Posted by: Dan | May 30, 2007

The Moral Cost of Scientific Illiteracy

I’ll echo this – Alex has a quoted paragraph from Steven Pinker’s review of Natalie Angier’s new book, that’s very much worth repeating (emphasis mine):

A baby sucks on a pencil and her panicky mother fears the child will get lead poisoning. A politician argues that hydrogen can replace fossil fuels as our nation’s energy source. A consumer tells a reporter that she refuses to eat tomatoes that have genes in them. And a newsmagazine condemns the prospects of cloning because it could mass-produce an army of zombies. These are just a few examples of scientific illiteracy — inane misconceptions that could have been avoided with a smidgen of freshman science. (For those afraid to ask: pencil “lead” is carbon; hydrogen fuel takes more energy to produce than it releases; all living things contain genes; a clone is just a twin.) Though we live in an era of stunning scientific understanding, all too often the average educated person will have none of it. People who would sneer at the vulgarian who has never read Virginia Woolf will insouciantly boast of their ignorance of basic physics. Most of our intellectual magazines discuss science only when it bears on their political concerns or when they can portray science as just another political arena. As the nation’s math departments and biotech labs fill up with foreign students, the brightest young Americans learn better ways to sue one another or to capitalize on currency fluctuations. And all this is on top of our nation’s endless supply of New Age nostrums, psychic hot lines, creationist textbook stickers and other flimflam.

The costs of an ignorance of science are not just practical ones like misbegotten policies, forgone cures and a unilateral disarmament in national competitiveness. There is a moral cost as well. It is an astonishing fact about our species that we understand so much about the history of the universe, the forces that make it tick, the stuff it’s made of, the origin of living things and the machinery of life. A failure to nurture this knowledge shows a philistine indifference to the magnificent achievements humanity is capable of, like allowing a great work of art to molder in a warehouse.



  1. You could say that about the average consumer, trusting in the ‘science’ of food production……BIG MISTAKE! The junk and garbage foisted on society is one of the biggest sacrilidges of all time.

  2. I think modern food would more fairly fall under the “business” than “science” umbrella.


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