Bioethics Blogs

Scientific illiteracy is not the tragedy of our times

Maya J. Goldenberg challenges the role of science in policy debates.

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In a recent television appearance on Australia’s Monday Night Q&A, the eminent scientist and science communicator Neil Degrasse Tyson claimed that scientific illiteracy is “a tragedy of our times”. This remark was aimed at climate change deniers and other graduates of the University of Google who vocally challenge the scientific consensus on pressing science-based policy issues like climate change, vaccines, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Their outlandish claims then receive unwarranted consideration and sometimes acceptance by members of the public with poor science education.

Government leaders have been concerned for decades about the limits that public misunderstanding of science places on modern Western societies’ economic competitiveness and growth. Despite political investment in scientific literacy, especially in K-12 education, many politicians are rightly criticized (by Tyson among others) for abusing science to meet political ends. In Canada, for instance, environmental science research has been severely tethered so as to protect the leadership’s oil sands-intensive economic plan.

Public surveying by the National Science Board and the Australian Academy of Science indicate that public scientific competencies leave much to be desired (although Canada is doing fine!). Yet the popular view held by Tyson and many others—that scientific illiteracy is the root of public resistance to scientific claims—is false. That is, science scepticism is not rooted in poor scientific education.

Whether I know that an atom is smaller than a molecule or how long it takes for the earth to go around the sun (to borrow two typical questions from the National Science Board and Australian Academy of Science surveys of scientific literacy) bears little on my ability to evaluate the claims made regarding reviving cod populations in Atlantic Canada or protecting health by vaccinating school-aged children against Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.