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The serious consequences of scientific illiteracy

by Donald Prothero, Aug 21 2013

In a democracy, it is very important that the public have a basic understanding of science so that they can control the way that science and technology increasingly affect our lives.

— Stephen Hawking

If you are scientifically literate the world looks very different to you. Its not just a lot of mysterious things happening. There is a lot we understand out there. And that understanding empowers you to, first, not be taken advantage of by others who do understand it. And second there are issues that confront society that have science as their foundation. If you are scientifically illiterate, in a way, you are disenfranchising yourself from the democratic process, and you don’t even know it.
—Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astronomer, 2009

We’ve arranged a global civilization in which the most critical elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.
—Carl Sagan, 1996

Item: the headline from reads “China shoots up rankings as science power, study finds.” As the article summarizes, a recent study by the Royal Society of London, the world’s foremost and oldest scientific organization, found that although the U.S. was still the dominant scientific power in terms of scientific publications, the Chinese scientific had experienced a “meteoric rise” in scientific publications and new research. Back in 2003, fewer than 5% of scientific articles came out of China. By 2008, 10% were Chinese-authored, putting it second only the U.S. Meanwhile, the U.S. share of scientific publications dropped from 26% to 21%. Professor Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith FRS, Chair of the Advisory Group for the study, said: “The scientific world is changing and new players are fast appearing. Beyond the emergence of China, we see the rise of South-East Asian, Middle Eastern, North African and other nations. The increase in scientific research and collaboration, which can help us to find solutions to the global challenges we now face, is very welcome. However, no historically dominant nation can afford to rest on its laurels if it wants to retain the competitive economic advantage that being a scientific leader brings.”

China is already improving in many rankings, making it the second largest economic power as well. Unencumbered by global warming deniers or stem-cell research antagonists or creationists who interfere with science policy, China is making huge investments in new technologies for a world with global warming and limited oil, while the U.S. slips down the rankings of countries investing in green technology. Germany and several Scandinavian countries have long led the world in their investments in green technology and their societal commitment to low energy use and reducing greenhouse gases—yet their economies are stronger than ours or than most of those in southern Europe or elsewhere. Not surprisingly, these northern European and East Asian countries also rank at the top of science literacy rankings, and we already saw the correlation between acceptance of evolution and science literacy and other factors (see my previous post).

The U.S. still holds the lion’s share of Nobel Prizes in sciences, and has since 1956, when the effect of Germany’s experiment with Hitler, anti-Semitism and World War II caused a “brain drain” from Germany to the U.S. and other countries, and ended German supremacy in science. But how long can this U.S. supremacy in science last when our population is less scientifically literate than that of most Asian or northern European nations? How long can it last when political and religious ideologues and zealots interfere with stem-cell research, deny evolution, and try to stifle American awareness of, and preparedness for issues of global warming, population growth, and the limits of our resources?

Some people say, “It can’t happen here. The U.S. has been the #1 power ever since World War II, and now we’re the only superpower left.” But as historians have pointed out, many other powerful societies with enormous economic reach and flourishing sciences and the arts have also declined in the past. Only 150 years ago, the British Empire of Queen Victoria once spanned the entire globe, but now it is a relatively minor player among global powers, as it lost most of its economic strength and its colonial empire during and after World Wars I and II. The once-mighty Soviet Empire fell in just a few years during the 1990s. The U.S. has been embroiled in two different wars in the Middle East, draining billions of dollars and thousands of American lives, while running up huge economic deficits in a time of recession. We like to think of ourselves as exceptional and bulletproof, but that’s not the lesson history teaches us.

I put it this way in my new book Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten our Future: imagine a society where a great flowering of science and technology spanned several centuries—and then, due to dogmatism, it throws away all this progress, and recedes into the Dark Ages. Hard to imagine our own society sliding back into darkness and pre-Industrial conditions? Well, it has happened before. The Greeks made huge advances in mathematics, geometry, engineering, philosophy, arts and literature, especially during the golden ages of Periclean Athens, and again during the Hellenistic Greek period, where the descendants of Alexander’s conquest of the known world flourished in Alexandria (where Ptolemy set up the famous model of the geocentric world) or in Syracuse (where Archimedes made great intellectual leaps in geometry, mathematics, and engineering). But this all vanished when the Greeks were conquered by the Roman Empire. A Roman soldier killed Archimedes during the conquest of Syracuse. The soldier did not recognize him, or realize the genius of the man he had killed, even though there were orders from the Roman generals to capture him alive. Archimedes, completely absorbed in doing geometry, allegedly said “Don’t disturb my circles,” before he was killed. And the Roman conquest of the other great centers of learning, such as Alexandria, did much to set back science and philosophy, although the Romans did great feats of engineering and spread the benefits of Greek mathematics and engineering and civilized life to almost all of Europe.

The Roman Empire fell in 456 A.D., and the western world slipped into the Dark Ages. The advances in science and mathematics and engineering were lost for almost a thousand years, and wouldn’t return to the European world until the Renaissance in the 1400s and 1500s. The ancient texts of the great Greek and Roman authors were largely destroyed as heretical by the Catholic Church, or (since papyrus and parchment were rare and precious), re-used by medieval monks to write religious documents right over the ancient texts (a palimpsest). In fact, most of the copies of the works of classical Greek and Roman authors come from palimpsests, where the monk copyists placed no value on ancient learning, but only saw the ancient parchment as a valuable source of paper for copying their own religious ideas. Only centuries later did scholars realize that these palimpsests contained the key documents of the ancient Greeks and Romans, overwritten by medieval religious graffiti.

Few people realize that during the Dark Ages, there was more science and scholarship going on in Baghdad about 1000 A.D. than in any European city at the time. Known as the “Arabic golden age” from about 800-1100 A.D., Baghdad and many other Arabic cities experienced their own Renaissance, and incredible scientific and mathematical advances occurred. These scholars made advances in agriculture, the arts, economics, industry, law, literature, navigation, philosophy, sciences, sociology, and technology, both by preserving earlier traditions and by adding inventions and innovations of their own . There was a long period of religious tolerance in Baghdad and elsewhere, allowing Jews, Christians, and even non-believers to live in peace in a predominantly Muslim world. Thanks to them, we all use Arabic numerals rather than clumsy Roman numerals for most mathematical tasks. Arabic scholars invented the concept of zero, and invented algebra (an Arabic word, as is the word “algorithm”). Many of the stars in the sky have Arabic names, and Arabic astronomers made huge advances, mostly in service of navigation for their large seagoing trade networks. Some of the inventions, concepts, and cultural advances they made include the camera obscura, coffee, soap bar, tooth paste, shampoo, distilled alcohol, uric acid, nitric acid, alembic, valve, reciprocating suction piston pump, mechanized waterclocks, quilting, surgical catgut, vertical-axle windmill, inoculation, cryptanalysis, frequency analysis, three-course meal, stained glass and quartz glass, Persian carpet, and celestial globe.

For three centuries, these advances continued under this period of relatively benign rule and religious tolerance. Then, during the 1100s and later, their Renaissance collapsed in a spectacular fashion. According to George Sarton, “The achievements of the Arabic speaking peoples between the ninth and twelfth centuries are so great as to baffle our understanding. The decadence of Islam and of Arabic is almost as puzzling in its speed and completeness as their phenomenal rise.” Although there is much debate among historians as to the cause of this spectacular decline, much of it can be laid at the feet of religious extremism and intolerance. By the 1200s and 1300s, extremism dominated the Muslim world, and still does today. In this past few decades, the Muslim world has been so dominated by extremists that it is hard for us to think of Muslims as tolerant of other religions, or concerned with concepts in science or philosophy that might threaten their concept of Islam. Indeed, most of the Muslim countries are highly resistant to the notion of evolution, and have their own virulent form of creationism that borrows heavily from the version founded by American fundamentalists.

There are other examples of religious or political intolerance and oppression of science when it conflicts with the established powers. Take the infamous case of Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s favorite scientist. Lysenko held almost absolute power over Soviet science from 1927 until 1964. Most modern historians of science consider him a mediocre geneticist who promoted ideas of how Lamarckian inheritance might improve Soviet crop yields and prevent famine. His experimental results were inconclusive or outright fraudulent, yet he told Stalin that he could produce incredible bounties of food. As a result, he became the most powerful figure in the Soviet scientific establishment, and conspired with Stalin to suppress Mendelian geneticists, who really did understand how inheritance worked. Most of them were killed outright, sent to concentration camps, or driven into exile, forever destroying the vitality and strength of Soviet genetics and biology. Soviet genetics fell decades behind that of the rest of the world until the 1960s, when Lysenko was finally denounced, his work discredited, and he died in disgrace. Millions of people died in frequent famines when his nonsensical ideas were applied to agriculture.

No matter whether it is the classic Greek science, or Arabic science, or Soviet science, the conclusion is clear: science cannot be subservient to ideology, and scientists cannot be forced to distort their message or results in order to please the political or religious powers that be. Lysenko and Stalin did not believe in Mendelian genetics or Darwinian biology, and they murdered hundreds of legitimate scientists who had the temerity to disagree with them. Other regimes (such as the Nazis or the devout Muslims after 1100) have distorted science to support their ideas, but ultimately scientific reality must win.

It is true that we don’t live in the Soviet Union of Stalin, and that the United States has some safeguards against such oppression of scientific ideas. But as Mooney (2005) and Shulman (2007) showed, the Bush Administration actively interfered with legitimate scientists, rewriting reports by federal scientists that disagree with their right-wing ideology, encouraging fringe scientists to testify as legitimate equals with well-regarded scientists in order to cancel out their politically inconvenient message, and generally ignoring the conclusions of scientists who don’t agree with them. As we saw in previous posts, the House “Science” Committees are run by creationists and climate deniers. The current Republican House majority asks global warming deniers and other fringe scientists to testify in front of Congress, and passes bills denying obvious scientific facts. Stem-cell research in the United States has been set back compared to that in other countries, as our best scientists go to countries with less political oppression. Likewise, the foot-dragging and denials of global warming by the Bush Administration and the flunkies of the oil industry in Congress may have cost the world valuable time in addressing this serious crisis.

When the prophet Cassandra told the Trojans what they didn’t want to hear, they ignored her and were eventually destroyed. If science tells us that we have evolved from the animal kingdom, or that microbes are evolving resistances to all our medicines, or that our wasteful society is destroying our planet, we had better learn from it, rather than shooting the messenger—and letting our children pay the ultimate price for our folly.

As usual, the late great Carl Sagan said it best:

There’s another reason I think popularizing science is important, why I try to do it. It’s a foreboding I have—maybe ill-placed—of an America in my children’s generation, or my grandchildren’s generation, when all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when we’re a service and information-processing economy; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest even grasps the issues; when the people (by “the people” I mean the broad population in a democracy) have lost the ability to set their own agendas, or even to knowledgeably question those who do set the agendas; when there is no practice in questioning those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and religiously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in steep decline, unable to distinguish between what’s true and what feels good, we slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness.

29 Responses to “The serious consequences of scientific illiteracy”

  1. Geoff says:

    Wonderful article.

    that quote from Sagan was a bit creepy….. hits a bit close to the mark, don’t you think?

  2. Trimegistus says:

    Maybe if our educational system wasn’t massively dysfunctional and closely tied to one political party (making reform impossible) we could change things and improve the quality of education here. But it’s more fun to rail about the Bush Administration. Facing facts is hard.

    • C’mon. Did I mention the Bush Administration ONCE in the entire post? Stop attacking straw men and address what’s really being discussed!

      • Daniel says:

        YES YOU DID:

        “It is true that we don’t live in the Soviet Union of Stalin, and that the United States has some safeguards against such oppression of scientific ideas. But as Mooney (2005) and Shulman (2007) showed, the BUSH ADMINISTRATION actively interfered with legitimate scientists, rewriting reports by federal scientists that disagree with their right-wing ideology, encouraging fringe scientists to testify as legitimate equals with well-regarded scientists in order to cancel out their politically inconvenient message, and generally ignoring the conclusions of scientists who don’t agree with them.”

      • Max says:

        LOL, it’s subconscious at this point.

  3. Daniel says:

    There is so much wrong with this analysis that it’s difficult to know where to start.

    First, the whole thesis is based on the premise that the US is more scientifically illiterate than the rest of the industrialized world. One of the very sources that Prothero cited in Part 1 stated:

    “A slightly higher proportion of American adults qualify as scientifically literate than European or Japanese adults, but the truth is that no major industrial nation in the world today has a sufficient number of scientifically literate adults,” he said. “We should take no pride in a finding that 70 percent of Americans cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times.”

    Second, Prothero doesn’t even bother to state the obvious as to why China and Korea would be rising in the scientific rankings. Namely, up until about 40 years ago, China was just coming out from the disaster that was Mao’s rule, and South Korea was recovering from the devastation of the Korean War, internal political instability, and an underlying history of subjugation and isolation. That accounts for more than 1 billion people entering the industrialized world in a relatively short period of time. Naturally, you would expect that advances in science would accompany that phenomenon, which would, in turn, increase their share of published works. In other words, that’s a lot of people that had nowhere to go but up. In any event, Christianity is on the rise in China, and is prevalent (along with a creationist movement) in South Korea, so it would seem to cut against the theory that there is some inverse correlation between a society’s religiosity and its scientific standing in the world.

    Third, Prothero, bizarrely, links the state of a particular country’s scientific progress or decline, as the case may be, with green technology, of all things. Even more ridiculously, this is what he attributes to why the economies of Scandavia and Germany are “stronger” than southern Europe. Spain dumped a ton of taxpayer dollars into green technology, where, between 2004 and 2011 was three times what it was in the US on a per capita basis, and all they have to show for it is depression level unemployment.

    Fourth, there’s Prothero’s contradictory and superficial analysis of the Roman Empire’s attitudes toward science. His evidence that scientific knowledge declined and was shunned during that time is based on an anecdote of mistaken identity, while at the same time acknowledging that “the Romans did great feats of engineering and spread the benefits of Greek mathematics and engineering and civilized life to almost all of Europe.”

    Fifth, while indeed the fall of the Western Roman Empire (the capital of the very religious Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, remained the most advanced city in the world for several hundred years after the Goths sacked Rome) was the proximate cause of the Dark Ages in Western Europe, he fails to give any reason for the origins of the Dark Ages. This is a subject that has been, and will continue to be debated by historians. Indeed, when trying to sum up the reasons for the fall of Rome, Eugene Weber, one of the great historians of the 20th century, said, “your guess is as good as mine”.

    Sixth, while indeed early Islam was relatively more tolerant of other religions when the Arabs conquered Northern Africa and Spain, it was a form of toleration that would be considered very backwards today. Others were free to practice their own religion, so long as they did it in private, but otherwise non-Muslims were treated as second class citizens in a way that would make Bull Connor blush. Then while conceding that the decline of Muslim scientific endeavors is “much debated” he concludes that “much of it can be laid at the feet of religious extremism” by citing to a ten minute youtube video of the historian . . . Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Seriously? (I can’t speak to the George Sarton thesis, whatever it might be, since the link to that source does not work).

    Otherwise, it’s the usual tired stuff of laying the blame for all things bad in the world on the Bush administration and creationists.

    Ultimately, I would argue that people like Prothero are doing more damage to scientific and skeptical inquiry than any creationist could ever dream of. It’s bad enough that his social, historical and economic musings are based on numerous errors and dishonest citations to his source materials to the extent that they are at all persuasive. But perhaps its biggest sin is that those observations are intellectually lazy and superficial. It’s hard for someone to take the movement seriously when a mainstream blog like this is filled with tired left-wing agitprop, and somehow equates the movement with left of center economic concepts. (Not that there isn’t a place to advocate for those sorts of things, it just shouldn’t be on a blog that is putatively devoted to skeptical inquiry).

    • C. Van Carter says:

      In his book Mr. Prothero asks a relevant question: “Why would you trust the arguments of someone with a Ph.D. in hydraulics when they are talking about evolutionary biology or paleontology, and yet they have never published in those fields…?”

  4. C. Van Carter says:

    This post should be titled the unserious consequences of historical illiteracy.

  5. C. Van Carter says:

    In your book you act as if the deadliness of “second hand smoke” is settled science, which it’s not, see, for example, “Environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality in a prospective study of Californians, 1960-98″, J. Enstrom and G. Kabat.

    • Max says:
      “Competing interests: In recent years JEE has received funds originating from the tobacco industry for his tobacco related epidemiological research because it has been impossible for him to obtain equivalent funds from other sources. GCK never received funds originating from the tobacco industry until last year, when he conducted an epidemiological review for a law firm which has several tobacco companies as clients.”

      • C. Van Carter says:

        It seems like researchers won’t get funding from “neutral” sources if their results go in the wrong direction.

      • Max says:

        You don’t find it the least bit suspicious that tobacco industry-funded studies don’t find evidence of risk from tobacco smoke that other studies find? Wasn’t that the case with first-hand smoking as well?

      • C. Van Carter says:

        I see no problems with that actual study.

    • Daniel says:

      Even if they were right beyond a shadow of a doubt, I highly doubt a public health journal or the American Cancer Society would approve of a study that concludes maybe smoking isn’t THAT bad.

    • Max says:

      “In 2008, the CDC asked the Institute of Medicine to convene a committee to assess the relationship between secondhand-smoke exposure and effects on the heart.”

      “Conclusion: Data consistently demonstrate that secondhand-smoke exposure increases the risk of coronary heart disease and heart attacks and that smoking bans reduce heart attacks. Given the prevalence of heart attacks, and the resultant deaths, smoking bans can have a substantial impact on public health.”

      • C. Van Carter says:

        It’s strange banning smoking in bars reduces heart attacks among people who don’t go to bars.

        More problems with SHS:

      • Max says:

        Where does it say that the bans are only in bars? There are smoking bans at restaurants, universities, hospitals, public buildings, etc.

        You cited papers from 2001 and 2003, and I cited the Institute of Medicine report from 2009.

      • Daniel says:

        I read the report brief. (I didn’t see a link to the actual report, and even if there were one, I probably wouldn’t understand it anyway).

        Anyway, the information in the brief certainly doesn’t sound to me like “the science is settled, second hand smoke is extremely dangerous”. A few tidbits:

        “While the committee found strong evidence of this associa­tion [link btw heart disease and second hand smoke], the evidence for determining the precise magnitude of the increased risk—that is, the number of cases of disease that are attributable to secondhand-smoke exposure—is not as strong. The committee therefore did not estimate the size of the effect.”

        “Given the small amount of data for nonsmokers, however, the committee could not determine how much of the positive effect of bans is attributable to nonsmokers as compared to smokers.”

        “Assessment of smoking status is also needed to distinguish between the effects of secondhand smoke in nonsmokers and the effects of a ban that decreases cigarette consumption or promotes smoking cessation in smokers.”

        Note, I don’t really have a dog in the fight so far as indoor smoking bans, and common sense would tell me that it’s better for your health to not be exposed to second hand smoke if you can at all help it.

        However, the percentage decreased risk of whatever maladies and the other adjectives that get thrown around in studies that are commissioned by groups like the CDC and other public health groups need to be taken with a grain of salt. (Let’s not even get into the anti-smoking ads). As I said, no public health advocacy group is ever going to say smoking isn’t THAT bad.

      • Daniel says:

        I should add btw, that I do smoke, on average, a few cigs a day, but actually kind of like indoor smoking bans. It’s nice to go outside, and I am probably smoking less as a result.

        And my gastro, while saying “I’m not supposed to tell you this”, told me that smoking relieves the symptoms of my colitis, and could explain my long period of remission. He might be on Altria’s payroll, but I don’t think so.

  6. Max says:

    How many Nobel Prizes in science does the People’s Republic of China hold? The only one I can find is Sir Charles Kao, who was affiliated with the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

  7. C. Van Carter says:

    When comparing American scientific literacy with Europeans and East Asians you need to adjust for racial differences in IQ. US aggregate scores are dragged down by blacks and Hispanics.

    • Daniel says:

      Even without controlling for that, the only source that Prothero cited in part one that purported to compare scientific literacy across countries concluded that adults in the US were slightly more scientifically literate than Europeans and Japanese. Prothero claimed that the studies did control for the factors you mentioned, but he only cited Jaywalking.

    • Max says:

      It doesn’t take high IQ to know basic facts, like that the Earth goes around the Sun.
      And it doesn’t take low IQ to deny Evolution, Big Bang, and Global Warming.

      • tmac57 says:

        “And it doesn’t take low IQ to deny Evolution, Big Bang, and Global Warming.”

        True,but it sure helps ;)

    • Max says:

      Males had higher scores than females on 9 out of 11 factual knowledge questions.

      Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
      Males: 79% correct, Females: 67% correct

      Lasers work by focusing sound waves.
      Males: 63% correct, Females: 35% correct

      Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.
      Males: 54% correct, Females: 40% correct

      Here are the two where females got higher scores:

      It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.
      Males: 52% correct, Females: 68% correct

      Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
      Males: 48% correct, Females: 52% correct

  8. Amy says:

    Carl Sagan’s quote at the end is haunting.

  9. manuel george says:

    I am not sure but making an assumption. I think the Islamic world went radical because of the crusaders. The crusaders were radical they started penetrating the Islamic world with their radicalism. This forced the Islamic world to reacte religiously. They had to mobilize their masses along religious lines. This took sometime to build up. Tolerance for other religions fall apart. Science suffers in this environment because with religious ideals and a god that knows all and created all. Who is man to compete. Religion makes you feel like you know all and only god knows. And if one does not know god wants it that way. So you see religious people always has an answer.
    In which rigor has no place.