There’s a good reason Americans are horrible at science

Science is nothing but perception.
Science is nothing but perception.
Image: Reuters/Michael Caronna
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The United States of America has arguably done more to advance science in the modern world than any other country on earth. From the nimble ingenuity of Silicon Valley to the ascendency of US military technology, this nation has impeccable high-tech bona fides. Many of the world’s top engineering schools are located on American soil, and we are even hanging onto our supremacy in medical research—though our lead is slipping quickly. If countries were students, America would have an A+ in science. We would win the egghead olympiad and do pretty well in the robotics competition. We might even get a place on the Asia-dominated mathlete team if every single European country decided to bow out because, I’m guessing, Europe is too cool for something as nerdy as mathletics.

Surprisingly, despite America’s outstanding science credentials, the population at large is not science savvy. About a third of Americans think that there is no sound evidence for the existence of evolution or benefits of universal vaccination. Our leaders and wanna-be leaders say that evolution is a myth, vaccines cause autism, and a snowball constitutes proof that climate change isn’t a problem. It is tempting to blame such benightedness on lack of education, but Republican hopeful Ben Carson is a Yale-educated former neurosurgeon, and he apparently believes that Darwin’s scientific muse was old Beelzebub himself. Ted Stevens, the former senator from Alaska who famously stated that the internet is “not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes,” was educated at Harvard. In fact, there is good evidence that scientific literacy is no protection against climate change denial.

Dan Kahan and colleagues published a study in 2012 showing that survey respondents with the highest level of scientific literacy were the best equipped to argue whichever position on global warming suited their personal interests. They didn’t try to understand and analyze available climate data; instead, they cherry-picked whatever information supported their preconceived notions. In the words of Vin Scully, they used statistics much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.

Perhaps this isn’t so surprising when you consider how “scientific literacy” was defined in Kahan’s study. The investigators used indicators designed by the National Science Foundation, asking questions such as, “Are electrons smaller than atoms?”; “Do antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria?”; or “Does the Earth go around the Sun or the Sun around the Earth?”

Anyone with a high school education should, in theory, be able to come up with the correct answers. It is disappointing that Americans fail to clear such a low bar, managing only to answer two thirds of such questions correctly. The bigger issue, however, is whether we ought to call someone who gets those questions right “scientifically literate.” Scientific literacy has little to do with memorizing information and a lot to do with a rational approach to problems.

There is no compelling reason to believe that knowledge of the structure of the solar system correlates with a true understanding of science. We learn that earth orbits the sun in the same way we learn that Jesus’ mother was a virgin or that we should never wear white before Memorial Day. We accept it because someone we trust told us that it’s true. I believe that time stops at the speed of light not because I have any understanding of Einstein’s math, but because my physics teacher told me so. If he had told me something straight out of a superhero comic book, like that 95% of the universe is made up of some hypothetical invisible substance called “dark matter,” I probably would have believed that too.

There are a number of problems with teaching science as a collection of facts. First, facts change. Before oxygen was discovered, the theoretical existence of phlogiston made sense. For a brief, heady moment in 1989, it looked like cold fusion (paywall) was going to change the world. In the field of medical science, “facts” are even more wobbly. For example, it has been estimated that fewer than 10% of published high profile cancer studies are reproducible (the word “reproducible” here is a euphemism for “not total poppycock”). To make things worse, there are millions of pages of lower quality medical science churned out every year, which means that only the passage of time will determine which “facts” are true and which aren’t. To get a sense of the sheer magnitude of the flood of questionable data, try searching in Google for “vitamin D” along with any disease that comes to mind. You will find a study suggesting that vitamin D may be a treatment for your disease of choice. Twenty years ago, vitamin E was the cure-all, and it took two decades for expensive and definitive studies to show that it not only didn’t prevent cancer and heart disease, but it may actually worsen heart failure. Sometime around 2025, we will start to get some reliable information about vitamin D. Meanwhile, anyone willing to cherry-pick from the flood of online “facts” can prove to themselves that vitamin D will cure their disease, that climate change isn’t really happening, and that vaccines are a menace.

Another problem with teaching scientific facts instead of scientific process is that it encourages people to dig in their heels about what they think they know. For instance, when I was growing up, it was widely accepted that stomach ulcers were caused by stress. An Australian gastroenterologist advanced a nutty theory that ulcers were caused by weird, corkscrew-shaped bacteria that hide out in the stomach lining, and by the time I entered medical school, the evidence for his theory was nigh irrefutable. Still, many doctors refused to believe it, and for a while, I did too. It wasn’t until much later, after I had been trained to think like a scientist, that I realized that I was no different from someone who rejected radiometric-dating evidence about the age of dinosaur bones. I didn’t want to let go of my cherished beliefs about stress and ulcers, and so I refused to truly consider the evidence. The true moral of the story is that the Australian with the nutty theory won a Nobel Prize, but my own personal coda is that I never rejected out-of-hand a theory that challenged my preconceived notions again.

A third problem with emphasizing information over process is that the interpretation of data requires critical thinking. For instance, did you know that people with small hands live longer than people with big hands? If this finding were published in a newspaper, the headline would read something like, “Big Hands Shorten Life Expectancy!” The correlation is, of course, spurious; women have smaller hands than men and also tend to live longer. Our schools don’t train people to be vigilant about avoiding errors such as confounding correlation and causation, however, nor do they do a good job of rooting out confirmation bias or teaching the basics of statistics and probabilities. All of this leads to the propagation of a lot of nonsense in the press and internet, and it leaves people vulnerable to the flood of “facts.”

It’s not possible for everyone—or anyone—to be sufficiently well trained in science to analyze data from multiple fields and come up with sound, independent interpretations. I spent decades in medical research, but I will never understand particle physics, and I’ve forgotten almost everything I ever learned about inorganic chemistry. It is possible, however, to learn enough about the powers and limitations of the scientific method to intelligently determine which claims made by scientists are likely to be true and which deserve skepticism. As a starting point, we could teach our children that the theories and technologies that have been tested the most times, by the largest number of independent observers, over the greatest number of years, are the most likely to be reliable. If someone is going to choose areas of science to reject, evolution and vaccines are terrible choices. We should also teach our children about the ways in which data can be misinterpreted and manipulated, and how much bias plays a role in how information is presented. Most importantly, if we want future generations to be truly scientifically literate, we should teach our children that science is not a collection of immutable facts but a method for temporarily setting aside some of our ubiquitous human frailties, our biases and irrationality, our longing to confirm our most comforting beliefs, our mental laziness. Facts can be used in the way a drunk uses a lamppost, for support. Science illuminates the universe.