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Distinguishing Science From Nonsense

As Americans enter 2014, there is grave concern among our political leaders that we are lagging behind other nations in terms of our children’s scientific literacy. An international survey confirmed in December that many American kids don’t understand science, and that they continue to fall behind children from other nations—many much poorer than we are—in science-and-math skills.

Students in the United States slipped in the most recent science-literacy rankings amid fast-growing competition abroad. American teens scored below the international average in math and roughly average in science, compared with teens in other countries, in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). We trailed Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Britain, Latvia, and Vietnam, among many other nations.

Some of our leaders know that the continuing drop in scientific skills spells disaster for our economic future. The U.S. performance on the 2012 PISA is “a picture of educational stagnation,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “This is a reality at odds with our aspiration to have the best-educated, most competitive work force in the world.”

No doubt our education system carries some of the blame for our continued slippage relative to the rest of the world in science. But if we continue to think that poor schools and bad teaching are the only causes, we are surely missing the forest for the trees.

A key reason for the poor performance of our children with respect to science is that American culture is both ignorant of and disrespectful to science.

As I write this, two women in ICUs in the United States are on life support despite having been pronounced dead by medical experts. These women, a teenager in Oakland, Calif., and a young woman in Fort Worth carrying a 14-week-old fetus when she died, were found to be dead on the basis of brain death. Both had their bodies maintained by machines (in Oakland it was with the support of her family; in Texas it was against family wishes). Neither the news media nor the medical profession seemed to be able to explain that brain death is truly death. Nor did the public seem inclined to listen, believing that somehow a miracle might occur.

At the same time as those cases emerged, a poll was released by the Pew Research Center showing that a third of Americans do not believe in evolution. They think that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” Twenty-four percent acknowledge evolution but believe that a Supreme Being has directly guided life on earth.

And as I write this, flu season has begun. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that last year 381,000 Americans were hospitalized because of the flu. They also estimate that the flu vaccine prevented 79,000 hospitalizations and 6.6 million illnesses. Yet a tiny cabal of kooks and know-nothings has gotten so much attention that barely half of all Americans get a flu shot.

The problem does not end there. The multibillion-dollar nutritional-supplements industry has no solid evidence for the efficacy of its products, while there are plenty of instances in which death and disability have been linked to poorly manufactured or mislabeled supplements. Yet our airwaves are full of ads and endorsements for this cornucopia of malarkey.

The point ought to be clear. Children are not going to flourish at science in a society that treats science either as something you can believe in selectively, something that is simply one point of view, or something about which anyone can have a credible opinion no matter how ill-qualified, dumb, or misinformed.

If we want to have a brighter economic future, then we need to start thinking about science education outside of our schools. We need editors who refuse to put fringe points of view on the air. We need scientists who see it as their duty to engage broader audiences—not just their peers—about their work. We need the training of scholars in the public understanding of science so that more voices are heard respecting science and the scientific method.

We need our courts to better vet who can speak for science. And we need more scientists as role models rather than the athletes and entertainers so put before the eyes of kids who may find it a bit hard to take chemistry, ecology, epidemiology, statistics, and geology seriously when their home life is filled with the musings of the casts of Duck Dynasty, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, and Long Island Medium.

And we wonder why Johnny and Jane can’t distinguish science from nonsense.

Arthur L. Caplan is a professor of bioethics and director of the division of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center.

A version of this article originally appeared at bioethics.net.

Correction (1/8/2014, 8:00 a.m.): The original version of this post included an incorrect name for the organization that performed a survey on Americans’ belief in evolution. It was the Pew Research Group, not the Pew Foundation. The text has been corrected.

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