Opinion: Overcoming the threat of scientific illiteracy



Daniel Sprokett

Daniel Sprockett

Daniel Sprockett is a researcher in the KSU Department of Anthropology and a columnist at the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected]

Americans don’t know much about science, and that is a problem.

Only half of Americans believe that human activity is causing our climate to rapidly change, and 48 percent believes the impact of global climate change has been greatly exaggerated.

Four in 10 Americans believe in strict biblical creationism, which is the idea that humans were created in their present form some time in the last 10,000 years.

Only slightly more than half of Americans (52 percent) know that vaccines do not cause autism.

Extensive polling studies suggest that only about a quarter of Americans can be considered scientifically literate, and yet, the future of American prosperity hinges on our ability to adapt to our ever-changing world.

In our lifetimes, we will witness the rise of personalized genomics – the most important medical advancement since the discovery that germs cause disease. The Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, will answer some of the most fundamental questions about our universe. Advances in carbon nanotubes will completely revolutionize the fields of nanotechnology, material science and architecture.

But we will also have to deal with constantly emerging pandemics, increasingly erratic weather patterns and the ever-present specter of nuclear annihilation. Technological advancement has given us much to look forward to, but has also given us many reasons to be fearful.

So how do prepare for this coming hyper-technological world? I submit three humble suggestions:

1. Teach formal logic and critical thinking in middle school. I don’t know how many of you had to take a typing class while growing up, like I did, but I can assure you that there is room in the primary school curriculum to fit arguably the most important skill many people never acquire. The ability to think critically, evaluate arguments and form rational opinions underlies every decision we make in life. In fact, research has shown that basic education in philosophy improves students’ verbal, numerical and spatial abilities, and those improvements last for years.

2. Require all college students to take lab-based science courses. Kent State already requires students to complete a science course to fulfill part of their liberal education requirements, but I’d like to see these opportunities expanded. Science is a process that is best understood in a hands-on environment of open inquiry, and some evidence suggests college science courses have a larger impact on overall science literacy than other types of science education.

3. Reward scientists for engaging in public scientific outreach. Right now, scientists are very rarely rewarded, directly or indirectly, for dedicating any of their busy schedules to educating the general public on the value of science. Many are even penalized if their outreach activities trespass on valuable research time. Most academics are required to fill three full-time roles: that of the researcher, teacher and grant-writer. This leaves little time for talking to journalists, writing popular books or articles or producing engaging visual media. Scientists and their funding organizations should see public outreach as an inherent goal of the scientific endeavor. We’re all in this together, after all.

These suggestions will not solve all of our problems, but they will remove some of the barriers currently keeping most Americans so ignorant about our natural world.