On scientific literacy
Today I visited PLoS – the Public Library of Science, a very cool resource that is “committed to making the world's scientific and medical literature a freely available public resource.” In other words, this non-profit organization publishes peer-reviewed scientific papers and makes them available to anyone, anywhere – no subscription required.
Now, most of the research papers are way over my head, but the synopses make for digestible scanning, and there are “primer” articles intended to introduce complex subjects and discussions about issues. Listed among the Top Ten articles in PLoS Biology was one that caught my eye: “Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology” (May 6, 2006 Vol 4, Issue 5) by Liza Gross.
It reports on the work of Jon D. Miller, who directs the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University Medical School and who “has devoted his 30-year career to studying public understanding of science and technology and its implications for a healthy democracy.”
I won’t bother to reiterate all the statistics and key points here -- you can read the article – but here is Miller’s not-so-depressing conclusion along with a call to action:
For all the sobering statistics and challenges ahead, Miller remains undaunted. While it's unlikely that hard-core anti-evolutionists and stem-cell opponents will change their minds anytime soon, he says, “we've got a lot of ambiguity in the middle. The game is still in play. We ought not to say, ‘Gee, Americans are stupid,’ but, ‘There are a lot of Americans who would be willing to listen to us if we were to go out and make good arguments.’”
The limiting step in enhancing scientific literacy is not people's capacity for learning, Miller says, as much as it is interest. When Americans are diagnosed with cancer or some other life-threatening disease, “the vast number of these people go online and learn more science in the next 12 months than a typical undergraduate will ever learn. It is impressive how much people can learn with the proper motivation. We need to get people to be savvy about how to find the information and make sense of it.”
Miller urges scientists to take comfort in the fact that the majority of Americans are not anti-science, but simply don't know how exciting scientific discovery can be. “We must be cautious and not presume that our society feels strongly about what scientists do one way or another. There's a lot of work to be done for us to tell people what we do, why we do it, and why it's important,” he advises. Given the pace of biomedical discoveries in the 21st century, he adds, it's likely that more and more scientific issues will reach the public agenda. “We're going to be revisiting various versions of these questions again and again. But there's a large segment of Americans who still haven't made up their mind on these issues. We in the scientific community have to treat them seriously, talk to them, and make our arguments. This is a great opportunity for us.”