Sunday, February 25, 2007

Scientific Illiteracy and Its Meaning: 10 Points

SciAm Blog takes on (albeit briefly)the political and cultural factors surrounding scientific illiteracy in America as compared to Europe and Japan and how it affects belief in evolution. Make sure you read the comments, there is some very interesting stuff there as well.

Some points you might want to consider (as succinctly as possible):
1. Scientific illiteracy is no more indicative of hostility to science than illiteracy is indicative of hostility to literature.

2. That 28% of Americans who are scientifically literate enough to follow a science story in the newspaper make up a smaller group than the 45% who accept evolution. If we accept both those that posit a role for G-d in evolution and those who do not, we must accept that even many who accept evolution are scientifically illiterate. If we argue that only those who accept evolution without G-d truly accept evolution, only slightly more than half of scientifically literate Americans accept evolution. Either way, literacy does NOT seem to be the controlling factor in acceptance of evolution.

3. Religion as a whole also cannot be a causitive factor since that 28% who are scientifically literate and that 45% who accept evolution far outnumber the less than 10% of Americans who consider themselves atheists, agnostics, or nonreligious. Even the 15% who accept evolution without G-d outnumber this group and is made up, one can assume, partially from people who follow nontheistic or pantheistic religions.

4. Religious literalism is one possible contributing factor, but literalists make up a very small percentage of the population, one far lower than the 55% who don't accept evolution.

5. Accepting any scientific theory logically requires far more than simple scientific literacy of the kind necessary to follow a science story in the paper. In fact,it requires two things: scientific literacy and scientific knowledge. You must be familiar with all of the evidence and know how to apply scientific methodology to examining, assessing and interpreting that evidence. Otherwise, you are accepting or rejecting evolution for nonrational or perhaps even irrational reasons.

6. Based on all of the above, we can conclude that it's all but guaranteed that many who accept evolution do so for nonrational or irrational reasons, such as acceptance of authority. We can also assume that some who reject evolution may do so for rational reasons based on incomplete knowledge of the evidence or unfamiliarity with scientific methodology. (In the absence of the evidence and proper methodology, reason actually supports a teleological cause as more likely.)

7. Many, many studies have shown that the science curriculum in American public schools (considering the number and type of courses offered and the manner in which the material is presented) is disastrously inadequate. This is even more true as we look back to the level of science education available to older Americans educated before the space race led to a beefing up of the science curriculum, those educated in substandard segregated schools, and the large number of older Americans who did not attend high school due to segregation or economics. (Ironically, that 28% of Americans who accept evolution is about equal to the percentage of Americans who have college degrees.)

8. We can see that substandard science education in public schools is probably the major contributing factor in the "evolution problem" in America, with scientific illiteracy, religious literalism, and some psychological factors acting as minor contributing factors.

9. Neither lack of education nor having received a poor education is an adequate measure of intelligence. First, because even a very smart person relying solely on public education would not get a very good science education. Secondly, we must consider that the same quality of education is not available even to all public school students, with a variety of factors like class, age, race, gender, and geography determining the quality of education available.

10. Focusing on the political mumbo-jumbo of "g-dless science" v. "stupid religion" detracts from our ability to rationally assess the origins of the problem and to find solutions. Extremists on both sides have used this false dichotomy to their benefit, but if we're going to get anywhere, the rest of us will have to abandon the falsehoods that make us feel better about ourselves and face the cold, hard truth that there are good, honest people on both sides who are NOT extremists or idiots or g-dless heathens or (insert your favorite insult here).


Blogger Christopher said...

Huh - I think you put it better than I did in the original post. Although, to add yet another reversal to the situation--I wonder if the solution isn't after all, better science education. Not because that addresses the root problem (the politicization / moralization of science) but just because it provides young people with an alternate way of thinking about their world.

Certainly, it did no one any favors in my first year high school biology class when the instructor said "OK, now we're going to talk about evolution, but it's *only a theory*." (That's Texas for you.)

11:53 AM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Thanks, Chris. But I loved the original. Anyway, I think improved science education is definitely a huge part of the solution. Yes, it provides young people an alternate way of thinking about the world. BUT also because those who truly understand science are more likely to recognize and less likely to fall for attempts to politicize and moralize science.

1:00 PM  

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