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Ignorance of science: Who’s to blame?

If the American public doesn’t “get” science issues, who is to blame — the many scientifically illiterate Americans or scientists themselves? 

My Facebook friends were atwitter (no social media mixups intended here) with that question on Sunday in response to a Washington Post piece by science journalist Chris Mooney. He is the co-author, with Sheril Kirshenbaum, of "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future."  

Ignorance of science is not the whole explanation for the mismatch between public opinion and scientific evidence on evolution, vaccinations, climate change and many other issues, Mooney asserts.

“As much as the public misunderstands science, scientists misunderstand the public,” he says. “In particular, they often fail to realize that a more scientifically informed public is not necessarily a public that will more frequently side with scientists.”

On climate change, for example, the gap between scientists and a good share of the public may not be due to a lack of information — but, instead, to deep-seated political loyalties, to the reality that politics trumps science on some issues.

“The battle over global warming has raged for more than a decade, with experts still stunned by the willingness of their political opponents to distort scientific conclusions,” Mooney wrote. “They conclude, not illogically, that they're dealing with a problem of misinformation or downright ignorance — one that can be fixed only by setting the record straight.”

He continues: “It's political outlook — not education — that seems to motivate one's belief on this subject. According to polling performed by the Pew Research Center, Republicans who are college graduates are considerably less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate change than those who have less education. These better-educated Republicans probably aren't ignorant; a more likely explanation is that they are politically driven consumers of climate science information.”

Indeed, more education probably makes a global warming skeptic more persuasive and more adept at collecting information to bolster his or her arguments.

That’s not the only issue we strain through our ideological sieves.

Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because they fear autism tend to be from well-to-do and well-educated families, Mooney says. They research the subject exhaustively on the Internet. But beliefs they’ve latched onto hold more sway than the scientific evidence.

So what’s a frustrated scientist to do?

Mooney says, “Experts who want Americans to take science into account when they form opinions on contentious issues need to do far more than just ‘lay out the facts’ or ‘set the record straight.’ What science says is important, but in controversial areas, it's only the beginning. It's critical that experts and policy makers better understand what motivates public concern in the first place; and in this, they mustn't be deceived by the fact that people often appear, on the surface, to be arguing about scientific facts. Frequently, their underlying rationale is very different.”

Among other steps, he recommends engaging the public in more two-way conversations about issues before they are cemented into political ideology.

And the scientists need to listen — not just lecture.

Mooney’s piece, of course, drew a lively comment thread. Here’s his come back on Facebook on Monday: hey everyone...there have been more responses than i can respond to....but here is a kind of catch all.

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Comments (5)

I doubt more than 1 in 100 Americans, if that, have ever actually read a scientific journal. They get their information filtered through the media.

Someone does a study that finds that listening to Mozart raises scores on an intelligence test and suddenly we have politicians distributing mozart CD's to people to improve their children's intelligence. The politician didn't read the study, they saw a story about it on the news that simplified and sensationalized it.

Of course, if a similar study had found that listening to rap music had that effect, the media would report an entirely different story. The public doesn't provide the ideological filter, that filter is provided to them by the distribution system.

May scientists criticize Mooney for not listening to them, nor for offering substantive means for addressing the issues of scientific literacy.

Another problem that I have with him is his insistence that scientists who are atheists should just sit down and shut up because he says it scares people away from science.

There is, of course, nothing in any science literature to indicate that this is the case. It's a hobby horse of his, that leads me to heavily discount his issues.

I know an investigative journalist with decades of international experience who once provided Chris Mooney with expert scientific contacts and links to peer-reviewed studies. All were ignored -- the final article was grossly one-sided. That's not ethical reporting.

Regarding vaccines: Too many journalists have bought into the notion that covering vaccine safety issues is harmful to public health agendas, and must be quashed. They hasten to mislabel concerned consumers as "anti-vaccine" and distance themselves from discussion. It's the new McCarthyism -- and it allows manufacturers and the FDA to relax quality standards.

Granted, teasing truth about vaccine safety is challenging. Pharmaceutical funding and conflicts of interest abound, as does ghostwriting in medical literature -- note Sen. Charles Grassley's June 24 Senate report.

And note the response of Australian vaccine manufacturer CSL to an FDA letter demanding answers about dark particles in flu vaccines.

Where scientific illiteracy is concerned, Mooney and a gun-shy, advertiser-serving media need to share some of the blame.

The business of scientists is science.

They're not responsible for the fact that many people can't, or won't, think rationally.

“They conclude, not illogically, that they're dealing with a problem of misinformation or downright ignorance — one that can be fixed only by setting the record straight.”

That statement is equally valid for both sides of the global warming issue.