Sunday, February 1, 2009

Nothing to like about lack of scientific knowledge in U.S.

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star 2/1/09

TERRE HAUTE — “Don’t you like America?” A student asked me that question in a class last week. What prompted such a question? I was discussing science and stated that Americans generally do not understand what science is. Indeed, a few minutes prior to the student’s question I asked this class of 80 students, “what is science?” I got no response.

As I answered my own question (a philosophy of knowledge) I was going over the limits to science which has something to do with the kind of question that science can answer. The student raised her hand right after I said that Americans’ lack of scientific understanding caused us to waste considerable energy arguing over the teaching of evolution in school and global warming.

I am probably over-reacting, but I teach a lot of first- and second-year students in that class. Students change over time. They are products of the times, the product of the state approved high school curriculum, they are even influenced by the president of the United States. Students were more conservative in the Reagan years and, without knowing what they were doing, embraced the romantic post-modernism of President Bush. I hope future cohorts of students embrace President Obama’s inaugural promise to “… restore science to its rightful place …”

Is it disliking America to cite the National Center for Educational Statistics report on an international comparison OECD (Organization of Economic Co-Operation and Development) member states on the scientific literacy of 15 year olds, that U.S. 15 year olds’ score was below average? Countries like Canada, Germany, and Australia have higher scientific literacy scores than the U.S. So does Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Estonia. Does the stating of these facts equal bashing America?

There is a correlation of .61 between the scientific literacy scores of 56 countries (both OECD and nonOECD) and average life expectancy. In other words, as the scientific literacy scores increase so does average life expectancy. This doesn’t prove that scientific literacy causes a longer average life expectancy, but economic and social development, which does have something to do with life expectancy, is related to scientific literacy.

There are 30 countries in the OECD. Fifteen of them scored higher than our 15 year olds did on scientific literacy. Ten of those 15 countries have a higher life expectancy than we do. Is our lack of scientific literacy shortening our average life expectancy? It is a good thing that we welcome other countries’ scientists and science students with open arms. Too few native born Americans pursue scientific careers to supply the demand for them.

According to the 2000 Census, there were 582,000 physical and life scientists in the United States. In a labor force of just under 130 million workers, scientists make up less than one-half of 1 percent. If we add engineers to that total, then 1.6 percent of the workforce is made up of scientists and engineers. There are significant shortages of scientists and engineers in this country. There are about as many entertainers in the U.S. as there are scientists. There are about as many people who “sell” things as there are scientists and engineers.

No one should be surprised to learn that there are more lawyers than scientists in the United States. I can’t find the data to make the following claim, but I’ll bet there are more foreign born citizens among our scientists and engineers than among our lawyers and vast marketing and selling industry.

At ISU far more students major in criminal justice (in order to work in law enforcement or corrections) than major in science or mathematics. Of course, not everyone who majors in science ends up working as a scientist, but their scientific literacy is likely greater than the criminal justice majors. And more “literate” people help everyone in society, not just themselves.

In the most scientifically and technologically advanced society in history, where the unquestioned assumptions of science are common sensical, is it unreasonable to expect that our citizens should know what science is? Shouldn’t Americans be able to differentiate science from political/public opinion as easily as we differentiate an iPod from just any mp3 player? Shouldn’t we be able to differentiate between religion and science?

As a sociologist and citizen, I point out that we don’t do a very good job at it. Does that mean I dislike America? If it does, then my next question is, who or what groups in our society benefit from such ignorance?

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