Monday, April 17, 2006

Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology   posted by the @ 4/17/2006 05:19:00 PM

Liza Gross has an essay in PLoS Biology, "Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology", about Jon D. Miller's work on scientific literacy.

The good news:
Only 17% of adults in the U.S. are "scientifically literate," but that's higher than in Canada, Japan, and Europe.

The bad news:
in a 2005 survey measuring the proportion of adults who accept evolution in 34 European countries and Japan, the United States ranked 33rd, just above Turkey. No other country has so many people who are absolutely committed to rejecting the concept of evolution, Miller says. "We are truly out on a limb by ourselves."

Interesting conclusions:
Miller sees opportunities for learning everywhere and may be one of the few people in the scientific community to see an upside to Big Pharma's ubiquitous direct-to-consumer TV drug ads. By saying that cholesterol levels derive from two sources-diet and family history-commercials for Lipitor and other cholesterol-reducing statins introduce the notion that genetics is probabilistic rather than deterministic in a very basic way that people can understand, he explains. "But if you say that genetic predisposition is 'probabilistic,' you've just lost 90% of the people."

The limiting step in enhancing scientific literacy is not people's capacity for learning, Miller says, as much as it is interest. When Americans are diagnosed with cancer or some other life-threatening disease, "the vast number of these people go online and learn more science in the next 12 months than a typical undergraduate will ever learn. It is impressive how much people can learn with the proper motivation. We need to get people to be savvy about how to find the information and make sense of it."

Miller urges scientists to take comfort in the fact that the majority of Americans are not anti-science, but simply don't know how exciting scientific discovery can be. "We must be cautious and not presume that our society feels strongly about what scientists do one way or another. There's a lot of work to be done for us to tell people what we do, why we do it, and why it's important," he advises. Given the pace of biomedical discoveries in the 21st century, he adds, it's likely that more and more scientific issues will reach the public agenda. "We're going to be revisiting various versions of these questions again and again. But there's a large segment of Americans who still haven't made up their mind on these issues. We in the scientific community have to treat them seriously, talk to them, and make our arguments. This is a great opportunity for us."