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Bridging the science gap

Charlie Neibergall / AP file
Barack Obama listens to Dr. Mark Anderson while touring a University of
Iowa cardiology lab in 2007 during the presidential campaign. Obama has 
pledged to make scientific integrity a priority for his administration.

Whatever happened to the war on science? During the Bush administration, many scientists felt as if they were on the outs when it came to issues ranging from global climate change to stem cell research and even evolutionary biology. President Barack Obama came into office pledging to "restore our commitment to science" - and some of the scientists who were once on the outs suddenly found themselves in the inner circle.

Today, Obama is leading the charge on climate policy and stem cells, and he's got a Nobel-winning physicist pushing for energy alternatives. Sounds like the war is over, right?

"The war is not over," says Chris Mooney, author of "The Republican War on Science" and co-author of a new book titled "Unscientific America." The gap between scientists and society at large may have shrunk, but there's still a disconnect that transcends political parties. That comes through loud and clear in "Unscientific America" as well as a new 98-page study analyzing how scientists and the wider American public view each other.

Fortunately, there are some prescriptions for shrinking the gap further - although history suggests that skirmishes over science will be as perennial as death and taxes.

The study, based on surveys of 2,001 adult Americans and 2,533 scientists, was released today by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in collaboration with the American Associationfor the Advancement of Science. "Unscientific America," co-written by Mooney and marine scientist Sheril Kirshenbaum, is just now hitting the bookstores. Both works take a fresh look at the "Two Cultures" concept advanced a half-century ago by British novelist C.P. Snow.

Back in Snow's day, the issue was the divide in academia between the sciences and the humanities. Today, it's not so much a question of physics profs vs. the literati. Rather, the divide is between scientists and technologists on one side, and politicians and voters on the other. And it's not that one side is truly at war with the other. In fact, the Pew study points out that most Americans really like science and think it's deserving of support.

Pew's numbers show that the situation is more complex:

  • About 84 percent of those in the sampling of the American public had mostly positive feelings about science's effect on society, and 70 percent said scientists contribute a lot to society's well-being. (Compared with 38 percent for, um, journalists.)  But only 17 percent of the public thought that the United States still held pre-eminence in scientific achievements. In contrast, 49 percent of the scientists - who were drawn from the AAAS' membership rolls for the survey - said America was still the best in the world.
  • Twenty-seven percent of the public ranked scientific, medical and technological advances as America's greatest achievements of the past 50 years - which ranked as the top category on the achievement scale. But that's way down from the 47 percent reported a decade ago. The big gainer was America's achievements in civil rights and equal rights - and come to think of it, Obama's election as the first black president may have had something to do with that.
  • From the scientists' perspective, 85 percent said that public ignorance was a major problem for science in society. The scientists also had issues with the way journalists cover science: Seventy-six percent said that news reports did not distinguish between claims that were well-founded and those that were not, and that this ranked as a major problem.
  • The survey also pointed up a lot of the expected issues where scientists might differ with the wider public. Most scientists, for example, were aware that there had been a political war on science. Most of the public had no idea. Among the scientists, 84 percent said global warming is being caused by human activity. Only 49 percent of the public agreed. Thirty-one percent of the public said living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Only 2 percent of the scientists held that view. Forty-one percent of the scientists said they didn't believe in the existence of God or a higher power. Only 4 percent of the public felt the same.
  • A separate survey of 1,005 adults assessed their quiz-show knowledge of scientific facts, and the results were decidedly mixed: About 91 percent knew that aspirin can help prevent heart attacks, but just 46 percent knew that electrons were smaller than atoms. (Now you can take the 12-question quiz yourself and be assured of getting two answers right!)

"It's a great set of data, and it basically shows that we've got scientists looking at the world one way, while the public thinks about it in a very different way," Mooney observed. "That is the problem."

But how big of a problem is it, really? Does it really matter that people don't know the relative sizes of electrons and atoms?

"That's not as clearly important as knowing what the science is behind global warming," Mooney said. "And that's something people also get wrong, in large numbers."

The impact of the scientific disconnect pops up in several ways: Efforts to control greenhouse-gas emissions will attract less political support if voters don't think the problem is that serious. If you don't think childhood vaccinations should be required (which is the way 28 percent of the public sample and 17 percent of the scientists felt), that affects public health policy.

"The problem is not the lack of knowledge, the problem is the policy," Mooney said.

And in fact, more knowledge doesn't always lead to better decision-making. "When people go to college and they learn a smattering of science, that does not mean they're necessarily going to be protected against misinformation," Mooney said. "Higher education can make you less accepting of science, not more. ... Politics is more powerful than education on some of these issues, and I would argue that culture, broadly speaking, is more powerful than education."

Gap-bridging strategies
So what is to be done? In a commentary on the survey, AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan Leshner gives a boost to outreach efforts such as the Science and Entertainment Exchange. "Engaging with the public on scientific issues, rather than lecturing to them, requires listening to their perspectives, encouraging mutual learning and finding new ways to leverage popular culture, new media, journalism and civic channels to facilitate dialogue opportunities," he said.

In their book, Mooney and Kirshenbaum call for a dramatic increase in funding for interdisciplinary training programs such as the National Science Foundation's IGERT initiative. "The scientist who can write, or design a Web site, or understand patent law, or speak Spanish, will be better equipped to face the competition than a scientist who only knows his or her discipline - not to mention being a better science communicator," they write.

Rather than merely complaining about the sorry state of scientific literacy, scientists should value the communicators in their ranks - such as the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who was as comfortable in front of a camera as he was in a lab. (One could say much the same about astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is currently hosting a summer season of "Nova ScienceNOW.")

Mooney and Kirshenbaum run the numbers on the Ph.D. pipeline and find that many of tomorrow's scientists will have to look for gainful employment outside the lab. Mooney even suggests taking a page from the AmeriCorps playbook and creating a "ScienceCorps" that can go out and help the public do the scientific things out there that need to be done.

"Honestly, it's incumbent on universities to give people in graduate-level science more diverse skills, because most scientists are not going to end up in 'real' research jobs," Mooney told me.

What real-world problems will those scientists be working on? To get some insight into that question, I'll recommend another book: "Science Next," a collection of essays edited by Jonathan Moreno and Rick Weiss. Google executive Vinton Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, suggests a post-Sputnik-scale initiative to develop green energy technologies. Other essays tout anti-aging research, or anti-bioterror measures, or upgrades in science education.

There's no shortage of issues that need to be addressed, by scientists as well as an interested electorate. What scientific agenda would you set, and how would you sell that agenda to the public at large? Feel free to leave your comments below.

Update for 7:15 p.m. ET: One of the nice things about "Unscientific America" is that it starts out with the controversy over Pluto's status in the solar system. As you might recall, the International Astronomical Union reclassified the icy world as a dwarf planet three years ago and declared that dwarf planets were not planets. That sparked a spirited debate between Plutoclasts and Plutophiles that continues to this day.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum point to the case as "a particularly colorful example of the rift today between the world of science and the rest of society," and half-jokingly state that the aim of their book is to save Pluto as well as to update the "Two Cultures" debate over science and society.

Of course, Pluto isn't in any need of saving, but the personalities and cultural angles behind the planethood debate also figure in my forthcoming book, "The Case for Pluto." So I couldn't resist asking Mooney to expand upon the theme of Pluto's reclassification:

"It's not a purely scientific question," he said. "It was clearly done with insensitivity to a reaction that should have been obvious and predictable. It's a great case of failure to understand on both sides."

The interesting thing about the planethood debate is that the ultimate outcome doesn't make any difference in the lives of the public - unlike the outcome of other scientific debates such as the response to climate change or the ethics of stem cell research. For once, no lobbyists or pressure groups were involved. Nevertheless, Pluto's plight captured the attention of the public as well as politicians and pundits (and planetary scientists).

"It's a big deal," Mooney said, "because how often does something happen in science that most people are aware of? It is exceedingly rare that they hear something [about a scientific issue] that they know as well as they know who's winning 'American Idol.' So when Pluto was demoted, we thought that was one of those moments."

In fact, this was one of the questions included on Pew's science quiz. Sixty percent of the respondents identified Pluto as the world no longer considered a planet by most astronomers. (Was the answer "correct"? I hesitate to say.) That's not a bad showing if you're comparing it with the question about electrons and atoms. But it's sobering to see that more people (66 percent) correctly identified the surprising singing star of  "Britain's Got Talent" (Susan Boyle, no relation).

You'll find out much more about the way scientists handled the Pluto problem in my book, which is due out in November but can be pre-ordered from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Borders.

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