It’s been VERY busy the past couple weeks. Will try to post something later this weekend.
There would seem to be a big difference between scientists doing civic outreach as part of their professional activity, and the federal government declaring that citizens ought to know more about science, and funding the “problem” of “illiteracy.” Isn’t it kind of strange for the government to be trying to *persuade* citizens of anything?–aside perhaps (as you say) to attach themselves to the values of the constitution? It would be seen as propaganda for the government to proselytize eating beef, joining unions or attending church services.
The question is whether scientific illiteracy really does constitute a “problem.” If it does, then you can make the case that the government should be persuading us one way or the other. After all, we are persuaded to eat healthy, avoid smoking, buy car (and now health!) insurance, etc. At some point we have to draw a line between individual autonomy and collective welfare. While there can be reasonable disagreement on where to draw the line, it will have to be drawn.
Two factors make scientific literacy a bit more complicated to discuss along these lines. The examples above all have some supporting data. We can concretely debate the costs and benefits of, e.g., anti-smoking legislation because we know health costs are reduced if people smoke less and we know that people will smoke less if cigarettes are taxed. This information can help us make a subjective decision on whether or how much to regulate cigarettes. With respect to science literacy, we often have nothing more than platitudes and assertions. Consider the introduction of Project 2061’s Benchmarks for Science Literacy:
The terms and circumstances of human existence can be expected to change radically during the next human life span. Science, mathematics, and technology will be at the center of that change—causing it, shaping it, responding to it. Therefore, they will be essential to the education of today’s children for tomorrow’s world. [Emphasis added–PK]
Well sure science will be important in the future. But so will global capitalism, religion, and international law. Will science be more or less at the “center” than these? And how “essential” is science education compared to economics education? For all the emphasis given to empiricism , scientists have shockingly little data to bolster their general claims about science. Without some data it’s harder to decide if science education should be included in the list of activities the government persuades us to do.
The second issue is that the government promotes science literacy in no small part because scientists agitate for them to do so. The government is simply doing what governments everywhere do–responding to a group of active, engaged citizens. If we agree (as Jean and I appear to) that civic activism is a good thing, then how can we not expect the government to have a disproportionate focus on science education? After all, scientists are disproportionately active in this regard. Perhaps we can argue scientists should not have as much influence as they do, or they should not reflexively promote scientific literacy. But given that they do have influence and they do strongly promote science literacy, I don’t see how we can avoid the current situation. You might even say that the government would be shirking (part of) its responsibilities if they didn’t respond to a passionate interest group.
Of course all this gets into the role of interest groups in American democracy. For what it’s worth, I found this article in the New Yorker insightful. But I really don’t want to get into all this too much because I’m manifestly not qualified to do so. It would also break my personal promise to not blog about traditional politics. My banner should really read “Thoughts on science policy and science politics” rather than “science, policy and politics.” I’ll fix that sometime when I figure out a more elegant phrasing!
I’ve criticized scientists for placing themselves at the forefront of policy. Science is always the foundation and the basis of decisions and you neglect us at your peril. There’s no recognition that some decisions necessarily ignore or marginalize science. The lack of nuance clearly annoys me.
I haven’t discussed that this foundation rhetoric carries over to science education. Science literacy is implicitly (explicitly?) viewed as more important than legal, financial, or civic literacy. Consider the constant harping that the U.S. doesn’t produce enough scientists, and the centrality of science education in competitiveness legislation. Also consider the prominence given to science rather than economics in climate literacy. As with policy-making, shades of gray aren’t discussed. We may in fact already produce too many scientists. Perhaps we shouldn’t isolate science literacy from a broader liberal education. Maybe highlighting the ethical dimensions of climate change would better catalyze support.
Intellectually I rebel against these simplistic portrayals. On a day-to-day basis, I think financial literacy is more useful than science literacy. I also think that climate literacy should focus on economics, politics and philosophy as much as science.
But despite all this, I’m reluctant to criticize us. I’ve engaged in science outreach for several years now, and I never cease to be impressed by our dedication. The overblown national dialogue of too few scientists and the impending Chinese dominance does not, in my experience, always filter down to individual scientists. On a personal level we really do care about engaging people and getting them excited about science. For all our communication problems (and we have many), we expend much time, money and energy on it.
So in the end I have mixed feelings about how we speak about science literacy. Yes we’re too quick to deify it and too eager to isolate it from education more broadly conceived. And I’m not convinced that better science literacy will help us address climate change. I genuinely believe we would be better served if science education were on an equal footing with everything else.
But yet…surely it is important for everyone to be more familiar and engaged with science. Surely it’s a good thing that we agitate and campaign for what we believe in. Especially since I have participated and will continue to participate in these campaigns, any criticism rings hollow. I know I wouldn’t really believe myself if I denounced such admirable civic activism. Rather than diminish our efforts, I wish others would emulate them. A more nuanced discussion should result from better outreach by economists and historians, not with less outreach by us.
I meant to blog about this earlier, but check out Joe Romm’s post on an open letter from scientists supporting the I.P.C.C. As I’ve said repeatedly, I’m somewhat skeptical of lists like these because I don’t think every scientist is qualified to comment on climate change. It’s very easy to find yourself in a contest where both sides simply collect Ph.D signatures to bolster their case. Check out this petition of 9,000 Ph.D’s who reject global warming. On the face of it, I don’t see why either list is more authoritative. We can easily devolve into arguments over who has a bigger list of supporting scientists.
Of course I trust and respect the pro-IPCC position more. I consider co-author Steve Schneider to be one of my informal mentors. I’ve learned amore from him than I have from almost anyone else. His desire to fight back is entirely understandable. Constant attacks have provoked this response. I wish I could offer some positive suggestions rather than criticism. As painful as it is for me to say, I don’t think this list helps.