Science Communication in Crisis (Part 2): Barriers to Science Education
In order to more effectively make areas of knowledge such as science and mathematics more accessible to the public, there is much that educators need to accomplish. Sadly, some segments of the general public do not have any interest whatsoever in science or mathematics. But if even a small portion of the American populace expresses interest in being able to better grasp these subjects, then solving the problem of accessibility is a worthwhile endeavor. But recognizing the obstacles that stand in the way of this endeavor is the essential first step in successfully repairing the communication gap.
In broad outline, I maintain that the three most important barriers to good science education and communication are popular pseudoscience, fear and distrust of science, and institutionalized religion, each of which are discussed in turn below.
1. Popular Pseudoscience
In his great book The Demon-Haunted World, the late astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan wrote, “Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood” . Pseudoscientists and charlatans are more than happy to take advantage of the lack of initiative on the part of the majority of real, qualified scientists to educate the public and to exploit the general public’s surface-level interest in science. This is clearly seen, for example, in the ability of many charismatic creationists to draw large crowds of people to their seminars and lectures.
A case in point is creationist Kent Hovind (a.k.a. “Dr. Dino”). Before he was convicted for tax evasion and subsequently imprisoned, Hovind toured the country delivering his anti-evolution speeches and lectures in a very personable and entertaining way. Utilizing many visuals in slideshow presentations, Hovind was welcomed into hundreds of churches nationwide where he passed out all manner of misinformation. While it is likely he was not consciously lying (he seems sincere in his belief that evolution is a false theory and that young-earth creationism is true), Hovind has grossly misrepresented almost everything science tells us concerning the origins of the universe and of life on this planet. He has misrepresented the data and knowledge acquired by actual science about radiocarbon dating, the fossil record, the geological column, and much more .
After playing up these many misrepresentations, Hovind proposes one of the most absurd global flood theories ever proposed. The so-called “Hovind Theory” posits the existence in the early earth of a vapor canopy surrounding the planet which was broken up during the biblical global flood by fragments of ice meteors hurling through space toward the earth . The earth’s magnetic field directed the ice fragments to the poles, where they fell in the form of “super-cold snow” and instantly buried and froze the mammoths. These ice meteor fragments, says Hovind, were the primary mechanism by which the “great fountains of the deep” as described in the Book of Genesis were broken up, resulting in glacier effects that caused the earth to “wobble around” on its axis, which is why the vapor canopy then collapsed and contributed water to the global flood.
Hovind’s credulous audiences were not informed that the existence of a vapor canopy as derived from a literal reading of Genesis is physically impossible (indeed, if nearly half the adult population of the U.S. does not know how long a full orbit of the Earth around the sun takes, how could they possibly be expected to know this?). A Hovindian canopy would not only cover the planet with nitrogen narcosis, it would also greatly increase the atmospheric pressure on the earth far beyond anything that humans and other animals could possibly survive. But with these and other scientifically absurd claims, Hovind has spent most of his life misleading the general public with pseudoscience which, while highly entertaining, is demonstrably wrong.
Fortunately, young-earth creationism does not enjoy the same amount of popular appeal that it had during its heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s. But in recent years, equally egregious pseudoscientific nonsense has been propagated in the popular press. For example, people who gravitate toward magical thinking often invoke the quantum theory of physics to support Eastern mysticism and other forms of New Age belief. Very few people understand what is meant by “quantum mechanics,” and so the words are routinely tossed around like buzzwords to lend a façade of credibility to all manner of superstition . Witness, for example, the immense popularity of Rhonda Byrne’s mystical self-help movie and book The Secret and the box-office success of the 2004 film about “quantum spirituality” entitled What the Bleep Do We Know!?  The success of these and similar ventures testifies to the fact that the general public, not knowing the answer to the questions they are asking in all the wrong places, is all too often eager and willing to leap collectively on unfounded notions merely because they feel good to them or appeal to their emotional intuitions and desires.
2. Fear and Distrust of Science
Some small but highly influential portions of the general public have expressed distrust toward scientists, and a pernicious libertarian sentiment that disparages experts is prevalent among cultural relativists and pseudoskeptics who believe science is just another cultural narrative. Popular misconceptions about scientists abound. Many believe science constitutes a special-interest group devoid of any real concern for the public, that scientists harbor some nefarious ulterior motive, or that the work of scientists is the work of a massive conspiracy. This fear and distrust of science is especially evident among religious fundamentalists and evangelicals, many of whom believe that scientists do not want to face the “truth,” that the job of godless science is to find a rationale for living immoral lifestyles. This warped view of science is one consequence of the misguided mental effort to place naturalistic science and religious devotion to the supernatural on an equal playing ground. For example, one of the religionists’ favorite arguments is an appeal to arbitrariness in which they ask how the atheist who trusts the methods of science is any different from the religious individual who trusts the Bible as “God’s inerrant word.”
One might as well ask why anyone is justified in trusting medical doctors or dentists. In science, accurate interpretations are functional. Scientists strive to produce results, not esoteric edicts from on high. Organizations like the National Institutes of Health give money to scientists for research, and they expect the researchers they pay to contribute something useful to the public. Evolution is not part of an agenda by scientists to undermine faith. Scientists use their understanding of evolution every single day in labs all over the world in the hope of finding ways to overcome cancer and other kinds of diseases in the near future. If evolution is not true, the experiments performed daily by evolutionary scientists should not be working and their ideas and strategies for doing experiments should fall apart. And yet their experiments are working and producing results consistent with the predictions of evolutionary theory.
Thus, science appeals to practicality and pragmatic consequence, not to personal beliefs or validation. The evidence is the evidence, readily available for perusal by anyone who wishes to study it. Many of the experiments performed to find evidences of evolution can be done by any non-scientist, and there are labs that are accessible to the public where any layperson can go to look at the evidence firsthand. Science is not an activity limited only to a scary elite special-interest group free of transparency and accountability. “Thinking like a scientist is not that difficult,” writes science journalist Guy Harrison. “Young children can do it. Old people can do it. High-school dropouts can do it. It doesn’t require you to memorize the periodic table of elements or to understand quantum physics. Thinking like a scientist in this context only means that you maintain a healthy level of curiosity and doubt” .
Trust in this context is therefore not equivalent to faith. Trusting the experts in science is not a matter of simply taking someone at their word. The simple fact of the matter is that because nobody knows everything, we have to trust the experts in the fields of knowledge in which we are not fully educated. I do not have the slightest idea how to repair an airplane (much less build one) and yet I do not fear for my life when I board an airplane. I trust the experts in the field of aerodynamics and avionics.
However, many rational people suffer fromthings like aerophobia, and this may not be their fault. Unfortunately, fear is a major feature of the human condition, and it is much easier to hide from or suppress reality than it is to come to terms with it. Physicians encounter this tendency every day in patients who are in denial of cancer symptoms. This can make it difficult for science educators to advocate for evidence-based approaches to illness. Whereas the proponents of pseudoscience – especially those working in alternative medicine – strive to tailor their “discoveries” to the desires of potential customers, the findings and results of real science are what they are regardless of whether one is afraid of those results or not. Still, science educators and popularizers should adopt a delicate approach when dealing with people who are afraid of science for personal reasons, while at the same time honestly addressing their fears.
For most fears related to science, honestly addressing public concerns does not mean coldly stating that people should get on board with the reality they find so bitter. We should assuage fear by educating people on the benefits of the scientific endeavor, rather than by simply asserting its effectiveness in pursuing technological goals.
A case in point is the current public hysteria over genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). The overwhelming scientific consensus on GMOs is that they are safe and that the health risks associated with consuming food grown from genetically modified crops is negligible or nonexistent . But this well-documented consensus, supported by numerous peer-reviewed studies, continues to be willingly overlooked by the anti-GMO crowd. While some legitimate concerns have been raised about GMOs, most of the arguments levied against their use are fear-based. The rhetoric of the anti-GMO community has little to no connection to reality. The same people who refer to genetically-modified crops as “frankenfood” also like to say with a straight face that their arguments against GMOs are scientifically-motivated. This is clearly not the case.
Any rational approach to the subject of genetically-modified organisms must take their many benefits into consideration. For example, ask any anti-GMO activist how cheese is traditionally made. The answer is bound to make them uncomfortable. To make cheese, milk must be curdled with the help of the clotting enzyme chymosin, also known as rennin. The resultant breakdown of the milk proteins causes them to split away from the watery whey and clump together. The chymosin enzyme must be extracted from the frozen stomachs of suckling calves. Surely vegetarians do not want to consume cheese that contains the innards of baby cows. But it turns out there are genetically-modified fungi that contain the chymosin-producing gene. We can make cheese using that GMO instead of using calf guts . In Hawaii, scientists have produced genetically-modified papayas that are resistant to the papaya ringspot-virus (PRV), a plant disease that threatened to make the domestic papaya go extinct. Without GMOs, the virus would have adversely affected the livelihood of the significant percentage of Hawaiians farmers .
Advocates of science can make much headway in educating the public by appealing to the ways in which “scary science” is actually good for society, especially if the science advocate makes it clear that he or she is not being dismissive of people’s fears and concerns.
Imagine what would happen if a significant number of young-earth creationists decided they would apply their science denial consistently. Imagine, for example, that they decided to rally against the naturalistic and godless science of aerodynamics. Suppose they declared that something else besides reductive, materialistic technology keeps planes afloat in the air and that we need to “teach the controversy.” If enough people believed, as a basic tenet of their religion, that God was the force providing lift, not the harnessing of wind or the shape of wings, we would see the same cultural battle over evolution applied to the well-established science of how avionics works. They might even denounce said science as “modern” and use the scary tones they inflect when employing that word.
Accessible science education and communication is not usually considered to be an issue that has immediate or obvious relevance to the ongoing philosophical debate concerning the relationship between science and religion and whether the two are compatible. But, as my hypothetical story above illustrates, it is indeed highly relevant. While it would be a mistake to broadly claim that all religious people are lacking in intelligence, numerous studies and surveys have nevertheless indicated a strong correlation between religiosity and lack of education. The better educated a person is the less likely he or she is to be religious .
One important indication that someone has had a solid education is his or her willingness to be persuaded by argumentation that a position he or she holds is incorrect. Devoutly religious individuals usually lack this willingness. When it comes to interactions between science communicators and religious fundamentalists, whether a science popularizer is friendly or mean is irrelevant. When science educators say correctly that the universe is billions of years old, they are contradicting a basic tenet of the fundamentalists’ religion. They are not going to believe the scientist, any more than a devout Hindu is going to start eating cows. Thus, religion makes the work of science communication extremely difficult. This is one of the ways religion can have a very harmful impact on the health and wellbeing of its adherents. The faithful are more likely to read a religious book about medicine and health than they are to seek out reputable secular and peer-reviewed sources. This is potentially very dangerous and can lead people to embrace notions that are demonstrably false, such as the claim made by fundamentalist Christian evangelist Ray Comfort that cancer is modern-day leprosy .
Thus, while it is the scientists’ obligation to state the information they glean from the natural world – especially about evolution and the evidence supporting it – it is hard to pretend that even the scientists who write for the layman are actively persuading the religious of anything. By trying to inform the religious about science, the scientist is getting between them and their god.
Of course, there are many variants of theistic belief. Some well-known scientists, such as biologist Kenneth Miller of Brown University and geneticist Francis Collins, embrace a form of Christian theism while not objecting to important findings of science . But their acceptance of evolution and modern cosmology is not a result of a more rational religious approach. It is a result of a personal decision on their part to compromise. As an atheist, I can point out to devout fundamentalist believers that there are practicing scientists who believe in the same god they do and yet see no problem with the science I am trying to convince them is accurate. However, for a religious fundamentalist to come to terms with and accept established science, a radical personal journey of discovery is required.
The stark differences between the science-literacy expectations of fundamentalist theists and non-theists are clear to anyone who has listened to creationist lectures and compared them to secular science lectures. Many creationist sermons and screeds, of which I have seen many, are explicitly or implicitly anti-science. Some even make their dislike of science personal by attacking scientists themselves. Creationists are fond of painting secular scientists as bad people who are out to destroy souls. According to them, parents should not allow their children to learn any kind of science that is not “biblical.” Scientists interested in educating the general public are thus faced with the daunting task of trying to break through the religious iron curtain that has been erected by the leaders of religious organizations which make it their mission to teach children in churches from the time they are toddlers. No matter how nice or how mean science educators may be, breaking through that iron curtain is extremely difficult. It is a mistake to place the blame for America’s poor science education entirely on scientists, as if the scientists are actively avoiding going out of their way to educate anti-science individuals. Many science educators are doing the best they can and still only making slight headway.
But there are ways of breaking through the curtain. One of the best tools for the job is the Internet. The World Wide Web exposes lots of people to a wide variety of different opinions expressed in many different ways. Even if a science educator is not allowed inside the doors of a radical church to give a lecture on evolution, a young person from that church might run a Google search and accidentally find an online resource that is not biblical and learn something valuable from it.
This is not to say that radical religion is the only source of anti-science. Although many cases of scientific illiteracy are due to the influence of religion, much of the blame can be placed on secular media as well. However, there is an important qualitative difference between secular and religious sources of anti-science. Whereas purveyors of the former are usually open to reason-based dialogue, adherents of the latter are usually impervious to reason and debate. Consider the case of secular comedian and political commentator Bill Maher. In 2009, Maher was nominated for the Richard Dawkins Award for his 2008 documentary film Religulous. The award is given annually by Atheist Alliance International to individuals who have made prominent contributions to the atheist movement. Many writers in the science-and-skepticism blogosphere community strongly objected to AAI’s choice because of Bill Maher’s pseudoscientific anti-vaccination stance .
The controversy surrounding the nomination of Maher for an award from an atheist organization is another testament to the differences between religious culture and atheistic culture. Science is very important to the atheist and skeptical movement, and rightly so. In the atheist community, we tend to expect our fellow nonbelievers and infidels to have at least a basic understanding of subjects like radiocarbon dating, the molecular evidence for human evolution, why all manner of cancer therapies are woo, and a host of other subjects that help us in refuting creationism and other kinds of supernaturally-based thinking. But in our laudable zeal for science, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that not all atheists are scientists. Bill Maher is a comedian and a political commentator. He holds anti-vaccine views for stupid and unsupportable reasons, but he received an award for his contributions to atheism, not for his contributions to science.
But more to the point, Maher is not anti-vaccine for religious reasons. This means he can be educated and reasoned with. Maher has never taken a course in immunology, virology or microbiology. For almost the past decade, he has been approaching the subject from the kinds of information given to him by the popular media and perhaps by some of his celebrity friends. If a microbiologist were to sit down with Maher and engage in a serious scientific discussion with him, there is reason to believe he would come to a more reasonable position. On the other hand, if the scientist were to have the same discussion with, say, an orthodox religionist who is anti-vaccine because he believes vaccinations represent humankind’s attempt to “play God,” the scientist is most likely never going to convince him to be pro-vaccine.
There exist plenty of professional anti-vaccine proponents who are not willing to be reasoned with, even though their baseless conviction is purely secular and has nothing to do with religion. But having a religious mindset does not require one to be aligned with any particular religion. While it is true that we should not place all the blame for anti-scientific attitudes on religion, it is also the case that anti-science and religion fit together like a hand in a glove often enough that it would serve science educators well to go about reforming religious attitudes before attempting to reform religious institutions.
2. See Dave E. Matson, “How Good Are Those Young-Earth Arguments? A Close Look at Dr. Hovind’s List of Young-Earth Arguments and Other Claims,” The TalkOrigins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy, http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/hovind/howgood.html (accessed March 6, 2014).
3. Kent Hovind, Creation Seminar Part 6: The Hovind Theory, Creation Science Evangelism (DVD), 2002. This lecture is available in its entirety on the official Kent Hovind YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfffRl4RT4s (accessed March 8, 2014).
4. To quote a Twitter post by musician and skeptical activist George Hrab, “Using ‘quantum’ to describe your pseudoscience is like adding an umlaut to your shitty band’s name to make you more METAL” (https://twitter.com/GeorgeHrab/status/446744210914672640).
5. For my critical analysis of New Age claims and the misuse of quantum physics to support spiritualistic philosophies, see my essay “Refuting Quantum Spirituality,” Academia.edu, January 22, 2013, https://www.academia.edu/2580540/Refuting_Quantum_Spirituality (accessed April 13, 2014).
7. Michael White, “The Scientific Debate about GM Foods is Over,” Pacific Standard, September 24, 2013, http://www.psmag.com/health/scientific-debate-gm-foods-theyre-safe-66711/ (accessed November 9, 2013).
9. Botany: Global Issues Map, “Genetically Altered Papayas Save the Harvest,” The McGraw-Hill Companies, February 2000, http://www.mhhe.com/biosci/pae/botany/botany_map/articles/article_03.html (accessed November 10, 2013).
10. Miron Zuckerman, Jordan Silberman, and Judith A. Hall, “The Relation between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 17, no. 3 (November 2013): 325-354.
12. Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution (New York: Cliff Street Books, 1999); Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006).
13. For example, see Orac, “Bill Maher Gets the Richard Dawkins Award? That’s Like Jenny McCarthy Getting an Award for Public Health,” ScienceBlogs, July 23, 2009, http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2009/07/23/bill-maher-gets-the-richard-dawkins-awar/ (accessed March 6, 2014); Steven Novella, “Bill Maher Followup,” NeuroLogica blog, October 12, 2009, http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/bill-maher-followup/ (accessed March 6, 2014).