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Poll: Science; not so important

Posted by admin on Fri 10 of July, 2009 CDT 08:55:42 AM

Scientific American reports a Pew poll finding that though 84% ofAmerican's feel science's effects are positive, they think it's achievements are less important today then they were a decade ago.

Any factual look at the achievements in science over the last decade would show it as one of the most fruitful. In every field major discoveries have been made. In engineering amazing strides in material science and electronics promise to revolutionize manufacturing and indeed our daily lives. We are also at the very beginning of understanding the human genome which will, no doubt have profound effects on health, but also on science and engineering, with living tissue becoming factories for any number of drugs, chemicals and materials. Genetic engineering may save us from a good number of pollutants and energy problems -the list is endless.

The question is: why do Americans think recent advancements in science are not that important?

One answer is that Americans are less science literate than they've been at times in the past. With science, math and engineering jobs paying fabulous wages there is little incentive for graduates to choose teaching as a career. American education has many faults, not the least of which is it's insularity -it is simply not common practice to invite non teachers into the classroom on a regular basis, so a student's science exposire is limited to the teacher's exposure -which may or may not have been what they were trained for.  Also the skills of logic, reasoning and skepticism are almost absent from the no more than a day's lesson.

One could also cite the efforts of the Conservative movement to intentionally turn people away from an understanding of science. As is usual in societies where an ideological faction gains power, the first targets are the people who can point out the reality behind the propaganda. Add to this the fact that by combining wealth and religion, a age old method for gaining and keeping power, religious extremists led the charge to discredit science -in effect putting science back where it was in ancient times -squarely in the blasphemy department. Creationism, later Creation "Science" and still later Intelligent Design is now believed by a significant number of people. Elevated by constant repetition to "the other side" Creationism appears to many to be on par with evolution as a theory -it is anything but with no basis in science at all. That the effort to discredit science was intentional and political is shameful and has set America back in scientific progress.

Some of the blame, however, lies in the scientists themselves. Under the Conservative's medievil onslaught, scientists were reluctant to defend science. Scientists are trained to find facts and let them speak for themselves, i.e. reality should be as plain as the nose on your face; however, we know that when facts conflict with ideology, facts lose. At least in policy making and in public perception because eventually facts are facts and cannot really be escaped from.

Carl Sagan was a great science populariser but there are many more today -Neil DeGrassi? Tyson, Michio Kaku, Bob Ballard and for a while even Alan Alda whose Scientific American Frontiers showed how an intelligent non scientist could get positively giddy about the exciting science happening today. The cable show Mythbusters, though not very scientific, at least considers the questioning of widely held beliefs. Oddly major corporations, whose management may shower Conservatives with campaign money, are just fine with science when it means profits.

In the end, we allow Science to wane at our peril. Science is tremedously exciting, as it seems younger generations are getting -those who have grown up with the Internet. More correctly perhaps, they are getting the engineering part but eventually, seeking to know why, they too  are discovering the underlying science. We need a mini rennaisance. It's not here yet but if we encourage everyone to learn the skills that reveal the wonder of nature and protect our intellects from baloney it may come to pass.


These links are a fun way to start:


Pew Research Center Science Knowledge Quiz


Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit


Michael Shermer's entertaining Baloney Detection Kit Video



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