Americans Are Science Illiterate, But More Science in Schools Will Not Make Us Smarter

Everybody, run for the hills. American children are ignorant of science, and the implications of their ignorance are terrifying, according to Scientific American. The popular science magazine ran an article earlier this week citing some scary science proficiency statistics and warning that our scientific illiteracy could hinder our economic competitiveness as a nation. The solution to this problem, predictably enough, is higher science standards in schools.

Americans, especially young Americans, need to be more scientifically literate. This isn't up for debate. But getting them there won't happen in the classroom. Rather, the answer is to get politics out of science and restore the public's trust in scientists and the work they do.

This problem isn't lost on Scientific American. The magazine actually cites the politicization of science as one reason to tighten up the science standards. They claim, in essence, that children are ignorant of science and are more likely as a result to be bamboozled by young earth creationists and global warming deniers. That's true, but it misses one critical element: Americans are more likely to learn about climate science from their favorite political pundits than from climatologists. But the reason many Americans trust Rush Limbaugh over the IPCC when it comes to global warming is that they wrongly see science as a threat to their political and religious beliefs. Fortunately, there's a way to fix that.

Scientists and educators need to quit using science as a means to win a culture war if they want to increase science literacy. That means biologists like Richard Dawkins should stop calling religious people stupid. That also means social psychologists should stop publishing junk studies associating conservatism and religious belief with a lack of intelligence. It also probably wouldn't hurt if prominent science educators stopped endorsing presidential candidates. These kinds of examples go on and on, but the bottom line is this: Scientists need to quit serving as political mouthpieces if they want the public to take them seriously.

The same goes for science journalists. Instead of faithfully reporting the results of scientific research, science journalists have become popularizers of research that validates their politics. Science writer Gary Taubes makes this point by relating a conversation he had with a health reporter for a major newspaper. Her job, she told Taubes, is to faithfully communicate the USDA's advice about healthy eating to the public. Anytime reporters admit that it's their job to uncritically promote the federal government's agenda, we have a serious problem. And such an approach to journalism underscores why we've seen a communication breakdown between science and the general public.

The temptation to mandate that people be smarter will always be there. But the problem isn't that Americans lack access to sound science education. The problem, ironically enough, is that they've been trained by the scientific community to distrust science, and they pass that distrust down to their children. Until we improve the way science is communicated to the public, our science literacy problem won't be solved.