19 April 2010

Scientific Iliteracy on All Sides

Moving away from the normal foci of this blog, I've been struck over the last few weeks with how scientifically illiterate Americans in general are.  It's common for the left to accuse the right of being so, but there are plenty of examples of scientific illiteracy throughout the political spectrum.  For instance, in the last two weeks, there were these fine examples of complete ridiculousness:


And on the (normally, intelligently liberal) Diane Rehm show, News Roundup, this past Friday, Diane, her guests and a caller speculated that the recent earthquakes and volcanoes are caused by drilling, mining and climate change (there is some reason for believing that extreme climate change could cause crustal changes that could lead to earthquakes, but we're nowhere near the kind of warming yet that could trigger that kind of instability).

In this country, I suspect that much of the nonsense that is spewed by both the right and left is tied to the more general distrust that Americans have for authority in general.  But there is plenty of ridiculousness in supposedly educated Europe as well as around the world.  Global nonsense includes: outright conspiracy theories about genetically engineered crops, widespread claims that all ice packs will melt within thirty years or that they're not melting at all, evolutionary theory is a conspiracy to prop up or is able to prove there is no God, and on and on it goes.

Why is scientific illiteracy a problem?  Perhaps more to the point, we should ask why scientific literacy is important.  There are a number of arguments to present here, but a primary reason for caring about scientific literacy is economic; some of the top-paying fields are in health care and science (especially biotech.).  I would also argue that good citizenship requires some degree of scientific literacy; just think of how many times in the last twenty years there have been policy debates related to science.  And of course, we depend on good science for much of our daily life anymore (if you're reading this blog, then you're depending on scientific developments to do so!).  There are some valid reasons for distrust of scientists, but those should not be extended to distrust of all science.  Ultimately, good science relies not only on scientists maintaining integrity and ethics, but also requires a scientifically literate government and public to help keep them honest.  That relationship is difficult to maintain if one of the partners fails in their role.
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