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12/31/2013

Distinguishing Science from Nonsense

by Arthur Caplan, Ph.D.

As Americans enter 2014 there is grave concern among our political leaders that we are lagging behind other nations in terms of our children’s’ scientific literacy.  This past December an international survey confirmed—too many American kids don’t understand science and they continue to fall behind children from other nations, many much poorer than we are in science and math skills.

Students in the United States slipped deeper in the last international science literacy rankings amid fast-growing competition abroad.  American teens scored below the international average in math and roughly average in science, compared against dozens of other countries in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  We trail Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Britain, Latvia, Viet Nam and many more.  (http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results.htm)

Some of our leaders know that the continuing drop in scientific skills spells disaster for our economic future.  Secretary of Education Arnold Duncan in reviewing the survey complained that the United States’ performance on the 2012 PISA is “a picture of educational stagnation…This is a reality at odds with our aspiration to have the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world.”

No doubt our education system carries some of the blame for our continued slippage relative to the rest of the world in science.  But if we continue to think that poor schools and bad teaching are the only source of our science woes we are surely missing the forest for the trees.

A key reason for the poor performance of our children with respect to science is that American culture is both ignorant of and disrespectful to science.

As I write this there are two women in ICUs in different parts of the U.S. on life support despite having been pronounced dead by medical experts.  Both women, a teenager in Oakland and a young, woman in Forth Worth carrying a 14-week old fetus when she died were found to be dead on the basis of brain death.  Both had their bodies maintained by machines, in Oakland with the support of the deceased’s family and in Texas against family wishes.  Neither the media or the medical profession seemed to be able to explain that brain death is truly death.  Nor did the public seem inclined to listen, believing somehow that a miracle might occur.

At the same time as these cases emerged a poll was released by the Pew Research Group showing that a third of Americans do not believe in evolution.  They think “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

24% acknowledge evolution but believe a Supreme Being has directly guided life on earth.  Since Americans rely so much on oil, coal and gas it is not clear how they think the biblical account of creation has and will continue to assist in their discovery.

And as I write this flu season has begun across the country.  The CDC estimates that last year 381,000 Americans were hospitalized due to the flu. They also estimate that, the flu vaccine prevented 79,000 hospitalizations and 6.6 million illnesses.  Yet a tiny cabal of kooks and know-nothings has gotten so much attention that barely half of all Americans get a flu shot.

It does not end there.  The nutritional supplements industry is a thirty billion dollar business that has no solid evidence for efficacy and oodles of instances in which death and disability are linked to poorly manufactured or mislabeled products.  Yet our airwaves are full of ads and endorsements for this cornucopia of malarkey.

I could go on but the point ought to be clear.  Children are not going to flourish at science in a society that treats science either as something you can believe in selectively, something that is simply one point of view or something about which anyone can have a credible opinion no matter how ill-qualified, dumb or misinformed.

If we want to have a brighter economic future then we need to start thinking about science education outside of our schools.  We need editors and producers who refuse to put fringe points of view on the air.  We need scientists who see it as their duty to engage broader audiences about their work then their peers.  We need training of scholars in the public understanding of science so more informed voices are heard in the public arena who respect science and the scientific method.  We need more vetting in our courts of who it is that can speak for science.  And we need more role models of scientists rather than athletes and entertainers who are prominently put before the eyes of kids who may find it a bit hard to take chemistry, ecology, epidemiology, statistics and geology seriously when their home life is filled with the musings of the casts of Duck Dynasty, Honey Boo Boo and Long Island Medium.  And we wonder why Johnny and Jane can’t distinguish science from nonsense.

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