Posted by: Dan | July 11, 2009

Understanding Scientific Illiteracy

In a continuation of my previous post on Mooney and Kirschenbaum’s Unscientific America: How Scientific Literacy Threatens Our Future, I have a few more thoughts on the elements underlying the majority of the book.

Specifically, how the authors define scientific literacy and treat it as an entity that can be addressed either by educators, the media, or scientists, is a fundamental premise of the book. For starters, they make some great points about what science literacy isn’t. And they’ve based a lot of their position on scholarly work of science historians and related social scientists studying the intersection of science, education and politics.

Chapter 2, “Rethinking the Problem of Scientific Illiteracy,” is where they address some premises in an attempt to understand the problem better. They get to the point by observing:

To begin with, citizens of other nations don’t fare much better on scientific literacy surveys, and in many cases fare worse. Residents of the European Union, for instance, are less scientifically literate overall than Americans, at least according to one metric for measuring “civic science literacy” across countries. And yet they also appear much more convinced of the reality of global warming and human evolution.

Such complexities call into question whether quizzes about a few canonical “facts” or the nature of the scientific process really tell us much about a society’s outlook on the science issues that matter most. Indeed, it’s doubtful that a baseline level of scientific literacy is remotely adequate for engaging with the science-centered debates that play out regularly in the news media and the political arena. Is the goal to have a public that can dig into complicated scientific disputes and determine who is right or wrong? If so, then let’s remember that many anti-evolutionists and global warming deniers are scientists themselves, couching their claims in sophisticated scientific language and regularly citing published articles in the peer-reviewed literature. To refute their arguments, one often needs Ph.D.-level knowledge. And even then, the task requires considerable research and intellectual labor well beyond the resources or interest of most people.

Mooney and Kirschenbaum go on to explain why the “deficit model” doesn’t work:

For all these reasons, scholars working in the field of science and technology studies (STS) have largely discarded the idea that our problems at the science-society interface reduce to a simple matter of scientific illiteracy, traditionally defined. Instead, these thinkers have grown skeptical of what they sometimes call the “deficit model” that has come to dominate many scientists’ and intellectuals’ view of the public – the idea that there’s something lacking in people’s understanding or appreciation of science, and that this in turn explains our predicament.

There are two problems here that Mooney and Kirschenbaum are not distinguishing from each other. First, we have half of the adult American population who don’t know that it takes the earth one year to orbit the sun. That is a problem of pure ignorance. There’s just no way around that. If an adult expresses uncertainty of what a year is, or whether the earth orbits the sun or vice versa, that is a problem of pure ignorance.

The other problem is more tricky, and entails the gullibility of the public to fall for misinformation schemes (e.g., the anti-vaccine movement, global warming deniers, creationists, animal rights’ activists, etc.). That is a less tractable problem, and appears to be what the “deficit model” talk is about. Indeed, it’s not simply a problem of information, as laypersons should not be expected to have this much scientific knowledge at their fingertips.

For this problem, I’m not sure that there are any scientists though arguing for a “deficit model.” I think most scientists are looking for a bit more critical thinking. Many scientists suggest that, for starters, people read books like Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, not because it is loaded with facts (it’s not), but because it challenges the reader to skeptically evaluate claims with critical thinking.

Mooney and Kirschenbaum recognize that it is this engagement with the public, challenging them to think critically, is what is needed, as do scientists themselves. We need more of that. And with Sagan gone, we have people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Richard Dawkins doing just that. What Sagan did – public outreach – is no longer viewed negatively by the scientific community. And I applaud Chris and Sheril for calling for more of that.

But that doesn’t mean that some things that the opponents of reason say aren’t jaw-droppingly stupid. They are. Dyson, Krauss, and Dawkins also recognize that science and religion aren’t compatible, and aren’t afraid to say so, even though they say so as respectfully as they can (even Dawkins, while being sharp in his criticism, appears very respectful). Even Sagan, who the authors recognize as being a leading popularizer of science, wrote a few books that included views that reason and religion were incompatible.

Back to critical thinking though. There have been many efforts to teach critical thinking and skeptical evaluation of claims to combat the pseudoscience aspect of the scientific illiteracy problem. And there should be continued effort on that front. All of that is what is needed, and I think that deep down, that’s what Mooney and Kirschenbaum are arguing for. Kudos to that. I hope that message gets out there much much more.


  1. Compelling review!

    I agree especially with the importance of Dawkins’ writing as outreach. Before The God Delusion (which I like) I fell in love with the writing in River Out of Eden and Unweaving the Rainbow. It’s why I shifted my painting toward more science.

    I kind of want to read this book now.

  2. Thanks Glendon.

    For a review of Unscientific America, I highly recommend also reading Jason Rosenhouse’s review (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). Brian Switek has a nice review also.

    But having read the book and found general agreement among people who analyzed its claims, I’d recommend against buying the book, unless you’re more interested in rubber-necking as the train-wreck continues.

    Instead, I’ve heard that Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason is a very good book, and can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.


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