fact, at the pace science is advancing, a crisis about the very definition of life and death is already on the horizon.

Grasp the impact of technology.
As research into developing a workable interface between neurons and nano-circuits continues, we may discover how to rewre our brains as needed. Recent developments may also open opportunities for the controlled evolution of our species. 

At the same time, the field of artificial intelligence—through steady progress—will inevitably expand our concept of what it means to be aware, awake and alive. And, at the extreme edge of credulity, if we eventually encounter extra-terrestrial intelligence, I shudder to think what reception it would receive from a scientifically illiterate population.

But never mind. There are enough real world issues to address as I try to map out a digital marketing strategy for scientific literacy.

Where to begin? Well, maybe we can reasonably expect most Americans to care about the environment—since it is the very air we breathe. Besides, the controversy the topic arouses gets right to the core of our need to be a scientifically literate society.

Look at it this way: Whether your neighbors are diehard global warming deniers or energy-saving light bulb fanatics, either point of view has a basis in scientific data. The question is, was that data derived from careful analysis or emotion-drenched polemics? Sadly, neither extreme is mutually exclusive.

Learn critical thinking.
That’s because, at both ends of the spectrum, emotionalism plays a far greater role than it ought in these discussions. If your neighbors are opposed to the implementation of wind power stations they may believe:

Wind power would kill oil-industry jobs


Wind power is hazardous to wildlife

Of course, each of these indictments of wind power calls up several interrelated scientific issues that only a fraction of the population has the training to grasp. But that’s OK. The goal of science literacy is not to turn every citizen into a biologic computer, packed to the gills with experimental data. The goal is to have every American grasp the standards by which to evaluate what they read, hear or see.

So were someone to claim “wind power is hazardous to wildlife,” our scientifically literate citizens would know what kinds of data could support that statement. They would know, for example, that such claims must be based on a sufficient statistical sample.

Just as important, they would recognize the distinction between wind power in the abstract and wind power in its current configuration. Are all wind power stations hazardous? Can they be made less hazardous in the near future?

And what, by the way, is the degree of wind power’s impact on wildlife? Does it threaten an entire species? Or is its threat to wildlife no greater than that posed by electric cattle fencing, reckless driving, or the destruction of wetlands by real estate developers? Good luck finding the answers with Google.

Balance the extremes.
As it stands now, meaningful scientific matters get equal play with trivial ones. As a result, important distinctions are easily ignored. Even benign pop-science sites like The Lazy Environmentalist—where consumers are always only a click away from an eco-friendly product placement—walk a fine line between education, polemics and commerce.

At the same time, to its credit, this site puts many of the most important environmental science topics within reach of the casual reader. I’ll have more to say about the Lazy Environmentalist in my next post, as I attempt to sketch out a preliminary outline for a meaningful marketing strategy for science on the Web.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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