Neuron Culture

The Public Library of Science — the wonderful open-access journal — features a fine, thought-provoking piece by staffer Lisa Gross on Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology. Gross takes a sobering look at how the fast pace of today’s science and the public’s lack of understanding of scientific basics and principles (like the nature of empiricism) are exploited by some who seek to “[turn] scientific matters like stem cells and evolution into political issues.”

But it’s not a despairing story. She spends a lot of time describing how Jon Miller, director of the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University Medical School, sees the public’s ambivalence about science as an opportunity. Miller argues that the ideologues are merely exploiting a fluid, malleable situation that scientists can also readily influence.

“Even though the scientific community can feel besieged by this anti-science sentiment,” says Jon D. Miller, who directs the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University Medical School, “most people really haven’t made up their mind about this issue and, in fact, really haven’t even thought about it.” Rather than fretting about the cultural divide—or worse, doing nothing—Miller urges scientists to do their part to bridge the gap.

Miller mounts a strong argument that the conventional view (among scientists and lefties) of these debates over science badly misunderstands how people understand and view science. With scientific “literacy” at only about 17%, most people simply tune out discussions that involve science because they feel ill-equipped to weigh the arguments. The noisy debates then (like so much else in politics) are really aimed at swaying and mobilizing a small segment of the population. Everyone else sits it out.

Miller’s findings about the stem-cell debate are eye-opening:

Over the year leading up to the 2004 US election, Miller polled a national panel of adults to track their grasp of the ongoing debate about stem-cell research. A year before the election, over a third of adult respondents had never heard the term, even though the issue had dominated the headlines. By the eve of the election, only a few more respondents said they had heard about stem cells. How could so many people manage to remain oblivious to one of the most contentious issues of the election?

Most people don’t have a cognitive framework for understanding stem cells, Miller explains. “Science happens so fast now that most adults couldn’t possibly have learned about stem cells when they were in school.” And without this underlying schema, most people aren’t going to pay attention to stem cells or any other unfamiliar scientific term. “People tune out things that they think are scientific or complicated,” he says. “If you are science averse and think you couldn’t possibly know any science, the minute you hear ‘cell,’ ‘stem cell,’ ‘nanotechnology,’ ‘atomic,’ ‘nuclear,’ you turn the off switch.”

As time went on, more people said they had a good understanding of stem cells—21% in 2004, up from 9% in 2003—but only 9% of respondents could define the term when asked, compared with 8% in 2003. And, surprisingly, the number of voters with strong opinions dropped significantly. A year before the election, 17% were opposed—“likely reflecting the influence of religious groups”—and 15% were in favor. As discussions raised distinctions between adult and embryonic stem cells and between morality and scientific benefits, most people realized the issue was more complex than they had originally thought. “At the end of the election, only 2% were strongly opposed and only 2% were strongly in favor,” Miller says. “It shows that a little bit of scientific literacy won’t solve the problem when you have a debate.”

The answer, says Miller, is not to try to educate every American on the details of stem cells or evolutionary biology. It’s to give them a grasp of “basic scientific concepts and the nature of scientific inquiry,” writes Gross.

That seems dead on. Tracking the debate over evolution and ‘intelligent design,’ for instance, it struck me that the argument over ID would be over in most cases if people simply understood even the most basic definition of science: that it seeks to establish working knowledge by asking questions that can be tested experimentally. What can’t be so tested is the realm of faith, not science. As soon as you recognize that, the ID debate is over.

If scientists don’t like this, says Miller (and they hardly should), they need to confront some evidence themselves: “The age of nonpartisan science is gone.”

The article is well worth reading. Kudos to Gross and PLOS for drawing attention to some fresh, critical thinking about how to answer the growing attacks on science and empiricism.