Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Did you know that… (Part One)

…there are large gaps between what scientists think and what the public believes?

My mother recently e-mailed me a NY Times article that highlighted differences in views held by most of the science community and views held by most Americans. You can read the article online at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/10/science/10survey.html.

The article reports results of a recent survey that investigated public perception of important scientific issues. Interestingly, “the proportion [of Americans] who name scientific advances as among the United States’ most important achievements has fallen to 27 percent from nearly 50 percent in 1999, the survey found.” Is the US lagging in science or is there a misconception on the part of the public about what we do and accomplish?

I wonder how much governmental respect, or disrespect, for science affects public opinion. For example, cuts in funding and open disregard for scientific advice by policy makers likely gives the impression that science isn’t that important. What is the relationship between science and politics, and how does the political climate affect public perception of science? While answers are rarely straightforward or obvious, we should all ponder such questions.

In addition to the declining opinion of scientific achievement, the article mentions that many people don't believe scientist's assertions about evolution and climate change. As a biologist, it is hard to consider evolution and climate change as things in which you can chose not to believe. That being said, I think differences in opinion about such topics bring up the really important issue of how science should be treated in education.

What we learn in school can really affect our opinions when we enter society. If the general public were more well versed in science, they would be more inclined to dig deeper into issues of evolution and climate change and might research such issues on their own, coming to more informed conclusions.

According to the NY Times article, “the report said 85 percent of science association members surveyed said public ignorance of science was a major problem. And by large margins they deride as only “fair” or “poor” the coverage of science by newspapers and television. Only 3 percent of the scientists said they “often” spoke to reporters.”

To be sure, the news fixates on sensational stories: explosions, car chases, murders, sad stories about neglected dogs, women who birth 8 children in one go. Okay, those things can be important, but why is science so infrequently in the news?

Why is a 1-hour special focused on a possible pickle-pricing scam at the local supermarket more important for the average American to read/hear/see than a story about climate change, coral reef decline, or deforestation?

The simple truth is that people don’t think science is pertinent to their everyday lives. They don’t think that environmental issues affect them nearly as much as the local pickle-pricing scandal. And while I contend that drinking clean water, breathing clean air, and preserving global ecosystems is MORE important than what is usually on the news, the onus is on us to convince people that they need to pay attention.

We could blame the public for not being interested in our science, but ultimately it’s our job to make them listen, right?

There are two sides of every coin.


1 comment:

  1. Hi!

    Your post brings up an excellent point about education. Growing up in the American south, I've always felt lucky to have received as intensive a public school science education as I did in a region of the country sometimes known to hold a religion-tinged skepticism of scientific certainties. I remember vividly my AP biology teacher stating to the class at the beginning of the evolution section that, in the opinion of the scientific community and borne out by the scientific method, what we were being taught and tested on was science, plain and simple. She went on to say that, while evolution may be a touchy or controversial subject in other academic fields, her science classroom wasn't a place for that debate.

    It's striking to me that I still perceive her speech as courageous, when in reality she was only doing what was expected of her as a teacher of any given subject--the same standard to which all other teachers at the school were held. I've also found, years later, that I tend to still think about evolution according to her paradigm: one in which philosophical debate was valued and acknowledged, but also fell into a very different category (and, often, community) from provable scientific theory. Along those same lines, I could happily advocate for increased federal funding of evolution or other topics, even if my philosophical views happened not to jive with the scientific consensus.