Stranger Fruit

Science Literacy and Pseudoscience

This afternoon there was a symposium on “Science Literacy and Pseudoscience” that I had intended to attend but eventually missed. According to this AP story, it was revealed there that

“People in the U.S. know more about basic science today than they did two decades ago, good news that researchers say is tempered by an unsettling growth in the belief in pseudoscience such as astrology and visits by extraterrestrial aliens.”

So, science literacy is clearly increasing (from 10 to 28% according to one measure) but at the same time pseudoscientific beliefs are also increasing. It strikes me that this may be a problem for us as educators in that we might be teaching students (and thus the public) scientific facts but not teaching them how to think scientifically.

Comments

  1. #1 John McKay
    February 18, 2007

    I started to write a comment saying I’m not sure we really have decent and equivalent measures of the comparative strengths of rational and irrational thought, but it got a bit out of hand, so I posted it at my own place.

    http://johnmckay.blogspot.com/2007/02/rational-and-irrational.html

  2. #2 Thony C.
    February 18, 2007

    I suspect you are right but I think we have a real problem with what I call the concept of “relativity of truth”. A frighteningly large number of “educated” people today think that there are different concepts of truth for different areas of life and that the standards of truth necessary for physics, for example, are different to those required for homeopathy. This leads to the situation you report on above.

  3. #3 Jon
    February 18, 2007

    It strikes me that we should celebrate the increase in science literacy and disregard the increase in belief in pseudoscience. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and science will win in the end. There is hardly room for despair when literacy has almost tripled in less than 20 years! What is the (unreported) percentage change in pseudoscientific belief? Those turning to astrology or fortune cookies for answers are advancing a genre of entertainment and a harmless skepticism for science. Is that so na├»ve?

    Also, while the AP article’s example of visits by extraterrestrial aliens clearly falls on the pseudoscience side of the fence, it’s a little tricky to quickly lump the aliens in with horoscopes and lucky numbers. “Real”, rational science is searching for extraterrestrial life (Reference http://www.seti.org!), and more than just skygazing, scientists and non-scientists alike hope E.T. exists. Certainly, alien abduction takes things a bit too far, but a survey cannot always separate John Doe’s rational thought from his hope.

  4. #4 David Harmon
    February 18, 2007

    Jon: well, sort of — it’s not just “wishful thinking”. The alien abduction stories turn out to fall into a particular category of “magical experiences”, grouping them with older stories featuring succubi, elves, and suchlike. More recently, they’ve been tied in with “near-daeth experiences”, and there’s been some investigation of the neurology of such experiences. The thing is, even with that “scientific” knowledge, it’s pretty hard to admit that one’s own experiences “aren’t real”.

    Thony: It’s not helped that the power-group currently running our culture is actively attacking any point-of-view they don’t consider sufficiently “loyal” to their own purposes. For much the same reason, they’ve been gutting the public-education systems….

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