Scientific Ignorance in a High Tech World

Phil Anderson

“We exist in a bizarre combination of Stone Age emotions, medieval beliefs, and god-like technology.”  Edward O. Wilson, author and biologist   

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist  

Our modern world is the result of a long history of scientific achievement. Our homes, workplaces, and communities are filled with technology created by scientific advances. We live longer, eat better, survive diseases, and have more comfortable lives because of science. Yet despite the fact that every aspect of our lives is affected by it, most of us are largely ignorant of science.

Survey after survey shows many Americans are ignorant of many subjects. Many people can’t find Iraq or Afghanistan on a map. They don’t understand basic provisions of their health insurance. They can’t identify the three branches of the Federal government. More than a third are unable to list any of the First Amendment rights. When it comes to science 25% don’t answer correctly that the earth revolves around the sun. About 42% of Americans believe God created human beings in their present form less than 10,000 years ago.

The Pew Research Center has a 12 question multiple-choice survey of American’s  knowledge of basic science. Just 6% of respondents got a perfect score. A majority did have more correct than incorrect answers so apparently we did learn something in school. You can take the online quiz. Just google “Pew Center science knowledge quiz.”  

Other surveys indicate we know some facts but lack understanding of science. About 70 percent know oxygen comes from plants, light travels faster than sound, and humans did not live during the age of dinosaurs. But only 11 percent can define radiation and only 13 percent can describe a molecule. Only 21 percent are able to explain what it means to study something scientifically and only a third know how a proper experiment is conducted. It appears if you ask simple enough questions, many Americans can pass the test. But they lack a real understanding of most science subjects.

This can be problematic in a modern high-tech society. We need to deal with everything from misleading advertising to understanding climate change. We face decisions about medical treatment, immunization of our children, genetically modified food, product safety and many similar issues. Science literacy isn’t just remembering facts. It’s having enough knowledge and understanding of science to think critically about science related issues. It about being able to distinguish science from pseudo-science (and “medieval beliefs”).  

In addition, many of us do not want to know or accept the findings of science. We would rather believe the science fiction than the science. We would rather believe the medieval beliefs. This is nothing new. We have a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in America. But the Internet, right wing talk radio, and cable news opinion shows have exacerbated the problem. This self-imposed “prideful ignorance” is, as the author and biochemist Issac Asimov puts it, “...nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” Too many of us reject the factual findings of science because they do not fit easily with our fantasies or religious dogmas.     

We love the Star Wars/Star Trek fantasies. We want to believe that space travel is the future. The reality is we are not going to other planets or galaxies. The distances are too far. The radiation is too intense. Rocket payload capacity is too small be practical and the costs would be astronomical. For all practical purposes this rock is all we have on which to live. Our exploration of the moon proves these points. Although we did manage to land men on the moon, the last mission was in 1972 and we have not been back.  All the hype about mining or colonizing the moon didn’t happen. Over forty years later it is all but forgotten.

Evolution is another example. Evolution is the core principle of modern biology. It has been proven in many ways. It answers more biological questions and explains more phenomena than any of the pseudo-science “alternatives.” No serious biologists doubt the its validity or usefulness.

Modern medicine is a good illustration of the usefulness of evolutionary principles. Vaccines depend on the concepts of evolution. We develop new flu vaccines every year because the virus are evolving faster than the vaccines. Super bugs that don’t respond to antibiotics are a problem because they are evolving faster than the development of new drugs.

Most people know virtually nothing about the workings of their own bodies. They know very little about biology. Yet many people question the core principles that are the foundation of modern medicine. The numbers vary depending on the wording of the questions. According to 25% of Americans, a supreme being guides evolution. About 34% reject evolution entirely. Other polls say 48% accept humans developed from earlier other animals. People respond to these surveys not based on knowledge but on personal beliefs.

But as Neil DeGrasse Tyson says believing or not believing in a fact does not make it true or untrue. Simon and Garfield said it well in a song lyric, “Still, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” Unfortunately we can not afford to “hear what we want to hear” when facing world altering problems like global climate change, overpopulation, rapidly evolving super bugs, water shortages, 80,000 chemicals in our lives, and unchecked environmental degradation. Whether we believe it or not, we will reap what we have collectively sown. Scientific ignorance in a high-tech world bodes ill for our future.