A few days ago we posted an article titled, “Why are Americans Resistant to Science?” It reviewed an article in Science magazine that traced our ignorance and resistance to educate ourselves to deep suspicion of science, which starts in childhood and afflicts us through adulthood. My conclusion after this depressing analysis was that education is our only salvation, starting at a young age.

 

Some sobering statistics

Today’s New York Times’ Nicolas Kristof added an interesting twist to the issue. Ten days before this article, he had written that 30% of blacks believe the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s (need I introduce him?) assertion that whites deliberately infected blacks with HIV. Mr. Kristof was deluged with emails from incredulous whites saying, in effect: If 30% of blacks believe such bunk, then that’s a worse scandal than anything Mr. Wright said.

Oh, yeah? Here are some statistics cited in the column pertaining to all Americans, and that are, in my opinion, just as scandalous:

  • A Ohio University poll in 2006 found that 36% of Americans believed that federal officials assisted in the attacks on the twin towers or knowingly let them happen so that the U.S. could go to war in the Middle East.
  • Americans are as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution. Depending on how the questions are asked, roughly 30% to 40% of Americans believe in each.
  • A 34-nation study found Americans less likely to believe in evolution than citizens of any of the countries polled except Turkey.
  • Only one American in 10 understands radiation.
  • Only one in three has an idea of what DNA does.
  • One in five does know that the Earth orbits the Sun. That put us in pre-Copernican times—the Middle Ages!

What’s the solution? Mr. Kristof concludes his column thus:

“There’s no simple solution, but the complex and incomplete solution is a greater emphasis on education at every level. And maybe, just maybe, this cycle has run its course, for the last seven years, perhaps, have discredited the anti-intellectualism movement. President Bush, after all, is the movement’s epitome—and its fruit.” And a fruitcake to boot, I might add.

 

What about the media?

How can one deal with any political issue without a bit of media-bashing?

If you noticed, science coverage in most newspapers and other media became an endangered species. A recent editorial in Nature cites these sobering statistics:

“Watch five hours of U.S. cable news, and, on average, you will see around 35 minutes on election campaigns, another 36 minutes on U.S. foreign policy, and 26 minutes on crime—but only about one minute on science and technology, slightly more on the environment, and only a little over 3 minutes on medicine and healthcare. This is not just an issue with cable: Science fares little better in other forms of television, radio, or print news, according to the Pew Research Center’s The State of the News Media 2008 report, released on 17 March.”

True, nowadays the public receives a lot of its information on science and technology from the internet. But as we all know, much of what is on the internet is pure bunk. Much is pushed by commercial outfits, by frauds, and by political hucksters with an ideological agenda. How is the lay public to separate the wheat from the chaff?

We circle back to newspapers. They bear responsibility not only to their readers, but to the public at large. Many of the blogs on the internet do not contain original data or analysis; they rely on the careful work of newspapers’ science reporting. The severe cuts in science reporting are based on the mistaken assumption that the public lost interest in anything that smacks of science and technology.

Not so. According to Pew Center data, around two-thirds of all those who search online for news are after science and health news—second only to the weather—with technology coming third, ahead of politics and business. That trend is confirmed in reports published this past December by the European Commission.

Another dangerous trend in the media is the politically correct emphasis on “balance”. A print or TV journalist feels obliged to couple any assertion by a scientist (or thousands of them) that our climate is changing and that much of it is man-made, with some fringe “scientist” who claims the opposite. Same is true for discussion of evolution. The perception that these issues are “contoversial” is thus further embedded in the lay public’s collective mind.

A maverick scientist, from UC Berkeley no less, claimed that AIDS was not the result of a virus infection, but of environmental factors. He was accorded equal time in the media until his claims were decisively debunked. But, in the meantime, thousands of patients died in South Africa unnecessarily because the government, trying to save money on anti-HIV drugs, embraced his claims as the basis for its policy.

We need to dispense with this pretense of “balance”. The evidence of man’s contribution to climate change is overwhelming. Evolution is a fact. It is time we stop pandering to the ideological know-nothings and tell it like it is without obfuscation. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as they say, and no amount hedging and qualifying and bogus balancing should obscure the truth.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

1 COMMENT

  1. The reason Americans are stupid is because of the religious right influence. The dumbing down of America refers to these drones who keep procreating to pass on what their non-thinking parents taught them. If they don’t know an answer they give up and say it’s Gods’ doing instead of asking questions.

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