Thursday, October 30, 2008

What’s real and what’s for sale? The need to reach an interpretive level of scientific literacy in the 21st century

In the Christopher Buckley book, and 2006 movie of the same name, “Thank You for Smoking”, a big tobacco funded “research institute” and a smooth-talking spin artist spews statistics and statements that deny the association between smoking and poor health. A key point of the film is that these types of “spin artists” are everywhere, driven by corporate dollars. The Wild, Wild West Internet is the 21st century’s primary information source, a place where cowboy creationists concoct religion masked as fact, and spam espousing penny stocks replaces financial analysis. Countries, big and small, communist and capitalist, are rife with propaganda when it comes to issues like health and the environment. The proliferation of information in modernity has brought about an era in which the treacherous abundance of misinformation must be countered by a deeper form of scientific literacy.

The fate of humanism and self-determination by individuals and societies in the 21st century, for all cultures, lies with the achievement of a global scientific literacy that permits the search for truth in world full of false and deceptive information. Individuals must be able to parse the statistics and conclusions disseminated by exploitative organizations in order to understand the phenomena that define their daily lives. We need to augur the existing definitions of scientific literacy to include the ability to evaluate the quality of scientific information and intellectual curiosity.

We can approach this goal when two conditions align – teaching and funding. A study by David Berliner and Ursula Casanova showed that positive outcomes towards scientific literacy occur when teachers place emphasis on developing positive attitudes toward science, the potential societal impact of scientific knowledge and innovation, and highlight the historical evolution of the sciences. In a nutshell, what Berliner and Casanova are talking about is teaching science well.

The winning strategy will involve governments committing to funding science education, creating and keeping qualified individuals in the field from elementary school to PhD, creating museums to foment interest amongst the youth and investing in innovative programs and curriculum. The fight will involve non-profits and activists. It involves parents who care and participate in the effort. The recipe includes equal parts presidents and prime ministers, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and Mom and Dad. The Chinese seem to understand the importance of funding science education. Deng Nan, first secretary of the China Association for Science and Technology, told the Xinhua news "Our focus is to ignite children's curiosity about nature and inspire their interest in scientific concepts.” Investing in getting children interested in science hits the nail on the head. Whether China puts their yuan where their mouths are is another matter. China’s $1.2 trillion and growing in reserves could buy a whole lot of science textbooks, but even with some encouraging signs now emerging on the environmental front, one still gets the ominous feeling that any increased scientific literacy will just be a byproduct of China’s quest to be the next great military power.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, less than 1% of annual budgets go to the sciences, while its military budgets chew 20 times that.

Scientific knowledge across the global socioeconomic spectrum is the best social investment that we can make. In a way, assuming we have a planet left when and if societies achieve this sophisticated level of scientific knowledge, teaching children and young adults can be viewed as a grassroots path to saving the environment and good health. The result would be a world, not only a thriving planet, but a world full of people who can make informed decisions. They will understand the ramifications of their day-to-day behavior--from what they buy in the supermarket to whether they litter and pollute. They will better understand the dangers of drugs, whether they are prescribed by the doctor, the television, the government or the crack dealer. They will be able to decide whether the lobbyists, controlled government agencies or experts like Dr. Phil are best qualified to tell them what to eat. At the same time, these same people will be able to question whether governments and corporations are environmentally conscious.

As important as science education is in the United States or Europe, it is crucial in emerging global economies like China and India, and the forgotten continent of Africa. Scientific literacy is not found in poor urban Americans eating at McDonald’s twice a day, thinking “hydrogenated” is what happens after drinking a glass of water. It is not found in the Chinese in small villages dumping garbage upstream from their own homes. It is not found in an African believing sex with a virgin will cure him of HIV.

At its core, scientific illiteracy is a scourge of the poor that strips of them of their wealth and health and is the root of many of the world’s worst social problems. The poor are incapable of making sound decisions on their own because of their lack of scientific understanding. For folks like Bill and Melinda Gates pulling the budget strings, it’s attacking many of the problem at the root –much like teaching a man to fish, before he pours arsenic in the lake.

In the sea of distortions, political propaganda or outright lies, scientific knowledge is the astrolabe we can give everyone to navigate misinformation. In order for it to happen, a global effort and commitment will be required. People must understand the ramifications of their individual behavior and choices and the decisions made at all levels of government and corporations. Only then can humanity truly choose to make this world a better place.

Sources:

Berliner, David and Casanova, Ursula, “Increasing Scentific Literacy Means Teaching It”, Instructor, 1989

Buckley, Christopher; Thank You For Smoking, Random House, 1994

“Scientific literacy: a new strategic priority for China”, by Quyang Jing, March 29, 2006, SciDev.net

“China to buy $3 billion stake in Blackstone”, International Business Times, May 24, 2007

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