Tackling the Problem of Scientific Semi-Literacy

We are all too aware of individuals and organisations who borrow vocabulary from science without necessarily being scientific. Usually their efforts are not beneficial to society. And although they are often exposed, like figures of organized crime they either continue to thrive, or they are merely replaced by others.  Pinning the problem exclusively on the gullibility of victims and selfish side of human nature is also fruitless. Some deception comes from scaremongers, food-fad-cult leaders and conspiracy theorists. But there are also more subtle forms that are at least as pernicious: consumer front groups and insincere think thanks who, among other things, spread climate change denial.

merchantsofdoubtThe book Merchants of Doubt reveals that politics has motivated a small of minority of scientists to side with specific polluters and tobacco companies. In the United States there is a strong carryover over of anti-communism from the Cold War with the former USSR. Any reminder of it, including forms of social democracy embedded within an overall capitalistic system, is viewed with suspicion. Moreover, to these individuals, health and environmental regulation demand more government intervention, leading to bigger government, which they perceive to be a threat to their individual and economic freedom.  It’s why a few scientists or science-trained individuals side with the irresponsible agenda of some industries.

To solve this serious problem, we need to pay more attention to the conditions in our society that make the ensemble of movements and groups so influential. Misleading the public is a lot easier when scientific semi-literacy abounds.  The journey towards full literacy begins with learning the scientific method, which is within the grasp of most people because it is so compatible with human curiosity and capacity for reason. It’s about asking questions, coming up with testable guesses and then seeing if experimentation validates or rejects hypotheses. Since science has been operating on a large scale for hundreds of years, it has branched into different but overlapping areas such as physics, chemistry, biology, geology and astronomy. Each of these evolving disciplines has its own set of concepts, and a keen, up-kept familiarity with these is also needed to maintain scientific literacy. But being only semi-literate— knowing the general words of science and a having foggy memory of its concepts—- makes us more vulnerable to propaganda.

mlbf_1297830483_th_45In every discipline’s investigations, variables are controlled in experiments. The more variables there are, the more difficult it is to be confident about a conclusion. For example, thanks to Newtonian physics and differential equations, measurements of bat speed, launch angle and air friction allow a teenager to come up with a prediction of where a home run will end up.  But if he looks at actual data of different home runs that were hit at the same angle and speed, he will see differences in range because of variable wind speed and direction. Yet even if he is off, his prediction is likely to be better than a wild guess or one that is based on misconceptions about the factors affecting a hit ball.

What could parents, schools, unions, governments and businesses do to place the youngest generation in a better position to distinguish between intentional misinformation, mere guesses, decent conclusions and masterful ones?  And what could they do to allow far more of our youth to adopt a tool that does not have all the answers to our existential questions but which gives us great insight into our beautiful planet and universe? Here are some ideas:

  1. Remember that very little equipment is required to teach the scientific method in the home. Do onions cooked at a medium setting taste like those browned at a higher setting? Watering plants in the midday sun may be a waste of water, but does it really harm them? What happens to the air temperature immediately above a freezing pan of water?
  2. Elementary and junior high schools should use the same approach and focus on the method of science, not the vocabulary. Teaching scientific abstractions at too young an age when basic language and math concepts haven’t yet been mastered is counterproductive. SurfaceTensionMy daughter is majoring in biochemistry. But when she was in grade 4, she came home one day saying she did not like science— her teacher was trying to teach them about neutrons, protons and electrons. It took her 5 years to change her mind. Wouldn’t students have been better off observing the “skin” at the surface of water enveloping a floating needle? Or comparing the behavior of a bean growing in shade to one exposed to full sunlight?
  3. I recall the late Umberto Eco complaining about how the media seems to pay attention to scientific discoveries only when they promise another technological advance. But if our society isn’t just paying lip service to the importance of science, shouldn’t we and the media regularly celebrate knowledge for its own sake? As Eco points out, science moves far more slowly than technology. It’s too slow for those on a daily news diet and too complex for the memes of smartphones. But the disproportionate media coverage of the topics that change to its cocaine-tempo — fashion, sports, politics and stock prices—create the illusion that these things are far more important than science.
  4. By age of 14 or 15, students should have the option of learning the three core sciences (physics, chemistry and biology) in modules at their own pace, each over two to three years. The current one-year courses are too slow and dilute for a lot of students and too fast-paced for too many others.
  5. In public schools, unions prevent principals from firing teachers for frivolous reasons. Shouldn’t they also prevent them from getting non-science people to impersonate science teachers? Currently, how many unions on the continent stipulate such a condition in their collective agreements?
  6. Government should provide both their own departments and private industries with incentives to encourage some of their scientists and engineers to spend a few hours a week with our youth on professional days and after school. It takes a whole community to educate a child. If everyone is not on board, even the best science teachers’ efforts will fall short.

If we truly value science, then implementing these ideas will be feasible. We will be using a preventative approach, a gram of which, as the metric version of the adage goes, is worth a kilogram of cure.


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