Why Do Americans Fail To Understand Science?

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By Ryan Sutter

Photo of Ryan in front of a rocky creek.

On July 10, Minnesota Public Radio Midmorning discussed the topic “New polls indicate a dim view of U.S. scientific achievement.” The polls in question were from the Pew Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The short of it is, the vast majority of scientists (97%) accept that life evolved over time from a shared common ancestor but only 61% of the general public believes the same. On the topic of global warming, the divide is even greater. 84% of scientists are convinced that global warming is real and caused by human activity but only 49% of the public agrees.

Nothing new here, really. Americans love them some science when it can bring them high-definition Dancing With the Stars or omega-3 enhanced Twinkies or Internet nudity, but if scientists say something inconvenient or out of line with the dogma learned at daddy’s knee, well, then scientists clearly don’t know what they’re talking about, or it’s just opinion and nobody really knows, right?

Sigh… So, why bother writing about this at all? I mean, whoop-de-doo, people would rather cling to cherished beliefs than learn. Big deal. That’s not really the part I want to write about. It’s more the proposed solution they were discussing on the show. The solution they were pitching, I kid you not, was that scientists maybe need to learn to communicate better.

Seriously? The problem is that scientists are lousy communicators? Really?

Allow me to illustrate why this is a wee bit misguided:

Let’s say that you are a parent and your five year old asks why the sky is blue. You explain how light gets bent when it comes through the air and makes it look blue. They have a hard time grasping the concept of light being bent and changing color, but you tell them it’s like a rainbow, and they believe you. You’ve probably communicated the basic concept well enough and in the absence of anybody else undoing your effort, your child will grow up believing this; refining it as they age. Now, let’s throw in a monkey wrench. You tell your child this but one of their friends tells them that science is wrong – that the sky is blue because it’s God’s favorite color or because there are oceans above the clouds that are blue and that’s also where rain comes from. Your child now maybe isn’t so sure which answer is correct. The problem isn’t that you communicated poorly, it’s that somebody else gave your child false information and muddied the picture.

Scientists regularly write excellent, readable, understandable book, and shows like Nature and Nova constantly inform and educate. There are whole channels devoted to elucidating even the most mind-boggling of scientific discoveries. But, there is also a concerted effort to undermine all of this. Organizations like Answers in Genesis and The Discovery Institute work around the clock to spread disinformation, to distort and counter actual science with propaganda, logical fallacies, and flat out lies, almost exclusively in the name of Christianity. They produce heavy handed propaganda like Expelled to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt, equating science with fascism, Nazism, immorality and (gasp!) atheism with nary a true fact at their command. They don’t need facts; they just need rationalizations and emotions because they know this is enough for most people.

When marketing doubt and uncertainty, it is only necessary that one comes up with something that sounds plausible because that will satisfy most of the people who ever consider the topic. The entire creationist/ID movement is based on developing arguments that appear sound and then presenting them in the most carefully chosen language possible so that people can continue to doubt science. (If you don’t like the term propaganda, how about marketing?) They market the idea that there is controversy in the scientific community, that there is a conspiracy among atheist intellectuals to attack faith, and they provide seemingly valid points of contention. What they don’t do is correct their claims when those claims are debunked by actual science. They just keep repeating them, knowing full well that they can accomplish their goals by stubborn repetition, evidence be damned. If somebody already believes that they know why evolution is a crock, why would they bother to actually read a book about it or listen to reasons why 97% of scientists accept it as a fact? For the majority, the answer is clear. They won’t. They have better things to do with their time.

Unfortunately for the future of science education in this country, propaganda is more effective than evidence, no matter how well presented the evidence may be. A sound bite is more persuasive than a tome like Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale or Sean Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful. There is no propaganda machine working against computer science, or rocket science, only against the biological and (recently) climate sciences. It is no wonder that these are the areas where people doubt. The correlation is plain.

I offer mature thinkers this advice: Consider the source of what you read and if you think there is a controversy, please, for goodness’ sake, examine both sides from sources allied with each. If you read book A, then be sure to read another book that critically examines book A, or better yet, a book from somebody who represents the other side of the argument. You will find that the propagandists leave out essential information, misrepresent things, and raise arguments that have been answered again and again. The truth is out there, if only people were willing to look at it. Until American’s start doing that, no amount of improvement in scientists’ communications skills will change anything.

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Positive Atheism in Action Since 1991