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Friday, April 21, 2006
The Politicization of Science
The level of scientific literacy amongst Americans is increasing, though it is still distressingly low - only 17% by one measure. There also seems to be growing confusion over basic scientific concepts - a decrease, for example, in both the acceptance and rejection of evolution, with an increase in uncertainty.

Liza Gross has written an article "Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology" in PLoS Biology, in which she interviews Dr. Jon Miller, who has spent decades studying and preparing reports for the National Science Board on the public's acceptance of, and understanding of science. Miller has tracked public understanding both in this country and abroad, and points to a uniquely American phenomenon to explain why our levels of understanding are not as high as our level of education might indicate.
"It's not that Americans are rejecting science per se, Miller maintains, but longstanding conflicts between personal religious beliefs and selected life-science issues has been exploited to an unprecedented degree by the right-wing fundamentalist faction of the Republican Party."
In brief, says Miller "The era of nonpartisan science is gone".

Miller urges scientists to learn about, and to become engaged in the political process, standing up for those candidates and parties that are supportive of the practice and funding of sound science. In other words, to fight for what we believe in. And he urges us not to despair:
"...there's a large segment of Americans who still haven't made up their mind on these issues. We in the scientific community have to treat them seriously, talk to them, and make our arguments. This is a great opportunity for us."

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2 Comments on "The Politicization of Science"
The right-wing fundamentalists of the Republican Party effectively exploit the scientific illiteracy not only of their political base, but of the general populace as well. In effect, they have ushered in the end of the era of nonpartisan science on the national political level.

To counter this movement we need to demand that our politicians demonstrate basic scientific literacy. But voters can only assess literacy based on their own understanding of science (or lack thereof, which is what the fundamentalists rely upon).

In the PLoS Biology article Miller suggests the following:
"...To possess what Miller calls civic scientific literacy, one must have the capacity to make sense of competing arguments in a scientific debate..." and "...Scientific literacy doesn't call for a deep understanding of Maxwell's equations or Hardy–Weinberg equilibrium, but it does require a general understanding of basic scientific concepts and the nature of scientific inquiry..."

Given Miller's assessments, it is imperative that we (educators, scientists, scientifically literate citizens, etc.) foster "civic scientific literacy" in our communities. Biology educators tend to focus on teaching basic scientific concepts, which is necessary, but not sufficient to counter scientific illiteracy. We also need to encourage students to think critically and to understand the dynamic nature of scientific inquiry.

Anonymous Laja @ Sun Apr 23, 07:14:00 AM EDT  
Science teachers from K-12 through the university levels need to get on the ball. If high school or elementary school teachers need refresher courses, then the universities in the area should hold summer workshops/refresher courses, and the administration at public schools should find a way to fund such undertakings. Does NSF or NIH have fund for such endeavors?

Anonymous Felid @ Sun Apr 23, 09:28:00 AM EDT  
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