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?
Well, 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.
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.
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