Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Are Americans Science-Savvy Enough To Make An Informed Decision?

People often wonder why I have such a skeptical view of the general public understanding of science. I think if you've read this blog for any considerable period of time, you'll understand why based on my personal experience that has shaped by "world view" of science understanding. Starting from the ability of movie stars to persuade the public on going against and shutting down the high-flux beam reactor neutron source at Brookhaven Lab, to the on-going "debate" of evolution versus creationism, and leading up to the global warming issue. And I haven't even mentioned yet all my encounters with misguided crackpots. It also does not help that all the surveys done on science literacy of the general public have produced a dismal portrait of the public's awareness of science and more importantly, how it is done. My central claim that an average Joe usually cannot distinguish between a valid scientific evidence versus an anecdotal evidence still stands.

Now come another survey that continues to reinforce my bleak view of science literacy. This news report starts off with a very ominous message.

For decades, educators and employers have worried that too few Americans are preparing for careers in science. But there's evidence to support a new, broader concern in this election year: Ordinary Americans may not know enough about science to make informed decisions on key questions.

There's nothing here that we don't know already, or at least, nothing that surprises me. But something here is worth emphasizing.

"People will respond to demagoguery if they don't believe they have sufficient knowledge and sufficient confidence in their ability to weigh arguments and assess what's behind them," says Walter Massey, a board member of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, which commissioned the survey.

"The danger is that we move increasingly toward being a society where the most important decisions are ultimately made by fewer and fewer people."

Even figuring out which organizations to trust for guidance requires some basic knowledge of what constitutes good research methodology, Massey says.

Worse than that, with the proliferation of Wikipedia and other dubious sources of information, people also do not seem to care on the QUALITY and validity of the sources they get these information from! So not only do they not have enough knowledge in science, they also don't know where to get such information. Many end up resorting to popular media, Wikipedia, and the likes. How are they to know the information they get is correct, or widely accepted as being valid, and not just some concoction of a deranged mind?

Donald Kennedy, the former editor of Science, has this useful tip in figuring out a valid source of information:

His tip: Consider credentials. Research that has an economic stake in particular outcomes isn't as trustworthy as research that is independent and published in peer-reviewed journals. Such journals, in which studies submitted for publication are judged by an independent panel of experts, include Science, Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine.

Good places to start researching technical subjects are websites of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences ( and the National Academy of Sciences (, Kennedy says. Working with science-based knowledge "is a game that can be played by anybody with a serious interest in discovery," he says.

I would also include in the list of organizations the American Physical Society (, the American Institute of Physics (, and Institute of Physics (, and the European Physical Society ( These should be the starting point for anyone who isn't familiar with physics to look into.

I wonder how science-savvy are the two US presidential candidates?



Anonymous said...

Hello, your stance on physics education has great arguments and it was a pleasure reading. As someone who isn't a physicist, I am a great reader, certainly not learned though, in physics. My children, like I, are obsessed by everything from quantum mechanics to radio waves.

Can you or your buddies provide more info on the various timelines in quantum physics for my kids to read?

Doug Natelson said...

Anon., if you're interested in having some intuition for quantum without much math, the classic book is Feynman's QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. If you want to know more about the historical development of quantum with an emphasis on the personalities involved, Uncertainty is a good recent entry.