Monday, July 19, 2010

Why you should be literate in science

The above video is of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, speaking at the World Science Festival earlier this year.  In the video, Dr. Tyson talks about the need for us, as a society and as individuals, to be scientifically literate.   Events over the past few years have shown both how important scientific literacy is and how we suffer (individually and as a group) from the growing lack of scientific literacy.  First, let's define what I mean by "scientific literacy", and then I'll give a few (and by no means exhaustive) examples of its importance to each one of us.

The term scientific literacy can be defined in many ways, but I think most scientists would agree that it includes both some basic knowledge about science, an understanding about how science works, and the ability to apply scientific thinking in appropriate situations.   For example, let's take black holes.  One of the most-asked questions we astronomers get about black holes is, "If not even light can escape a black hole, how do you know it is there?"  This question actually shows that the asker has some scientific literacy.  They know a fact about black holes (the strong gravity that light cannot escape).  They think about the fact and realize that there could be an implication that we cannot see a black hole.  They want confirmation that this weird object exists. And they are curious enough to bother to ask.  These three things are the start of a line of scientific inquiry, and indicate some scientific literacy!  (By the way, the answer to the question is at this website.)

But if you take the astronomer out of the equation, people are all too often willing to admit (and even revel in) scientific illiteracy.  Suppose there is a party with no astronomer present, and one partier says to another, "Did you hear about that black hole in the news?"  The other can respond, "Yeah, but I don't understand any of that technical crap."  And they may both laugh and go onto another topic, content in their lack of knowledge.  Yet if the first partier had said, "Did you hear about Mel Gibson's rant?" and the second partier responded, "Who the heck is Mel Gibson?", the first partier is quite likely to say something like, "Man, have you been living under a rock?" and to think less of the second partier.

Yes, we live in a society where it is okay to not know much about science and technology, but you better darn well know your celebrity gossip. And how do you get that gossip?  On your iPhone which uses chemistry to create electricity that powers circuitry that receives data from electromagnetic radiation that is sent from an antenna connected to a web of computers that can transmit information at the speed of light via multiple paths across several continents, a distant that would take me hours to travel in an airplane held aloft by forces arising out of fluid dynamics, powered again by the chemistry of chemicals created long ago by extinct forms of life and buried and discovered by geology, etc., etc., etc.  Our society is based upon technology and science, not movie star divorces, yet it is okay to be ignorant of the former and not okay to be ignorant of the latter?  That is royally screwed up.
So, let me give some current examples of where a grasp of scientific literacy  impacts our lives, or, more to the point, a lack of that literacy causes severe problems.

Some examples of situations where scientific literacy would be a big help include such wide-ranging issues as: nutritional supplements (Americans spend billions of dollars every year on supplements that do nothing or even cause harm; scientific studies are clear that most of these supplements are ineffective, but yet consumers are more willing to believe the paid salesperson on television than the independent medical specialist who actually wants to help people); global climate change (a single heat wave or cold snap can change many American's minds on whether or not they believe in the measured fact of global warming), the BP oil spill (even a basic knowledge of science should have alerted government inspectors that oil spill plans detailing how to save walruses, which don't live in the Gulf of Mexico, that these plans were of dubious quality), and the efficacy of vaccines (my grandmother grew up frightened of polio, while I've never met anyone my own age with polio).

It is not hard to increase your scientific literacy and to apply that in your life.  You can start by approaching any issue with a scientific mind.  Ask questions, learn all you can, be skeptical of new results, demand solid evidence.  Don't believe things that you read or hear without verifying that information.  These small steps can go a long way.

But beyond that, and perhaps more importantly, don't be afraid of science.  It isn't necessary to learn all of the gory details about a topic.  If you really wanted to know everything you wanted to know about black holes, you'd have to learn general relativity, accretion disk physics, magnetohydrodynamics, and many other scary-sounding subfields.  But there are many cool things about black holes that you can learn without having to understand the details.  Just like a car enthusiast may not be able to build their own catalytic converter from scratch, or just like you can enjoy music without being able to orchestrate a symphony, you can enjoy science without knowing all the details.

Lastly, encourage other people to know more about science.  If you are at a party and bring up black holes, and someone else says, "I never understood that stuff", wow them with a few facts that you happen to know.  Encourage your child to explore the world around them.  Take them to museums, and when they start with the constant string of "why?" questions, help them find the answers in a good book.  Who knows, maybe you're encouraging the next Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein.  Or maybe you are just giving your kid a good education.  Either way, you are giving them skills that are necessary for them and our society to thrive.


  1. Couldn't agree more. I was recently kicked out of my "permanent" teaching job, where I'd been teaching physics and astronomy for 15 years. The reason? Incompetent leadership, illiterate in science. Too few students. What courses do they promote instead? Courses in "love" and spa healing with occult stuff. So what's going to happen now? Well, the West will probably fall behind Asia, where natural science has a much higher status. And I've to go into business starting my own company.

  2. Funny you should compare Mel Gibson to a black hole, I do that myself whenever I see him on the news ;) All kidding aside, this is a fine point; I've been distressed to see polls showing people distrust scientists, or think that they all skew results based on how they are paid, as one NY times poll showed this past summer. The rampant religious fanaticism growing since 9/11 doesn't help either. We will be more enlightened when we seek answers through earnest curiosity and goodwill, not through fear.