Had Herman Cain drawn a blank on global climate change or stem cells instead of going brain dead over Libya, the science literacy promoters would have gone crazy. The ignorance demonstrated by political candidates isn’t limited to science by any means.
I hear from creationists and climate change skeptics all the time, and some of them spend a lot of time reading about what they think is science. Quick – what percentage of our atmosphere is made up of CO2? I would bet money that most avid climate change skeptics will know right away without having to resort to Google. They’re paying attention all right – but not to the mainstream media.
It’s not that science illiteracy isn’t a problem, but the reality in American is much more complicated and can’t be fixed by making people memorize more scientific facts and figures. We’re being subjected to well-funded propaganda campaigns. People holding advanced degrees and credible sounding titles will tell us that global climate change is a hoax and Intelligent Design is a legitimate scientific theory.
Stepping into this fray is John Grant, who took on these issues and more in his new book Denying Science. I’ve only read parts of it so far – but enough to say it’s well worth finishing. He’s not afraid to take on the biggest, most important anti-science campaigns of our time. Here’s an informative review I came across.
Meanwhile, Rolling Stone just featured a story on what looks like a similar book, Fool Me Twice, by Shawn Lawrence Otto, founder of sciencedebate.org. I’m planning to read this too. Rolling Stone interviewed the author, who seems to put more of the blame on the general public and the media than Grant does.
As science writer Shawn Lawrence Otto points out in a tough-minded new book, Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, too many Americans are either plain ignorant of science or actively hostile to it, or both. And that's as true of political leaders and journalists as it is of ordinary citizens (to say nothing of corporate leaders who see action on climate change, say, as a threat to the bottom line). We think climate change is a hoax; we're convinced vaccines cause autism.
That use of “we” in the last sentence seems like one of those generalizations over which linguistics professors might take some issue. In this case, “we” might apply to a group of Sarah Palin fans, but probably not to readers of Rolling Stone. I’m also skeptical of this passage about the role of the news media:
The (unhelpful) role of the news media
Something has happened with the last generation of journalists, who have been taught the postmodern idea that there is no such thing as objective reality. But there is such a thing as objective reality – and we can measure it, and by measuring it we’ve doubled our lifespan, multiplied the productivity of our farms by 35 times, and totally changed the world. By not acknowledging that, reporters end up creating something called, "false balance," essentially reporting on two sides of a story and letting the audience decide what they think is the objective truth or who is right. That’s really shirking their responsibility to dig and inform people what’s really going on.
I think Rolling Stone is being pretty unhelpful by calling other members of the press unhelpful. I’d like to see concrete examples where science reporters at major papers gave any credence to creationists. I’m sure it happens, but I doubt it’s all that often. To add to the public confusion, seemingly legitimate sources - NASA and the journal - Science foisted a bogus story about arsenic-based life on us last year. That’s why critical thinking is so important. Just because NASA presents something at a press conference does not make it so.
We surely don’t need everyone to act as cheerleaders of technological progress either. Writer Michael Pollan looked deeper into our fantastically productive agricultural system to find many previously hidden costs to our environment and our health. The eye-opening “Omnivore’s Dilemma” is a shining example of great science writing. DDT was a technological advance too. Was Rachael Carson anti-science for pointing out the price we paid for it?
Still, Rolling Stone's attack on the press (though presumably not Rolling Stone), does bring up an important journalistic dilemma. If TV personalities and bloggers are making noise about “climategate”, should reporters ignore it or try to find out what’s really going on? Or if people are excited about some new form of alternative medicine, do we just leave it alone, even if legitimate scientists have good reason to think it’s useless or harmful?
The choice comes down to ignoring bad science or debunking it. If we choose to debunk, we have to explain what the bunk is or our stories won’t make any sense. I don’t think this should be considered false balance. Debunking is time consuming. We have to get all the nails in the coffin. And even then, we’re bound to be subjected to ridicule and hate mail. I think it's important to distinguish between false balance and genuine efforts to debunk all that confusing and misleading bunk.