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“Ignorance feeds on ignorance.” - Carl Sagan

Let’s start by focusing on the positive. In just 17 years, over 50 million people have been added to the rolls of Americans who can understand a newspaper story about science or technology, according to findings presented last weekend at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in San Francisco.

Michigan State University political scientist Jon D. Miller, who conducted the study, attributed some of the increase in science literacy to colleges, many of which in recent years have required that students take at least one science course. Miller says people have also added to their understanding through informal learning: reading articles and watching science reports on television.

Okay, now let’s talk (dare I say rant?) about the 200 million Americans out there who cannot read a simple story in, say, Technology Review or the New York Times science section and understand even the basics of DNA or microchips or global warming.

This level of science illiteracy may explain why over 40 percent of Americans do not believe in evolution and about 20 percent, when asked if the earth orbits the sun or vice versa, say it’s the sun that does the orbiting–placing these people in the same camp as the Inquisition that punished Galileo almost 400 years ago. It also explains the extraordinary disconnect between scientists and much of the public over issues the scientists think were settled long ago–never mind newer discoveries and research on topics such as the use of chimeras to study cancer, or pills that may extend life span by 30 or 40 percent.

As Carl Sagan eloquently wrote in The Demon-Haunted World, ignorance reigns in our society at a moment when science is on the cusp of doing amazing and wonderful things, but also dangerous things. Ignorance, said Sagan, is not an option.

Indeed, given that we live in a culture based on science and technology, this situation is dangerous. It conjures the specter of a society in which a cadre of elites knows and understands the essentials of the science that underpins our civilization, while everyone else uses and depends on that science without having a clue. This scenario is troubling in a democracy that assumes a baseline of citizen knowledge. The outcome could be that the illiterates become so fearful of science and technology, so resentful of the exalted position of the elites, that they try to slow down the progress of science, or stop it altogether. Or the opposite could happen: the scientifically elite may grow frustrated with the illiterates and try to co-opt or even control them.

The forces of ignorance have squelched science across history, from the mob in ancient Alexandria, which chased the astronomer Aristarchus out of town for suggesting that the earth moved around the sun, to the present restrictions on federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research.

Elites’ exploiting their scientific knowledge for power is also not new. Mayan elites, for instance, used their extraordinary knowledge of mathematics, engineering, and astronomy to build great cities and temples–and sumptuous palaces for themselves–and to awe and control the masses through a religion that included ripping the hearts out of sacrificial victims. Europeans during the colonial era leveraged their advanced guns and ships into global empires at the expense of so-called “ignorant savages.”

One of Miller’s findings that may surprise many Americans is that Europeans and Japanese actually rate slightly lower in science literacy. To be sure, these same populations also have a much higher percentage of people who accept evolution and other basic scientific theories. America’s large population of conservative religious believers may be one reason for this discrepancy, although clearly there are hundreds of millions of people in the developed world who need education.

Perhaps we should launch a scientific literacy campaign like the mid-20th-century drive that nearly tripled the rate of basic literacy worldwide. The question is, does the public really want to know how gadgets run and how organisms work? And are scientists and those who control scientific knowledge willing to share–that is, to take the time, and perhaps give up some of their influence and access to knowledge?

In other words, is this seemingly global dilemma of science illiteracy fixable or not?

In the next few days look for:
Part II: What is the media’s role in science illiteracy?
Part III: Are scientists helping or hindering science literacy?

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