The Intersection

by Philip H.

Now that the Election is over, there is the serious business of communicating and framing science to get back to. We learned a few things this year – science issues aren’t yet ready for primetime debates, but if you ask cogent questions, and keep the number relatively small, you can get answers. Likewise, we learned that many Americans, and their politicians, still don’t get the links between the science we practice, and the policies that candidates were debating. So, what’s a scientist to do in these circumstances?

i-7f8627bed10b018dfa9019b9caaff4aa-philiph.pngWell, I thought a little research was in order to help me frame the question, and thus my responses here and elsewhere. So I started by asking myself this basic question – if more science literacy is needed as part of the political process, then what’s the state of science literacy in the U.S. now? As I mulled over where and how to answer that question, another one surfaced (which, BTW is how science actually works). This second question is, I believe, more fundamental to the science literacy debate: What is the general state of education in the U.S., and how might that impact science literacy and political action?

Well, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2007 Annual Social and Economic Supplement, the state of American education may not yet support a lot of science literacy, nor a lot of sound policy debate rooted in science. The reason? Simply this – only 58 % of Americans age 18 or older (combining all races and genders, and all ages sampled) have a high school or better education, and only 25% of Americans have a Bachelors degree or better education. When you break that dichotomy out by age group (again, for all races and genders combined) you see a fairly constant split.

I have to admit that, as a member of that 25% statistical group, I was floored. I’m also liberal in my politics, so based just on this educational statistic, I may well be a “liberal elite” as so often called out by my conservative counterparts. I’ll add, incidentally, that the Census Bureau figures say nothing about political affiliation, though there has been wide reporting of a correlation between advanced education and liberal political beliefs.

i-3bb9b1fa085c64433168787a11ef7880-philip H 2.png

Not wanting to stop there, I broke down the statistics once more. This second graph displays educational level attainment by age group. What it shows, I think quite clearly, is that those of us with Master’s degrees, Ph.D.’s and other post-graduate professional degrees, make up a minority of American adults (consistently less then 10% across all age groups). This means that, like it or not, our perspective on science and policy issues, though well informed, is not likely to be mainstream.

What does this mean in a framing context? First, I believe it means that we need to focus on delivering our messages to a large number of people ho do not have our training to help them analyze complex subjects. Taken another way, we can’t go to the vast majority of Americans and tell that global warming is “highly likely” to be caused by human action, since they haven’t been taught how to interpret that phrase statistically.

Second, we scientists need to admit to ourselves that, because we’re dealing with this kind of educational scenario, we will be confronted with skeptics and deniers for a long time. We won’t for instance, win the battle over evolution with the ID crowd as long as only 25% of our fellow citizens have Bachelor’s degrees, and thus some level of training in science that will allow them to reason this through.

Third, and finally, we need to recognize that, while science literacy is a great goal to have for our nation, we can’t achieve a level of science literacy for most Americans unless we do it in high school and below. If most American adults are not going to get college degrees, we can’t rely on universities to do this for us. Rather, we need to get more focused and involved in school issues in the communities around us, where our scientific expertise is sorely lacking in class rooms. Maybe if we do, these numbers will start to change in such a way that future Presidential debate will be more science focused, because our fellow citizens will finally have the intellectual tools to demand it.

DISCLAIMER – The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author alone. They do NOT represent the official opinion, policy, or action of any governmental agency the author may work for or have ever worked for at the county, state or federal level. If you do not like the content or opinions, contact the author, not your Congressmen.


  1. #1 Chris C. Mooney
    November 14, 2008

    Hi Philip,

    What a great post. I agree that scientific literacy, at least as traditionally defined, may not be our biggest issue. Remember how scientific literacy is usually tested anyway–a lot of true/false factual questions about things people were supposed to learn in high school. Is this kind of an indicator really that meaningful? And do we really need a populace in which everyone is better at regurgitating scientific facts?

    I think something different is needed–not the abandonment of the “scientific literacy” concept but its redefinition so that it describes the whole society, not just the education levels of public. We need a scientifically literate culture, and that’s one in which science is taken seriously and has real influence–not just one in which everyone has memorized the right facts.

  2. #2 Walker
    November 14, 2008

    In other words, we need to be aiming at building the audience for “Discover”, not “Scientific American” or even “Nature”.

  3. #3 Philip H.
    November 14, 2008

    I think the more apt path would be to start building the audience for Discover with the aim of boosting them to Nature as time goes on. I don’t see them as mutually exclusive.

  4. #4 Mike La Pietra
    November 14, 2008

    Excellent post. I think that as important as science education is, even more important is critical thinking ability. This is an ability that seems to be on the decline in the US. identification of valid/faulty logic is as important as “scientific literacy”. No matter what is emphasized in our education system, the ability analyze and assess the strength of a given position is key.

    I am not educated in the sciences, but I am able to read both sides of an issue and identify weak reasoning and faulty logic.

    Too many people are looking for easy answers, things that are simple, black and white. We have become a society that values easy answers from “authorities”, especially loud, self proclaimed authorities. Much of this attitude is a result of our education system – students that listen quietly and then regurgitate are easier to deal with. I think that logic and philosophy should be taught as early as possible, along with science, math, and reading.

  5. #5 DrA
    November 14, 2008

    No question about it even most popularized science is aimed at the college level. What’s interesting is that if you write something for a more general audience, and it gets reviewed by both scientists and members of the target audience, your article/book will get panned by scientists because it doesn’t sound like science, use all the jargon, etc., while reviews from the target audience are glowing. It shows how far away from the general public most scientifically literate people are. I learned how to explain complex concepts by teaching biology to non-science majors, a task most of my colleagues fail at.

  6. #6 CLM
    November 14, 2008

    When I read The Republican War on Science I was reminded of an essay I read by the late great Richard Feynman in his book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Chapter 4, “What is and What Should be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society?” He said,

    “I want to answer the question as to why people can remain so woefully ignorant and not get into difficulties in modern society. The answer is that science is irrelevant. And I will explain what I mean just in a minute. It isn’t that it has to be, but that we let it be irrelevant to society.”

    He gave this talk in 1964. It is as relevant today as it was then. Why do we let science be irrelevant and how we overcome that? Feynman also said,

    “…in my opinion, to find the proper place of scientific culture in modern society is not to solve the problems of modern society.”

    I would say that technology is interwoven into the fabric of our society more tightly than it was in 1964. I think we are closer to finding a place for scientific culture and relevancy to our lives than it was, but we still have a ways to go.

  7. #7 John K
    November 14, 2008

    Great post.

    Here is one attempt at redefining civic scientific literacy. The authors came up with a new instrument for measuring scientific literacy using science news coverage as a reference point instead of the traditional questions used in the NSF scale.

    Find it here:

  8. #8 D. C. Sessions
    November 14, 2008

    Your conclusion (don’t expect the populace to understand, and if we want them to understand we have to target high school or primary education) is correct but your data reduction contains a flaw:

    Postsecondary education comes nowhere near ensuring any appreciation for science. Have a look at the composition of any US university graduating class [1] and you will see an ocean of education majors, lots of humanities, a fistful of social sciences (variously defined) and a few random survivors of the physical sciences and engineering programs. Even granting the more analytical social sciences, they’re a drop in the bucket.

    Postgraduate programs are no different.

    Therefore your bar charts, taken superficially, greatly overstate the tiny proportion of the populace that has the intellectual background to appreciate science. Some large portion of them have, alas, left most of that behind since leaving University.

    [1] OK, exclude Cal Tech and a few others.

  9. #9 Eric the Leaf
    November 15, 2008

    A scientifically literate, or even literate culture, is unlikely. We now are cultivating “The Dumbest Generation” (Bauerlein). You are not going to create any kind of literate population through blogging or Discover Magazine. It is all, ALL, about education of young people. I will posit that the zenith of science education came in the immediate post-Sputnik era, through directed funding by the National Science Foundation for major secondary science education programs (although some of the funding actually pre-dated Sputnik, if I’m not mistaken) and, importantly, funding for teacher training in the new curricula. Here were the great “alphabet soup” inquiry-based, experimental and laboratory programs like BSCS Biology, PSSC Physics, and IPS Physical Science, among others. Only few survive relatively intact into the present day. If you look at copyright dates (I have many on my bookshelf), you will see the dumbing down of science education beginning in the late 70s and accelerating into the present day. That doesn’t mean that some of you out there did not have a great science education, or because of particularly motivating teachers or through genuine interest and determination did not succeed at science or in scientific careers. IPS once had a substantial portion of the national clientelle, was the flagship physical science textbook of Prentice-Hall, and sponsored workshops throughout the country. The textbook is now published by a small, boutique publisher owned by the authors of the book, who conduct one workshop per year attended by only a handfull of teachers. This great program is nearly extinct. They have been outcompeted by giant book publishers hawking books whose content is dictated by requirements of national and state standards informed by the high stakes testing demanded by political “accountability” and written by anonymous “reading specialists.” Famously, there are more new words introduced per page than in a typical French language book.

    Science literacy–or even just plain literacy–does not find a place in the lives of most people and it is becoming less the case.

    But the lack of science literacy in itself is not, in my opinion, at the root of our problems, a particular obstacle in identifying our problems, or even a major factor involving the solution to our problems. That is for another comment.

  10. #10 Steven Earl Salmony
    November 15, 2008

    Rather than scientific illiteracy, as dangerous as that that may be, consider an example of economic idiocy.

    Billions of dollars in bailouts and year-end bonuses are being directed to the “wonder boys” on Wall Street. These self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe have turned a great capitalist system into a paltry gambling casino. In the light of all their greedy risk-taking and conspicuously hoarding behavior, they can no longer be called by any name other than “thieves of the highest order”.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  11. #11 Q Smith
    November 16, 2008

    At the risk of being rude concerning your data about education in the U.S. – no duh.

    I’d add, don’t confuse general education with scientific literacy… few people with college degrees understand basic statistics. I don’t know how one can claim scientific literacy without basic statistical skills.

    Lastly, don’t confuse a lack of “education” or “scientific literacy” with inability to think or make rationale decisions – that would be elitest… Americans are not stupid.


  12. #12 Philip H.
    November 16, 2008

    @Q Smith – I don’t confuse formal education with reasoning and/or decision making ability. I am advocating, however, that if Ph.D. level sceintists use Ph.D. level language to try to describe their science to “Average Americans” they will likely fail because those Average Americans aren’t Ph.D.’s. While we haven’t had a good framing debate in the Intersection in a long time, the Census data seems to say that we really need to check our assuptions about education before we start.

  13. #13 Eric the Leaf
    November 16, 2008

    It’s not about framing, or anything remotely related. You can frame and reframe ’till the cows come home.

  14. #14 Philip H.
    November 17, 2008

    If you read my post carefully, I spend most of my time not talking about framing, but pointing out that America, for all our bluff and bluster, is not a well educated nation. If, as the Census data seems to suggest, only 25% of Americans of all ages, races, and genders, complete a college degree, then when we’re discussing an issue as a nation – including scientific literacy – we have to discuss it at a level and in language that is understood by the majority who aren’t college educated. That, incidently, is at the heart of framing.

    I do agree that American education has been dumbed down considerably over the last 30 years, which is all the more reason to tackle the issue of science literacy. As I see it, you can’t have science literacy without strong primary and secondary education. In turn, I don’t believe you can have strong education (and thus literacy) if you have people with Bachelor’s or above educations presenting information in a why other can’t grasp.

  15. #15 Wes Rolley
    November 17, 2008

    Reading this made me go back to the Charlie Rose Science Series and listen to Bruce Alberts (Ed. in Chief, Science) talk about Science Education. There is a short clip here and a link to the full interview.

  16. #16 Kevin H
    November 19, 2008

    interesting piece. If I wasn’t busy getting a PhD, I probably would be starting a ‘Policy Science Wiki’. I’ve given a lot of thought to it, and maybe would help with the problem.

    I’d also point out that focusing on getting people through college might be the wrong way to go about getting the desired goals. While it might be a good place to teach people what the phrase ‘statistically significant’ means, it is also too late to strongly effect people’s world view. Focusing on science education in young children seems a better way to instilling in them the notion that scientific inquiry is a valid and useful means for understanding the world and the problems we face.

  17. #17 drdrA
    November 21, 2008

    I agree completely that Ph.D. level scientists do not know how to communicate with the general public at a level that the largely uneducated public of this country can understand and relate to. Many times, scientists at this level can not communicate well about their work or other important scientific topics with people outside their own subfield, never mind the general public.

    And indeed- college is way too late for a scientific education. In fact, I think high school is way too late. If my 6 year old can learn and speak two languages fluently- why is this too early give her an appreciation for basic scientific thought- to teach that science is a process where we ask a deliberate question (we call a hypothesis), and then we design a test (we call an experiment) to see which answer to the question is correct. Upon this early foundation everything else should be built…. and if none of the ‘facts’ get remembered we have still started from a foundation of building rational and critical thinking.

  18. #18 Eric the Leaf
    November 21, 2008

    It’s too bad that posing a good question must be confounded with the term “hypothesis” (even if this was not the intent of the previous comment). They are not the same. Nor should conducting science be confused with the scientific method, certainly as promulgated ad nauseum in textbooks. These terms should be banished from secondary school education. Suppose one decided, as one might do when beginning a physical science class, that volume might be a useful way to keep an account of the amount of matter. Eventually, one might see that volumes are not always additive, for example by dissolving a volume of salt in a volume of water. Houston, we have a problem. We might ask whether or not mass behaves in a similar fashion. This is a terrific question having no need for an hypothesis or any other trapping of eduspeak or sciencespeak. Furthermore, it provides a reason to introduce measurement in a purposeful and compelling context. The result is always satisfying and leads inevitably to other interesting questions, not the least of which is uncertainty in measurement. We might also discover that volume is not conserved when ice melts. Is this true as well for mass? OK, let’s see. It is a fantastic way to learn science that does not resort to a series of sterile steps (would that be four steps or six steps?), known throughout the land as “the scientific method.” My position here is probably an unpopular one, but one gained by a long and intimate association with scientists and educators. When I hear a teacher ask: “Now, kids, what is our hypothesis?” I hear nails scraping across chalkboards.

    But I digress.

  19. #19 drdrA
    November 22, 2008

    Eric- My point (which I think I tried to explain rather badly) was not that my 6 year old is capable of learning the word hypothesis- I couldn’t agree with you more that we need to lose some of the jargon – but rather that she is capable of asking questions, she is capable of figuring out how to follow up observations based on that question- and then thinking about and following on from that. I don’t think that basic framework can be done without- but I agree that this is something quite different from most laboratory classes- where kids follow a recipe to complete the assigned experiment.

  20. #20 Eric the Leaf
    November 23, 2008

    Fair enough. I knew that my comment was a digression of your central point, which I totally agree with.

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