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Burton DeWilde | USLHC | USA

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Communicating Science and Its Value, pt. 1

In the past I’ve made it known that I’m a politically-engaged person — and not without some commentator controversy. While I generally prefer to keep my science and politics separate, they inevitably intersect in the matter of governmental funding of scientific research and conflicts between groups driving the national dialogue on science policy. Unfortunately, scientists are often left behind in this conversation, resulting in a serious disconnect with the public.

It’s not hard to find embarrassing stories about how Americans are ignorant of basic scientific knowledge: roughly half believe dinosaurs and humans coexisted, 1 in 5 adults believes the Sun revolves around the Earth, and when it comes to acceptance of evolution, we’re out of step with much of the world. On many topical issues — global climate change, nuclear energy, genetically-modified foods, vaccination, cell phones — an abundance of misinformation drowns out the science, or at least muddies the waters. And even worse, many Americans don’t understand how scientists draw their conclusions, i.e. the scientific method, nor do they apply it in their daily lives. A much-quoted survey from 2007 found that 70% of Americans are “scientifically illiterate” (though that distinction, as well as the statistic, is misleading: scientific literacy is not on a binary scale).

I realize that I’m probably preaching to the choir here: You all have made the effort to read a physics blog written by physicists about highly technical topics, which suggests to me that you are either totally awesome science enthusiasts or… scientists. Thanks for reading! 🙂 But from whom does the rest of the country not following Quantum Diaries get its science information?

Well, for starters, there’s Hollywood and the entertainment industry, where scientists are commonly portrayed as mad/evil or awkward geniuses — people to fear or mock, perhaps, but not befriend or idolize — and scientific accuracy is typically thrown out the window in favor of more explosions. There’s also the Internet, where people can and do say pretty much whatever they want without the need for peer review or, you know, facts. Do you remember when unfounded fears that CERN was going to create an Earth-devouring black hole ricocheted around the web? Although the Internet is an incredible resource for information and personal research, it’s treacherously inconsistent. The public also learns about science from the news/media, where sensationalism is routine and “fair and balanced” reporting means giving equal time to scientific fact and wild speculation. Recently, a chemistry publication entitled “Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth” made headlines when, in its final two sentences, the author suggests that advanced, potentially dangerous, dinosaurs could exist elsewhere in the universe. Take a guess on how the media covered it. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t learn about science from scientists, and given the abject mess of these other sources, it’s a wonder that a quarter of the population is “scientifically savvy and alert.”

Well, an explainable wonder: America is the only country in the world that requires undergraduates to take a year of general education — and it makes a difference! Education works, who would’ve guessed? 😀 However, there is serious cause for concern, particularly with regards to K-12 education. One of the great legacies of the Bush Administration, the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001, tied federal funding of public schools to student performance on annual, standardized tests in math and reading (laughably, the law stipulates that all children are to perform above average). Perhaps not surprisingly, educators under pressure are more likely to “teach to the test” to improve scores at the expense of other subjects and skills, such as science and critical thinking. Should we worry about what will happen when the NCLB generation makes it to Physics 101…?

It’s worth pointing out that a post-secondary education in physics, for instance, is also subject to distorted priorities: Our training is extremely focused on skills needed to continue in Academia and fundamental research, while statistics show that a significant fraction of us go on to careers in industry immediately after grad school, and that the most-used skills are not properly developed in the curriculum. Furthermore, in the long term, most of us end up working outside of Academia. Are we better off learning electrodynamics from a glorified textbook on special topics in mathematical methods? I think not.

More to come!

— Burton 🙂

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