Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Sun is but a Morning Star: On the Importance of Science Literacy

The Neil deGrasse Tyson Meme

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”
Carl Sagan

“Science literacy is a vaccine against charlatans who would try to exploit your ignorance”
Neil deGrasse Tyson

“Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers; you are reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age”
Richard Feynman

“The world is a thing of utter inordinate complexity and richness and strangeness that is absolutely awesome. I mean the idea that such complexity can arise not only out of such simplicity, but probably absolutely out of nothing, is the most fabulous extraordinary idea. And once you get some kind of inkling of how that might have happened, it's just wonderful. And the opportunity to spend 70 or 80 years of your life in such a universe is time well spent as far as I am concerned.”
Douglas Adams 

Being scientifically literate enables you to comprehend the universe.

The Enlightenment and the scientific revolution bequeathed a certain and profound concept that has enabled us to fully grapple with and comprehend reality. From Galileo Galilei to David Hume and from to Charles Darwin to Steven Hawking, empiricism, scepticism and the scientific method  has been at the fore of the human endeavour to understand the world. And yet, whilst we pride ourselves on our technological civilisation that does not subject itself to the supposed irrational superstition of backward tribal cultures, pseudoscience and an apathy and ignorance of science is rife. Shamefully, as Carl Sagan pondered, the majority of newspapers have astrology sections, but how many of them even have weekly science columns? Indeed the majority of people can name many of the astrological star signs, but simply cannot list the planets of our solar system. Important public issues around science are being distorted and hijacked by fringe groups and science curricula around the world is being dumbed down or even rejected in place of pseudoscience or politicised and selective data.

Fundamentally, normatively and empirically, science literacy is an imperative for a citizenry in this modern age of information technology and climate change. It is important to note that science literacy doesn't translate into the ability to understand the basics of quantum electrodynamics or the ability to perform advanced calculus. Importantly, to be scientifically literate is to possess a certain frame of mind  and recognition of the world in a certain way. Moreover to value science literacy is not to degrade or criticise the liberal arts and humanities, they are equally of importance – as Jacob Bronowski states “It has been one of the most destructive modern prejudices that art and science are different and somehow incompatible interests”. Thus it should be of equal shame and hypocrisy for a liberal arts graduate to be oblivious to who Watson and Crick were just as it is for a theoretical physics graduate to be ignorant about Shakespeare or Chaucer. Scientific literacy empowers individuals to comprehend the world and make more rational decisions about their place in it. Moreover, science is similar to the arts and music – it is possible and indeed important to atheistically appreciate the discoveries of science. Indeed the scientific understanding of reality is one of beauty too – as Richard Feynman states “there are all kinds of interesting questions that come from the knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe and beauty”. There exists a gulf between the science cognoscenti and the public – when, for example, was the last time a scientist appeared on Q&A along with the politicians as opposed to a writer, actor or musician? Importantly, where does the fault lie – with the scientists themselves not being willing to engage with mainstream media, with the mainstream media not willing to engage with the scientists, or with society in not valuing science leading to the scientists and the media not bothering to engage society? Evidently it is a combination of all three demographics to blame.

The Current State of Science Literacy
Suffice to say, be it with evolution or climate change, the population of the United States is one of the most scientifically illiterate of the developed nations. The 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators by the National Science Foundation paint a very poor picture for the United States in terms of public science literacy. Indeed there exists a massive disconnect from the scientific community and the general public due to a number of social, cultural and political factors. Fortunately, Australia is far more scientifically literate than the United States, but only marginally. When it comes to nuclear energy or genetically modified food, scientific findings are just as likely to be politicised in Australia as the United States. A 2010 report of science literacy in Australia by the Australian Academy of Sciences shows that public science literacy is at a low. The report consisted of asking over 1500 individuals from a diversity of backgrounds six basic questions, such as “How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?” and “Is the following statement true or false? The earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs.” Only about 30 per cent of the sample answered all six questions correctly. And yet individuals were asked “In your opinion, how important is science education to the Australian economy?” and 42 per cent answered “absolutely essential” and 38 per cent answered “very important”. Thus the Australian public understands the importance of science education, but this understanding is not being translating into science literacy. The Health of Australian Science Report by the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia this year has a largely positive account of science in Australia. Our researchers are punching well above their weight in terms of output and recognition and those that are enrolled in high school science are preforming well comparatively to other countries. However the report does point to some trends that will prove problematic in the long term. There have been declining rates of enrolment in high school science, especially in chemistry and physics, with the recent years being at an all-time low since 1980. Moreover, there have been declining rates of science teaching graduates. This is bad in terms of science literacy for the broader public.

The Ascent of Science Documentaries
The opening titles The Ascent of Man (BBC 1973), Connections (BBC 1978), 
Life on Earth (BBC 1979), and Cosmos (PBS 1980)

In 1969 David Attenborough was Controller of BBC Two and commissioned a thirteen part documentary series about the history of western art. Entitled Civilisation it was presented by Kenneth Clark and showcased not only the history and aesthetics of western art but also the quality of the new UHF colour television broadcasting the BBC was then offering. The series was met with universal acclaim and thus set the blueprint and precedence for landmark documentary series. Also in 1969, BBC commissioned the television documentary series Horizon which began airing regularly and each episode looked at individual topics in science. To complement the claims of Clark in Civilisation, that the arts reflected and was informed by the major driving forces in cultural evolution and with the popularity of Horizon, Attenborough specifically commissioned The Ascent of Man in 1973. Presented by Jacob Bronowski, the thirteen part documentary series looked at the development of human society through the development of science. Then in 1974, America’s Public Broadcasting Service was inspired and supported by Horizon to produce a regular science documentary series using its same model – thus culminating in Nova. In 1978 came, along similar lines to The Ascent of Man, Connections, a ten part documentary series by James Burke. It took an interdisciplinary approach to the history of science and demonstrated how various scientific discoveries and historical events were interconnected paving the way for modern technology. Inevitably and evidently Attenborough, who was always interested in natural history, was inspired to present his own documentary series. His passion culminated in the thirteen part series in 1979 entitled Life on Earth. In 1980 across the Atlantic Ocean, PBS commissioned the landmark Cosmos. Presented by Carl Sagan, Cosmos proved to be was a fundamental turning point for science education and the public understanding of science. To this day science documentaries have proliferated from Bill Nye the Science Guy to ABC’s Catalyst and even Mythbusters is an example of the popularity of science. Both BBC’s Horizon and PBS’s Nova are still running, David Attenborough is still producing and narrating natural history documentaries and clips of Cosmos have received millions of views on YouTube. Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe have proved popular during mainstream television hours, and new documentary science communicators have taken the stage such as Alice Roberts and Michio Kaku. Suffice to say there is a market for science documentaries.

Popular Science in Popular Culture
Neil deGrasse Tyson with the cast of The Big Bang Theory

Popular science and science documentaries have become prominent in society. From online blogs, magazines, television series and books, popular science has are exponentially increased since the 1980s. Interestingly the rise of the public intellectual and science communicator, namely Carl Sagan, was originally decried by the scientific academy as dumbing down scientific research. Now this has been embraced as a critical role of the scientific cohort. Organisations such as the Royal Society, the British Science Association and the Royal Institution all value and realise the necessity of engagement with popular discourses. Many research scientists have turned their hand from laboratory work to writing popular science books, ranging from theoretical cosmology to evolutionary game theory. Steven Hawking set the precedence for this trend with his landmark and bestselling A Short History of Time in 1988 and to this day, with A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson in 2005, tautologically popular science books prove popular. Even The Big Bang Theory, CSI and Numbers are examples of the growing significance of science in popular culture.  It is perhaps a positive indicator that a group of scientists and nerds can be stars on popular prime time television shows in the United States. Scientists and science communicators have noticed the significance of this and Neil deGrasse Tyson even appeared as a guest on an episode of The Big Bang Theory. There are numerous YouTube channels and videos for science and increasingly universities, such as MIT and Harvard have been uploading videos of course lectures. Newspapers and radio stations have increasingly expanded their science sections, from Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in The Guardian to The Infinite Monkey Cage on BBC Radio 4.

Current Issues with Public Understanding and Awareness of Science
It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known but to question it.” 
Jacob Bronowski

It is important to delineate the differences between the public understanding and awareness of science. Science outreach (university community engagement, public lectures), science communication (documentaries, museums, festivals, journalism, popular science books) and science education (primary and secondary science curriculum, university science courses) are avenues that fall under contributing to science literacy.
The Avenues of Science Communication

There exist a number of problems with the way science curricula are taught. For many people science is something to be tolerated in high school, details of which are promptly forgotten after tests are over. This may be understandable since regrettably basic science curriculum can often consist of lectures on taxonomy or analogous facts about what science has discovered, along with the painful need to memorize long lists of strange words. Rather than learning the cold hard facts, it is important for students to experience and understand the scientific method and to critically, experimentally and sceptically engage with data and reality. Recently, the National Science Education Standards agreed on by the the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teachers Association, stresses teaching the paradigm of  scientific thinking rather than the learning of facts. It serves as a curricula foundation for primary and high school science which emphasises an inquiry-based approach in the context of concepts and principles rather than vocabulary and rote memorisation. 

When it comes to science communication, the University of Oxford was the first university to established a Professorship of the Public Understanding of Science through an endowment from the Hungarian-American computer executive Charles Simonyi in 1995. Richard Dawkins was the inaugural holder of this Professorship and he lectured, published and broadcast widely to improve the public understanding of science. That said, I am inclined to criticise Dawkins for quite explicitly pushing his agenda of atheism and focused less offering science to the public in an accessible, non-polemical manner. Whilst the relationship of science and religion is indeed a contentious one and whilst I personally believe the calculus of the justification of faith is as dead-end in the logical pathway from science and thus the two are irreconcilable, it is not the role of science communicators to push atheism or to critique personal religious beliefs.  Realistically, science and religious belief are commonly not mutually exclusive and it is quite alright to hold religious belief and value the scientific endeavour. But this is another discussion to be had. Dawkins’ successor, Professor Marcus du Sautoy, said he would be focusing “very much on the science and less on religion”.

Current practices and policies for science communication to the public are too top down. Whilst this may not be an issue for the classroom or university, but outside this educational context it becomes a massive problem. But more over it is not at all enough to recite the laws of thermodynamics or to know the boiling temperature of water. Indeed I. B. Cohen, a pioneering Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University from the 1950s, called this “the fallacy of miscellaneous information”. The average person does not take kindly to being lectured to by what they perceive to believe elitist and esoteric scientists in terms they don’t understand. Climate change science communication is a profound example of this. The Science Centre in Brisbane, and other similar institutions around the world, attempt to make science fun and visually stimulating without providing an avenue for critical thinking. Whilst these types of science communication have their place, they may be undermining the hard work and complexity of science. Science isn't a fun and visually stimulating endeavour for all scientists for all the time. To have children exposed to such perceptions is necessarily flawed. Outside of the high school laboratory it is important to incentivise the public to become scientifically literate – to make them stakeholders, to allow them to interact with the scientific method and to have their voices to be heard and to give them the chance to influence research priorities. Science is as much a part of society as the arts. As Jon Turney, a science communicator at University College London, states “should we work to promote scientific literacy so everyone is up to speed, empowered and ready to contribute to the great debates about science, technology and the future? No. Invite them to participate, and really mean it and they will find the motivation to become as scientifically literate as you, or rather they, please.”

Overall, whilst the popular science industry is growing, this hasn't necessarily translated into a great science literacy in the general public. There still exists structural and pedagogical problems in communicating science from the classroom by the teacher to lounge room by the documentary.

Economic Benefits of Science Literacy
A scientifically literate public are more than likely to push for prioritising scientific research, be it basic research or applied research. Indeed there are an immensity of economic benefits in having a scientifically literate public. In an information and industrial economy there is a growing demand for SMET (science, mathematics, engineering and technology) graduates likewise as the markets begin transitioning to a greener economy. Investments in sustainable energy, space exploration and nanotechnology all have immense long term benefits to the economy. The 2007 Public Support for Science and Innovation Report by the Productivity Commission lays out the economic basis for the public support of science. Economic arguments for the public support of science come from recognising that science has the elements of being a public good. First, it is non-rival in that it can be widely applied without the cost of providing it to marginal individuals being high. Second, it is partially excludable as when someone makes use of science they can only appropriate a fraction of its returns and actions can be taken that prevent excludability. The traditional argument for the public support of science was first developed after the Second World War by Vannevar Bush, who was Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, an independent federal agency. In Science: The Endless Frontier, a report to President Truman in 1945 on future science and technology policy, Bush outlines the distinction between basic research and applied research. He propounded that basic research was a critical input into the production of useful knowledge, being “the pacemaker of technological progress”. This is the one-dimensional linear model: science leads to innovation leads to productivity – the economic argument of spillovers. 

Public Policy
“By definition, I begin
Alternative medicine, I continue
Has either not been proved to work,
Or been proved not to work.
You know what they call alternative medicine
That's been proved to work?
Tim Minchin

It is imperative for the public to be engaged with science especially when it comes to government making policy decisions about science. The existence of a democratic process, with voting rights and a transparent and representative governance structure, is fundamental but not sufficient. Individuals that are scientifically illiterate are increasingly at a disadvantage when they lack the information to engage in these important public policy dilemmas as a critical and independent thinker. For example, the many causes and effects that impact human health are questions of science: alternative medicine has no cause outside the placebo effect on treating disease; smoking is a cause of lung cancer; obesity is a cause of diabetes; lead poisoning is a cause of brain damage in the young; alcohol and drug use by pregnant women are a cause of brain damage to their unborn children. The public must also grapple with important public policy questions that must be informed by science. For example, an understanding of the science of embryonic stem cell research is critically important to inform policymakers who are advocating or opposing this research; an understanding of climatology is essential to those concerned with regulation of fossil fuel consumption and energy policy; astronomy and cosmology must inform wise investment in space exploration. Moreover, when it comes to the judicial system it is important to have a grasp of the scientific method. Legal principles when it comes to determining admissibility of scientific evidence, such as the Frye standard and the Daubert standard, are important is many cases. Once a population begins to start thinking critically and rationally about the world they are evidently less likely to support the  fringe or mainstream distortion of science by politicians and the media. A scientifically literate population would value and vote for evidence based public policy, especially when it comes to crime and public health.

Values, both Ethical and Aesthetic, from a Scientific Outlook
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
Carl Sagan

Science is beauty

Normatively and empirically, I believe the scientific method lends itself to humanism and progressive social policy. Science is an incredibly humbling endeavour which allows us to understand our position in the immensity of the cosmos.  The image of earth as a pale blue green dot, as Carl Sagan said,  “underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known”. Even Yuri Gagarin, the first human into space, stated  “Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!” During the Cold War many scientists joined the disarmament and peace movements. The Russell–Einstein Manifesto of 1955 at Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs is a profound example of this. All this is not to exclude or play down the horrific outcomes of science - from the nuclear bomb itself or to the eugenics of the Nazi regime. But it is important to note that these horrific outcomes are not due to the failings of science, but rather the politics and public policies around the science. I certainly reach many of my personal ethical values from a scientific knowledge of the way the world is. Knowing the Newtonian physics behind the rotation of the earth around the sun does not at all detract from the beauty I see in a sunset. It enhances it. I am humbled to know that that sun is but a morning star in the cosmic immensity. I was a member of the astronomy club at my high school and I still remember the feeling or gazing at the rings of Saturn or looking at the craters on the moon. A scientific outlook is a sublime one.

The rings of Saturn as taken by NASA’s Voyager 1

It is indeed perhaps a truism that education is a good and ideal aim for everyone. This is important when it comes to science. The public tends to be either apathetic and ambivalent to science or fearful and troubled by science. It is important to recognise that there is a cognitive diversity in society – different people have different interests and cognitive capacities when it comes to arts and sciences. Indeed the demographics involved would be those that will never be engaged by science, those that are aware of it but do not care, those that are on the fence either way, those that appreciate science, and those that are fully engaged with science. As Susan Greenfield, former Director of the Royal Institution and Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Oxford, stated “Once we have a society where science is as exciting as football, and where attending a science lecture or debate is as relevant and fun as going to the cinema, only then will we be truly empowered as a society to harness science for what we want in life, rather than the other way round.” This indeed an ideal that may not conform to the basic cognitive psychologies of the average person, but is an ideal we should strive for nonetheless. To suggest the average person can’t appreciate the scientific method, just like they can’t appreciate classical literature is offensive. It is a failing of our education and our cultural norms that the average person goes to sleep when they hear Newtonian laws of motion or Shakespeare. Indeed it is imperative that we rectify this. Science literacy is as fundamental for a society as access to clean water, sustainable energy, and healthcare. Amazingly, all these requirements for a healthy society stem from scientific knowledge.

Tasman Bain is a second year Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology) and Bachelor of Social Science (International Development) Student at the University of Queensland. He is interested evolutionary anthropology, public economics and philosophy of science and enjoys endurance running, reading Douglas Adams, and playing the glockenspiel.

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