The great divide…


IN geographic terms, the ‘great divide’ is used to define the point in the USA, roughly following the course of the Rocky Mountains, where on one side a drop of water will run down into the Pacific Ocean, and on the other, it will run down into the Atlantic.

There is however another great divide in the USA, which is between those that have a basic knowledge of the world around them, and those that don’t. The online newszine Science Daily described a recent poll commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences, in which a series of basic questions, designed to assess basic science literacy, were posed to 1,002 adults over a four day period last December. The poll has been ongoing (though in a less rigorous sense) online at the CAS website. The results were as follow:

  • Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun [a year, 365 days]
  • Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time. [Duh]
  • Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water. [where the answer of 65-75& was taken as approx. correct, though 15% gave the correct response of 70%]
  • Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.[!]
  • Less than 1% of U.S. adults know what percent of the planet’s water is fresh [3%]

Hands up who thinks this is unacceptable?

No, it’s not. So why is the USA finding it has a problem with scientific literacy? Well, please just indulge me. Let’s think about Pakistan, where many (though not all) Madrassas (Islamic schools) are engaging in the indoctrination of a new generation of children into fundamentalist rhetoric; this comes at the cost of education that can raise people out of poverty and morbidity; education that gives them some control over their lives. However, for many, Madrassas are the only source of ‘education’. Yet if you speak to a young professional on the street of moderate urban centres such as Karachi, they are not going to present you with the fundamentalist hard-line; they are the lucky few, to have been born into a better area, perhaps to a richer family whom are well educated.

It is not such a great step to see such a partisanship developing in the USA, with the richer, well educated ‘elite’ being outnumbered by those who are disenfranchised from modern successes, scientific discoveries and societal benefits. Those left behind in progress increasingly turn inward toward timeless stalwarts such as the fundamentalist hard-line, which not only serves to widen the gulf to be crossed by communicators of science, but ultimately results in senators, congressmen and governors becoming willing to bow down to public anti-science opinion, i.e. votes, at a government level, thus jeopardising the future scientific and medical progress.

In a paper published in PLoS Biology, PLoS staff writer Liza Gross points out that whilst the people of many industrialised countries have conflicting attitudes towards science, weighing up the benefits against the impacts on society, the USA is set apart by its reservations being centred around religion.

She cited a study by Jon D. Miller, who has been measuring the public understanding of science and technology in the USA for the last three decades, in which he evaluated responses of adults to the following three questions:

  • The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally.
  • There is a personal God who hears the prayers of individual men and women.
  • Human beings were created by God as whole persons and did not evolve from earlier forms of life.

In 2005, 43% of American adults agreed with all three statements. The three points above are not really conducive to full and informed scientific literacy, with the associated benefits of knowing something useful about the physical world in which we all live. Acceptance of these points immediately requires we abandon most of our scientific understanding of matter, biology and the universe. It seems that twice as many American adults know the origins of both the Earth and human kind (impressive achievement for a few hours reading) than can answer three elementary-school level science questions. What’s wrong with this picture?

Perhaps the problem is one of guilt by association? Science is in the bad books because several disciplines, including evolutionary biology and stem cell research, are seen to conflict with the religious sensibilities of members of the public. In the rush to avoid exposing their children to such information, could it be that parents are indirectly preventing their children’s access to other aspects of science, which is lost in the cross-fire? A great proportion of learning can only be achieved with the support of parents; if parents develop anti-science sentiments because they misunderstand the relationship between those areas they agree with and those they don’t, then this presents dire prospects for a young child’s future scientific literacy.

Despite this, the CAS poll did identify that ~80% of those adults quizzed felt that science was ‘essential‘ or ‘important‘ to US healthcare, reputation and economy. This is a positive response and one that should be built upon by a concerted effort to increase scientific research and education; president Obama’s decision to invest $15 billion in US science is an investment long overdue from a US administration, and should go some way to turning the tide on progressive anti-science sentiments.

An important point made by Jon Miller is that the public’s capacity to understand science is not the problem, it is interest. Companies (such as the pharmaceutical industry, food manufacturers, telecommunication and computer industries, to name but a few) in the public eye should embrace the science that their incomes depend upon; they should find ways to engage the public with interesting scientific discoveries, rather than to dumb down, i.e. remove completely, the public display of scientific knowledge for fear of intimidating or scaring away customers.

Furthermore, in this time of great issue in science communication, no groups do more damage than those peddling pseudoscience under the guise of real science, using fictitious ‘sciencified’ words to sugar-coat outlandish and often harmful quackery.

Active engagement with the public on scientific discoveries is necessary, and is down to the willingness and ability of scientists to build bridges and engage the public with science that is appropriate and relevant to everyday life. When people think that science is irrelevant to them, then it is a sad day.


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