Although our lives are dominated by technology, most of the US population is scientifically illiterate. Yes, that’s a bold statement unsupported by scientific data. But consider this: With enough money, you can book a space flight, but most people don’t understand that we can never travel to other solar systems. Less money will buy you a routine airline trip that crosses half the planet in a day, but a large fraction of the population doesn’t understand the earth’s rotation and orbit. With even less money you can get a smart phone to call distant friends, to order wine from China, or to access this web page from Riyadh; however, few understand the electronic connections.
Technology provides our commute to work, our awareness of events, the shipment of our foods, and the comfort (or discomfort) in our houses, but we feel powerless if the circuit breaker opens or the electric grid fails. Many of us don’t even understand the electricity provided by the 3-hole sockets in our walls.
The illiteracy movement.
Governmental leaders claim our schools should increase the teaching of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), but at the same time legislatures try to restrict teaching of climate change and biological evolution. How come?
Simple answer: scientific illiteracy extends into the legislatures, too. Some politicians think ignorant statements make a candidate look good, especially to a public that regards science as another opinion to be changed at will. Or as a collection of irrelevant facts.
Isn’t science just another opinion?
Science is indeed based on observable facts, but it is the organization of those facts into testable theories that distinguishes science from opinion. A hundred years ago, the famous mathematician and physicist Henri Poincare’ said, “Science is built up with facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.” (translation)
“Testable theory” means repeated observation. Nature writes the rules. Science observes the physical universe and organizes the observations into theoretical structures by which the result of a future test can be predicted. Every test necessarily checks a lot of previous theory in the process of testing a new theory. Thus, the scientific structure is always under test, but that does not imply that the scientist doubts the structure.
An established theory is more likely to be revised than discarded. Such a revision extends the theory to include more situations. Newton’s laws of motion enable prediction of the motions of planets, freight trains, and falling raindrops, but that theory had to be extended to include subatomic particles approaching the speed of light. The extended theory is Einstein’s special relativity. It didn’t invalidate Newton’s laws for everyday events, including bullets, baseballs, and brick walls.
Progress in science is the assembly of separate, narrow theories into a single structure from which still more observations can be predicted. Evolution is the structure that organizes what’s known about the development of biological species, including dinosaurs and new viruses.
If you aren’t aware of the political anti-science movement, do a Google search on “anti-science” and read the entries dated within the last three months. You’ll see accounts of the current movement, but be aware that there have been anti-science movements since modern science began about 350 years ago. The various opposition movements occur for the same reason: science threatens established ideas, and people respond to a perceived threat with opposition, not evaluation.
The current organized political opposition to evolution attracts conservative religious voters. Political denial of global climate change comes more from the business community than the religious community, because business feels threatened by environmental restrictions. The two political interests are often joined with an objective of stirring fear by making science look bad.
Although it appeals more to left-wing voters than to conservative voters, uninformed fear of radiation and nuclear electric power is widespread. It’s wise to evaluate risks, but blind fear prevents rational evaluation. Socially, we fear a nuclear power plant, but we refuse, politically, to establish either a waste processing cycle to capture unused fuel or a permanent waste disposal facility.
Because most people accept x-rays for medical pictures, I conclude the fear of radiation apparently arises when the word, “nuclear” appears. For example, we also obtain medical pictures by “magnetic resonance imaging” (MRI), thereby avoiding the term “nuclear magnetic resonance,” a more precise term for the same physical process. I presume the fear of things labeled “nuclear” originates from the use of atom bombs on Japan almost 70 years ago, although many more Japanese were killed by the firestorms of incendiary bombs than by atom bombs.
The cereal box labels that advertise “non-GMO” infer that genetically modified foods (GMOs) threaten your body. However, I suggest the significant GMO-related threats are 1) the release of new organisms into the environment, and 2) the potential monopolistic control of seed stocks.
So what’s the point?
My point is this: a general understanding of science can relieve fear, enable rational choices, and avoid political manipulation by fear-mongering. To obtain that benefit, we would have to accept the questioning of science, a questioning that threatens our cultural and religious beliefs. These beliefs were not developed by rational processes, so they’re resistant to change by rational examination. That’s ok; examination of the physical universe by science need not actually threaten the moral rules by which you choose to live your own life. However, the response to a perceived threat is defense, and defensive social movements become oppressive. For example, consider the resistance of middle-eastern cultures to modernity.
The scientific illiteracy underlying the anti-science movement is itself a threat, because a nominally democratic society is frail when the people feel fearful and powerless over their everyday lives. Such a society can drift into the security of totalitarian control, either from the right or the left. Consider the rise of fascism and that of communism in Europe.