Science Communication in Crisis (Part 1): The Problem
If the teaching of science is to be dictated by those who understand neither science nor the logic of scientific discovery, then our entire country will suffer from the ignorance of the next generation.
~ Milton A. Rothman 
I’m a disciple of science
I know the universe is in full compliance with natural laws
But many place reliance on the pseudoscience of quacks and morons and fools because
Their education’s deficient
They put faith in omniscient make-believe beings who control their fate . . .
Upon blind faith they place reliance
What we need more of is science!
~ MC Hawking, “What We Need More of is Science” (from the 2004 album A Brief History of Rhyme: MC Hawking’s Greatest Hits)
Back in September 2010 a highly publicized report, released at a congressional briefing, stated that the U.S. economy is being stagnated by poor science education. Among the main findings of the report, which was an update to a 2005 report on science education, was that the United States ranks 48th worldwide in K-12 mathematics and science education. Even more astounding, 49 percent of U.S. adults did not know how long it takes for the Earth to make a complete orbit around the sun .
Some may argue that knowing how long it takes for the Earth to make one revolution around the sun is unimportant, nothing more than an isolated bit of trivia. Much of the information we learn in elementary school is of the kind we do not use every day in our adult lives, and we tend to forget much of it as a result. Some may even argue that I am being hypocritical in calling out half of the adult population in this country for not remembering something I think is basic, when I cannot remember things someone else may view as basic, like the names of all the U.S. presidents.
But I disagree; if you do not have a basic idea that the Earth takes one year to circle the sun, you do not possess a working model of the universe in your head. Even worse, you do not care and you are incurious. Ignorance must be bliss to those 49 percent, and one wonders what else they do not know if not that. As neurologist Steven Novella puts it in his commentary on the report, “This indicates a rather profound lack of understanding of the basic structure of the universe, which in turn (in my opinion) indicates a severe lack of curiosity or a contentment with being mystified by the basic realities of nature” .
The basic realities of nature to which Novella refers have been demystified by a series of remarkable scientific developments in particle physics, astronomy and cosmology in the twentieth century. On the whole, the universe is comprehensible. But that basic comprehension is achieved by mathematical models that generally describe the characteristics of the structure of reality. Thus, scientific and mathematical illiteracy form a barrier to a true appreciation of the cosmos in which we find ourselves. In the Preface to his important book The Comprehensible Cosmos, retired experimental particle physicist Victor Stenger writes,
Unfortunately, current physical understanding is often formulated in terms of higher mathematics that is as indecipherable to the layperson as hieroglyphs in an Egyptian tomb. No matter how valiantly scientists and science writers may work to express modern models in the vernacular, precise mathematical descriptions and their associated logical deductions can never be satisfactorily reduced to everyday language. Describing physical models in words is like describing great music in words. Just as you have to listen to music to appreciate it, you have to read the equations of physics to grasp their meaning. This has resulted in a sharp division between “knows” and “know-nots,” drawn at such a very high level of knowledge that it excludes the great bulk of humanity – from the person on the street to otherwise highly educated academics who have neglected their mathematical studies. Even many PhD physicists and astronomers whose specialties are in fields other than particle physics and cosmology do not fully appreciate these new developments because they are cast in a language that only the experts speak .
I should stress that the 49 percent may not be stupid people; they may have their own areas of intelligence or special interest. But they clearly never had any passion or interest in science in general or any inclination to curiosity. At some point, each of us develops an internal model of the world in which we live, having some idea of where we are in the world. To me, not knowing how long it takes the Earth to orbit the sun is akin to not knowing what countries border the United States (or which ones border whatever country one lives in). As a matter of fact, even asking many high school students to point out states on a map is liable to be embarrassing. Similarly, many people have no concept of how space is actually constructed and as a result we often hear people confuse “solar system” with “galaxy” and even “universe,” using those terms interchangeably, as if they are just a mishmash of terms referring to the same thing.
The statistics do not lie. Clearly, we are not doing a good job in science education, and many educators are noticing a downward trend. PZ Myers, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota Morris, provided a helpful perspective on this issue when he wrote about the science education report on his popular blog Pharyngula, which I find relevant to the more recent study as well:
I’ve been seeing progressively more poorly educated students arriving at college over the course of my career — the students of 2010 are just as bright as the students of 1980, but they’ve been badly served (in general) by the public schools, and come in with sometimes frightening intellectual deficits. How can students graduate from high school and not know basic algebra? How can those same students then think they can go on to college?
Jingoistic patriotic Americans like to delude themselves into thinking we’re #1 at everything. We aren’t. In education, we’re like #48. It’s hard to think up a proud chant over that statistic .
While we should bear in mind that what Myers shares is his own experience, which some might say is possibly an effect of getting older and progressing in his profession, his perception that students are coming in to college science classes much less prepared than in the past seems to be confirmed by the nationwide statistics. At least it is what we should expect given the poor quality of science education revealed by reports such as the one cited above.
Where is this slide-off happening, and how does it happen? I do not think that any one factor is culpable. A combination of factors likely contributes to the problem, some of which may be unavoidable. For example, in some cases it is simply not feasible to teach some scientific information at an elementary level. The inaccessibility of important scientific information is partly responsible for the large number of people who are anti-vaccine. This number would be greatly reduced if everybody could attend college and take courses in immunology and virology which would help them to understand what vaccines are and how they work. But the information taught in immunology and virology courses is unfortunately not appropriate for middle school-level science classes.
But a greater part of the problem is due, in my opinion, to the frankly unimpressive way in which public school education is run. One major shortcoming is the fact that teachers who are not specialty-trained in science are allowed to teach science. The current education culture is one in which there is a larger focus on teaching how to teach than on the material to be taught, and this is not serving well. I hate to sound like a conservative, but it is actually a progressive sentiment. In years past, the teachers who were teaching science were actually science teachers. This is by and large no longer the case; most of today’s public school teachers have no background in science, but are simply general teachers who may or may not have any interest in science. We need a greater emphasis on giving teachers an extra dose of science in their own education. Just knowing how to teach is not nearly enough; people need to know science in order to teach it well.
After all, more troubling than what is not retained in primary education science classes is what is not taught and learned in the first place. The science of evolution is an obvious example of omissions of this kind in American culture. Too many teachers are not teaching evolution to students because evolution is not included in their state’s science standards. When some teachers do their best regardless to teach evolution in the classroom, they often have to deal with irate and unintelligent parents who complain to the school principal that their children are learning that their “great-great grandfather was a monkey,” or some equally stupid complaint. Teachers who understand that evolution is essential to science education usually lack a support system to which they can appeal. The end result is that too many students do not learn about evolution at all.
It is also crucial to get actual, practicing scientists more involved in science education and communication, especially in the task of designing science curriculum. Unfortunately, a formidable communicative barrier stands between professional scientists and the general public, for a number of reasons. For one, the majority of scientists in this country choose not to involve themselves in anything that might be perceived as “activism.” For another, the scientific community also has a history of looking down on scientists who reach out to the general public, treating the science popularizers latter as somehow less than “pure” scientists. For example the famous and highly-credentialed astronomer Carl Sagan was denied membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences for no other reason than that he was a popularizer, despite his several significant contributions to astronomy .
Because of this prevailing attitude in the scientific community, a very small percentage of practicing scientists step outside their labs and cloistered halls of academia to write popular-level books about science. Science communicators like Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Science Guy” Bill Nye, and Richard Dawkins represent exceptions to the rule and are notable because of the rarity of scientists who interface with the public. Mathematician John Allen Paulos is another exception to the overriding trend who has written a number of highly-accessible books in an effort to communicate the language of science, which is mathematics, to a wider audience. In his 1988 bestselling book Innumeracy, Paulos writes,
If mathematics is important (and it certainly is), then so is mathematics education. Mathematicians who don’t deign to communicate their subject to a wider audience are a little like multimillionaires who don’t contribute anything to charity. . . .
It is almost always possible to present an intellectually honest and engaging account of any field, using a minimum of technical apparatus. This is seldom done, however, since most priesthoods (mathematicians included) are inclined to hide behind a wall of mystery and to commune only with their fellow priests .
Even fewer scientists address the threat that popular pseudoscience and religious thinking pose to both science education and everyday life. Again, some notable exceptions that prove the rule can be cited, Paulos among them. Philip Plait is a professional astronomer who gears his writings to a lay audience, demythologizing the findings of astronomical research and dismantling popular misconceptions and pseudoscience related to his field . The aforementioned particle physicist Victor Stenger has written several popular-level books advocating scientifically-informed and evidence-sensitive skepticism of dubious claims . Many of Stenger’s fellow physicists have also written books conveying good materialistic science, but most of these are not written for general readerships. For example, the Nobel-laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has written a few science books which convey good information about quantum physics and cosmology to a general readership . But most of Weinberg’s books are highly technical, and he has yet to more fully and satisfactorily address the fundamental issues concerning better and more accessible science education on a large scale. I point this out because Weinberg would make a great public spokesman for materialistic science.
However, Weinberg has followed the lead of most of his colleagues, such as the late great Richard Feynman, in being dismissive of and impatient with the “big questions” that ordinary people ask. This was not always the case; most of the great physicists of the twentieth century wrote a great deal about philosophy. Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg and Albert Einstein all wrote extensively about the philosophical implications of their work.
This changed shortly after the close of World War II. The greater portion of the postwar physics community was led for the most part by Feynman, who “despised philosophy as soft and unverifiable” . His colleagues and successors likewise decided that philosophy was mostly a waste of their time as well, and this aversion to philosophy remains strong in the majority of today’s physicists. Their marked disdain for philosophical issues arises largely from the empirical fact that physicists cannot test them. No single experiment or set of experiments can possibly demonstrate whether a given theory represents the true metaphysical state of the objective universe. Multiple theories in physics seem on a surface level to contradict each other, the most familiar example being the merely-apparent (not actual) contradiction between the wave theory and the particle theory of light.
Most of today’s physicists, in the tradition of Feynman, do not lose sleep over such matters, and do not need to. But they are failing to do the job of educating the populace by not publicly tackling the kinds of questions much of the public is interested in and wants to know the answers to. As a result, physical phenomena such as the so-called wave-particle duality is seized upon by non-scientists as confirmation of the mystics’ claim that human consciousness can create reality, and the public looks to these popular misrepresentations and misunderstandings of real science for the answers they seek.
1. Milton A. Rothman, A Physicist’s Guide to Skepticism: Applying Laws of Physics to Faster-Than-Light Travel, Psychic Phenomena, Telepathy, Time Travel, UFO’s, and Other Pseudoscientific Claims (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), pp. 18-19.
2. National Academy of Science, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5 (Washington, D.C., The National Academies Press, 2010), p. 8. For a media report on the assessment, see Dan Vergano, “Report: Poor Science Education Impairs U.S. Economy,” USA Today, 24 September 2010, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/science/2010-09-23-science-education_N.htm?csp=34news (accessed June 8, 2014).
3. Steven Novella, “Surprise – Science Education Stinks!” NeuroLogica blog, September 29, 2010, http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/surprise-science-education-stinks/ (accessed December 19, 2012).
5. PZ Myers, “We Are Not #1, and We Are Getting Worse,” Pharyngula, September 27, 2010, http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/09/27/we-are-not-1-and-we-are-gettin/ (accessed December 19, 2012).
9. Victor J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007; The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009); Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009); God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2012).
10. Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (New York: Basic Books, 1988); Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).