Scientific Literacy and Why It Is Critical

Bertrand Russel, British philosopher, once said “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”  This quote neatly summarizes a cognitive bias known as the “Dunning-Kruger effect“.  The effect, as described by Justin Kruger and David Dunning in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1999, is one in which “people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it”.  In other words, they are too dumb to realize they are dumb.  Fortunately, there is a way out of the worst results of this effect, and it involves promoting scientific literacy in schools and in the media.

I am currently working on education and outreach efforts for the NASA Astrobiology Institute.  In these efforts, we seek to better inform the public as to how their tax dollars invested in NASA are used.  Not only do we need to train future scientists and engineers for NASA, we also need to train the public to understand, appreciate and fund their work.  We also need to produce members of society for whom scientific literacy and methodology is the expected norm.  We need to remove the oft-perceived barrier between scientists and the public, and produce better results in large public policy debates.

These policy debates, such as health care reform, financial regulation, and climate change policy, are often dominated by emotion, opinion, and biased lobbying by groups with short-term economic issues in mind.  Facts, however, do not have political agendas.  There is only set of facts, and those are backed by evidence and devoid of emotion.  The scientific process of discovery is based on finding and refining these facts, even when they contradict our own beliefs, preconceptions, or previous scientific findings.

If our goals include the long term custody of the world, then we need to move public discussions towards evidence-based fact as much as possible.  We need the public to understand, appreciate, and demand that policy decisions in diverse areas like health delivery, energy production, and more be made on the basis of evidence.  Science literacy and reducing the gap between scientists and the public is one mechanism for achieving this goal.

As an example of preconceptions, the unusually heavy snowstorms in the eastern US this past winter demonstrated the lack of understanding of basic scientific principles within the general media, a significant fraction of the general public, as well as many elected officials.  There were numerous discussion of how the snowfall was evidence that “global warming” was not occurring.  Similarly, heat waves in the summer sometimes produce the opposite reactions from the media, overshadowing more compelling evidence for climate change. This creates a confusing message that undermines confidence in carefully researched insights.  Absent from many of these discussions is the fact that local events (either in time or geography) are highly variable.  Our understanding must see these short term events in the context of the general trends as it is the study of the long term trends that increase knowledge of the system. While the eastern US was receiving cold weather in January and February, a simple calculation shows that it represents about 0.1% of the surface of the Earth and is not a representative indicator of the Earth’s climate.  Such care is rarely evident in the popular media, and this indicates the severity of the problem of scientific illiteracy.

Another common misconception is that when a previously publicized scientific result is updated, changed or overturned, this indicates scientists have been wrong before, and therefore shouldn’t be trusted at all.  What this view fails to appreciate is one of the cornerstones of scientific advancement – every result is subject to change based on new evidence, new understanding, and new experimental results.  What the public sees as a case of scientists being wrong or changing their minds is often normal advancement in a profession which is highly critical of itself and subjects any claims to scrutiny.  If only politicians would subject themselves to the same self-critical reviews as scientists, the world might be a much better place.

There will certainly be debates and issues for which emotion, faith and other inherently unquantifiable areas are important.  But for most policy issues and most professions, fact, evidence, and logic are a much more productive way to solve problems.  Now we need to take message to our schools and to the media so that we get better results from the next generation of leaders than we are getting from the current generation.

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