Science on the Web (4)

[May 15, 2011]

A major obstacle to promoting science literacy is the lack of an accepted definition. For my purposes, people are scientifically literate when they can meaningfully evaluate the scientific issues we face as a society as well as the science news they encounter in the popular press. Scientifically literate people are able to grasp the scientific implications of digital news items like:

Size of Spill in the Gulf of Mexico Is Larger than Thought
The Stem-Cell Ruling: Scientists Alarmed at “Step Back”
World’s Largest Particle Accelerator Offers Window into Laws of Nature
Earth-like Planet Discovered 15 Light-Years Away
Food for Thought: Irradiation is Dangerous

And they can do so regardless of how journalists piece the facts together to “break news.” Keep in mind, a journalist’s goal is to inform and only secondarily to teach. Journalism focuses on what’s newsworthy in the moment. In the first example, the fact that the spill was “larger than thought” tells us more about the care Government takes to monitor and evaluate ecological disasters than it does about the eventual impact of the spill itself. 

It’s a frustrating topic. Was the damage underestimated due to incompetence, negligence or human error? Or is it, in fact, impossible to predict the immediate outcome of a gigantic oil spill? In my case, I have to make my cynicism take a back seat to a simple truth: I have no precise idea what standards our government officials should be expected to meet in these situations. So if I want to see myself as a scientifically literate person, I have to know the difference between ignorance and knowledge.

Facts. Context. Perspective.
In other respects, the definition of science literacy is less ambiguous. For example, I’ve met hundreds of intelligent people for whom the phrase “particle accelerator” means only slightly more than the phrase “adfywebriu sdogweiugb.” When funding for such research in the US was cut in 1993, how many members of Congress actually understood the implications? Even if the cries of mismanagement were justified, was hobbling our ability to compete in this scientific arena justified?

You’d have to know a thing or two to decide that question, and that’s exactly my point.

Clearly, the issues involved in this and comparable decisions are too important to be packaged as news highlights or left entirely to legislators. Take, for example, the decades-long controversy over a purported link between autism and the standard battery of childhood vaccinations. This link was based on research findings reported in 1998—which, as we now know, were fraudulent. If such fraud had led to legislation outlawing or limiting the use of children’s vaccines, the health of the next generation would have been seriously compromised.

Educated skepticism. Knowing acceptance.
In one sense, the anguish caused by the original report will not be in vain if it motivates us to revamp our education system. Science, everyone needs to know, is a product of human beings. Like every other human endeavor, it’s subject to the emotional needs of scientists themselves. To be scientifically literate, we need to take science news with a grain of thought. We should ask:

• Have the results been validated by repeating the tests?
• Has the journalist described the findings accurately?
• Is there an opposing point of view?
• What’s a reliable source for additional information?

These questions are part of a process—a suspension of belief in favor of verification. In other words, exactly the process most people would apply to buying a used car. In the current environment, where so many first learn of scientific developments in the popular press, informed skepticism is essential.

Yet, what should such skepticism be based on? In an uneducated mind, healthy skepticism quickly flips over into groundless suspicion or even paranoia. That’s why Americans need enough “science sense” to separate useful technology from its frivolous or harmful application. If the principle behind lasers can be used to reattach a retina and save my eyesight, should I condemn it because a startlingly irresponsible manufacturer now markets a handheld laser device to wealthy consumers?

So far, so good. But, as usual, listing problems is much easier than implementing solutions. If I turn, in my next post, to a sketchy outline of online science education, it’s with the clear understanding that improving science literacy in the United States will take more than better distance learning software. It will require a major cultural shift in our attitudes about “brain” vs. “heart,” and belief vs. reason.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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