Monday, November 12, 2012

Standing on my Soapbox: Scientific Literacy and The Unscientific Scientific Committee

I've been accused of treating this blog like a soapbox. I've gone on and on about certain pseudosciences, I know, but I don't really think I've stood on a soapbox.

Until today.

In the past I've written on the importance of science education. I feel strongly that one of the most important things we can do for our country is cultivate science learning. That doesn't just mean we need more scientists, it means we need a scientifically literate citizenry. Science literacy doesn't mean knowing basic science facts. Sure, it's alarming that 33% of Americans don't believe the earth goes around the sun, 14% think that sound travels faster than light, and 49% think that only genetically modified organisms contain genes. But those are just facts. Facts can be corrected. I don't think anyone is stupid if they don't know something. After all, for everything you know today there was once a day that you didn't know that. It's perfectly okay to not know something.

"Saying 'what kind of an idiot doesn't know about the Yellowstone supervolcano' is so much more boring than telling someone about the Yellowstone supervolcano for the first time."

So, not knowing facts is okay. What's not okay is a targeted disinterest or even disdain for learning something new. Scientific literacy is not a working knowledge of facts, it's a way to approach learning. A scientifically literate person doesn't need a science degree, they need to know the process of analyzing evidence.

A frightening outcome of scientific illiteracy is that the scientifically illiterate will elect the scientifically illiterate. In the US the House Science Committee makes important science related policy decisions. Many of those members are far from scientifically literate. Consider the following examples:
Those that make decisions in Washington are becoming less and less scientifically minded. To better promote scientific literacy we need scientifically minded leaders.

When I initially started this blog, I was writing it because I needed to improve my writing skills. Since then I have developed a real passion for science advocacy and promoting science literacy. Thank you for reading. Thank you for your comments, e-mails, and every other way you've been supportive. Please share with your friends even (and especially) if you think they aren't interested. Remember, I don't care if someone doesn't know a science fact - I care if they refuse to hear about it.

Update (November 29, 2012):
Recent news has me bringing this up again and, unfortunately, adding one more name to the list:

  • Lamar Smith - Chairman Nominee: House Science Committee. Smith denies global warming. In 2009 he said: 
"The [ABC, NBC and CBS television] networks have shown a steady pattern of bias on climate change. During a six-month period, four out of five network news reports failed to acknowledge any dissenting opinions about global warming, according to a Business and Media Institute study." 
Of course, there's a reason not to acknowledge any dissenting opinions: they're mostly political. There is a consensus among scientists that global warming is not only real, but man made contributions are real.

Now, I'm not saying that it's wrong to question global warming, but it is wrong to unilaterally dismiss the scientific consensus without very strong evidence in your favor. We need leaders that make science based decisions, not decisions that are politically or socially appealing. There is a silver lining, though. Lamar Smith thinks funding for STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) needs to be extended, saying "If America is going to remain competitive in today's global economy, we need to remain innovative and focused on exploring science and expanding new technologies." Of course, if Lamar Smith really supported science education he wouldn't be denying what scientists are trying to tell him...

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