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Scientific Illiteracy Could Have Damaging Impact in Future


Have we become a scientifically illiterate nation? If so, what affect will this ignorance about science pose to our future? We speak to the co-author of "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future" about the book, and to discuss what can be done to increase our science IQ before it's too late.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. When President Obama said in his inaugural address that his administration would restore science to its rightful place in society, scientists and researchers across the nation cheered. Gone were the bad old days of the war against science, of a White House that gave support to the teaching of intelligent design. The men and women of science were ready to usher in a new age of enlightenment. However, a new book warns that the transition may not be easy. In recent years, science has taken a hit, not just politically but in the media, in schools and in our larger culture. As a result, many Americans lack the basic science literacy that allows new research to be communicated and understood. And, some scientists themselves have developed a chip on their shoulders about public skepticism and are failing to reach out with new information. Joining me to discuss science and culture in the U.S. is my guest Sheril Kirshenbaum, a marine scientist and co-author of "Unscientific American: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future (sic)." Sheril, welcome to These Days.

SHERIL KIRSHENBAUM (Marine Scientist, Co-Author of "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future"): Hi, Maureen. Thank you so much for having me on.

CAVANAUGH: You're very welcome. You know, I want to invite our listeners to join the conversation, too. Have you noticed that your friends or your kids don't know much about science anymore? What could make science more attractive to the general public? Give us a call with your questions and your comments, 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. Well, let me ask you, what motivated you and co-author Chris Mooney to write this book?

KIRSHENBAUM: Well, it's scary, frankly, how disconnected our culture has become from science, which is so central to many of the greatest challenges we face in the 21st century, from climate change to healthcare and well beyond. Science should be included in almost every conversation not as sort of this special interest group or something to stick on the side but as more of a common culture. And Chris and I have been working together for a long time. We share a blog on Discover magazine blogs, so we've been having a lot of kind of conversations through the blog which led to a lot of the ideas in the book. It started as revisiting C.P. Snow's famous lecture about 50 years ago called the "Two Cultures" lecture he gave over – across the pond…


KIRSHENBAUM: …looking at the gap between the sciences and the humanities and how the two can meet and how we're training people in different ways to talk about some of the same things. So we started with that but we looked at what are the challenges today in American culture and there are certainly more than four but the book really focuses on science and the media, how scientists are portrayed in Hollywood, the often seeming conflict between science and religion, and of course science and policy, which you introduced the segment with. So it's a lot to take on but those are some of the central themes in the book.

CAVANAUGH: No, your book "Unscientific America," the title sounds like a play on the title of that old revered magazine called Scientific American.


CAVANAUGH: And that magazine seemed to symbolize how closely scientific knowledge was aligned with being an American.


CAVANAUGH: I wonder how our nation's view of science and how scientists have changed over the last couple of decades?

KIRSHENBAUM: Well, we've seen kind of the celebration of science after World War II, we've seen it with – when Sputnik was launched, and we've also see science kind of be pushed aside because of partisan debates because of, you know, it just not being a priority, because of economic factors, and a whole onslaught of other kind of assaults on science at times. And it's a shame and I think a lot of that, too, starts early in the classroom when people aren't able to make those connections to see science as something relevant in their daily lives and instead the only time they hear about it is an example we start the book with. People hear about science when Pluto's no longer a planet. We didn't try to – we don't want to make the argument that Pluto has to be reinstated. I mean, I certainly would like to see it reinstated but the point is more that, you know, the Pluto episode and also all of the discussions about the large hydron collider shooting us into a black hole, I mean, that's the kind of stuff that gets out into the public. And, meanwhile, there's so much more going on, especially – I'm actually out in San Diego with you today.


KIRSHENBAUM: I'm out at Scripps talking to a bunch of graduate students about science communication and just thinking about how close we are to the ocean and all of the issues affecting oceans like the acidification of our marine environment. It's all related to science and it's all going to affect us so intimately and personally.

CAVANAUGH: You know, in the book, you actually outline four major areas where the scientific divide is most pronounced.


CAVANAUGH: There's politics – You've named a few. There's politics, there's media. What are they?

KIRSHENBAUM: Well, the four areas are…


KIRSHENBAUM: …politics, media, Hollywood and perceived religious conflicts…


KIRSHENBAUM: …some being real, some being exaggerated more than I think they need to be in the science community. And just to – I mean, with media, for example, we've seen so many science news networks and – Are you hearing feedback?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I am, just a little bit.

KIRSHENBAUM: I'm not sure what that is.

CAVANAUGH: I think it's going to go away.

KIRSHENBAUM: Sorry about that.

CAVANAUGH: Let's research that. You can go on with your answer.

KIRSHENBAUM: Sure, sure. Well, in the media, we've seen newspapers cutting their science sections left and right. We've seen CNN drop their news on environment and science as a full section. And it's a trend that we're seeing in part because of the economy and in part because of technology as the internet has kind of given rise to this proliferation of new media sources. Some of them are terrific, some of them, without being peer reviewed, can say anything they want and people can handpick the science news that they want as easily as they can shop for Christmas presents.


KIRSHENBAUM: So it's a situation where the people who have been trained to tell the stories of scientists are losing their jobs and instead, you know, some blogs are terrific but certainly the network we're on, Discover magazine blogs, Sea & Science blogs has some terrific people writing. But anyone out there can put their opinion on the internet and is easily – and because of that, we've seen the rise of the anti-vaccination movement and a whole bunch of other – climate change denial. The anti-evolution folks have gotten really, really organized. So it's a mixed bag. And when – Just talking about science blogs in general, there was a recent poll for the most popular – or the Best Science Blog and the one that won is called "Watts Up With That" which is actually a climate change denial blog, which kind of gives you a snapshot of the state of things on the internet.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, it's a mixed bag, it certainly is.


CAVANAUGH: You know, we have a number of people who want to join the conversation, Sheril. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Robert is on the line in Mission Gorge. And welcome to These Days, Robert.

ROBERT (Caller, Mission Gorge): Why, thank you. What a terrific topic and it sounds like a wonderful book.

KIRSHENBAUM: Oh, thank you.

ROBERT: Yeah, my only point that I wanted to bring up was that scientists are trained very specifically to do their job and we don't have leadership in this country or probably in most countries that is composed of scientists.


ROBERT: They're composed of business people, composed of attorneys, and I think it would be wonderful perhaps somehow in the science programs, we include some sort of background in the politics side so that some scientists may get encouraged to actually go into the political arena and provide that leadership that seems to be lacking.

KIRSHENBAUM: Absolutely. Actually, one of the reasons that I was interested in writing this book, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do one of the congressional science fellowships right out of graduate school so I was working in the Senate with Bill Nelson, who is a Democrat from Florida on all of his ocean/environment/energy issues and it wasn't until that I was there, I had taken a whole bunch of policy courses while I was learning science, but it wasn't until I was in the office that I really got a taste of what was going into the decision making process and how critical it is for scientists to be able to communicate in ways that resonate beyond the communities that we're used to talking to about a lot of these issues. And that actually is what drove me to going toward science communication and, ultimately, writing this book.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call, Robert. And, Sheril, what basically do you find wrong about politicians debating scientific issues like global warming, for example. If scientists aren't part of the policy making in something like that, where do we go wrong?

KIRSHENBAUM: Well, it's not – it's not that scientists don't want – Well, there's certainly – there's a large number of scientists who might be a little concerned to get involved in politics to seem not objective and get into trouble with their peers and their colleagues but you do have a lot of scientists going to the Hill. I think the problem is we're not trained to communicate, we don't know how to organize. We write in a very different language than most people are comfortable reading. And when it comes to kind of, you know, this other side – When I was there, for example, oil lobbying or climate change denial, they're very organized. They know how to put on a huge briefing. They serve food. They're united in their message. And they speak in a very articulate, charismatic way, whereas I could have the same – I could have different kind of NGOs and scientists coming in to talk to me about a particular issue coming up on the Hill while I was there five times during a day and each group would have their own message with a different kind of question at the end or with a different kind of goal. And it was – it was very confusing even for me, coming from the sciences, to figure out why they were there. So I often wished I could go out to lunch with some of these folks beforehand and just say, if you want to make your case, don't show me a bunch of statistics, tell me a story, talk to me like a person. And there are – I mean, there's some scientists who are terrific at this. The Union of Concerned Scientists does make the rounds on the Hill. But something I tell a lot of young people, a lot of my students at Duke and what we're talking about at Scripps today, is to start thinking about new ways to use the tools that they've – that they have from graduate school. I mean, the scientists today are enabled – or, the young people kind of coming through the pipeline have the skills to be those communicators and not everyone needs to be the science ambassador. Everyone has their own real – but there are – there are – the odds of becoming a tenured faculty member for someone graduating today is only 7% and that is not, certainly, what everybody wants to do at the end of their career but it's a very low number which means we have a lot of people coming through with these skills who can fill other roles and who can work to build bridges between science and politicians, between science and Hollywood. And just put a human face on what science is about and why it matters.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Sheril Kirshenbaum. She's co-author of a new book "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future," and she, herself, is a marine scientist. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And let's hear from Craig, that is, in Del Cerro. Good morning, Craig, and welcome to These Days.

CRAIG (Caller, Del Cerro): Thanks a whole bunch. Good morning to you. My comment is that it's too bad that the teachers aren't teaching the kids better about all this good stuff. I'm 56 and, you know, when I was in school I had chemistry class and this and that. And, you know, I enjoy science a lot, you know what I mean?

CAVANAUGH: Right. Sure, sure I do. And, Craig, you think it's the teachers are just not teaching basic science in the classroom anymore?

CRAIG: I – I'm not sure that they're teaching much of anything. I heard – I heard a gal asked how Abraham Lincoln was killed and she said, wasn't he killed in a car crash?

CAVANAUGH: Oh, dear.


CRAIG: You know, I mean, this is ridic – that's silly. But we had 32 kids in my classes when I was in elementary school and, you know, whatever was in junior high and high school and all that but – and it's been a while. I know things are different and we didn't have…

CAVANAUGH: Well – well wh…

CRAIG: …Twitters and stuff like that to look at and take our time up but…

CAVANAUGH: Craig, let's address your central question here about science in the classroom and thanks for the call. I'm wondering, Sheril, how is science taught now?

KIRSHENBAUM: Well, I mean, it certainly varies so much from school to school and region to region. But just to give you an example, we have such a terrific class here and yesterday one of the students who's from China brought up the point that where he's from, the most popular kids are the kids who are doing the best in science and some of the other sort of stem areas. Whereas in this country, I'm – at least in my own case, definitely in my own case, it was kind of science was something you had to do and it was like this plug and chug kind of equation thing and I never thought I'd take another science course again. I just happened to get lucky in college and have a particular professor that made it real and showed me why it mattered and got me so turned on to environmental work then I knew I wanted to do conservation. But we're – I mean, there's definitely programs, "Sid the Science Kid" is an example on PBS, that does a really, really fantastic job of, you know, showing some of the cool ways that science is part of everything we do whether it's through a moldy sandwich or what have you. But I would like to see some more science role models and I think Hollywood is a big part of that. Most kids, most people in this country, can't name a scientific – well, a scientist. When people are polled, if they can name a scientist, most of them can't come up with anyone and then the top three answers are Albert Einstein, Al Gore, and Bill Gates. And of these, none of them are either a scientist or alive. So…

CAVANAUGH: Well, Al Gore is alive and Bill Gates is alive.

KIRSHENBAUM: Right, but they're not scientists.

CAVANAUGH: I understand your point.

KIRSHENBAUM: Right, and something like only 18% of folks can say that they know a scientist personally. So a lot of our perceptions of what scientists do is shaped by Hollywood.


KIRSHENBAUM: And in Hollywood, so often, the scientist is either totally socially inept like Rick Moranis in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," or kind of a jerk or out to destroy the planet.

CAVANAUGH: That's so true. We have a caller on the line who wants to talk about that. Ron is calling from Tierrasanta. Good morning, Ron, and welcome to These Days.

RON (Caller, Tierrasanta): Yes, good morning and thank you. I have something specific about Hollywood. There is a book and it's one of the most gripping books I've ever read and it's a true story, called "The Hot Zone" and it's about an outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Washington, D.C. area. Richard Preston of the New York Times wrote it. And it's how the scientists at Fort Dietrich Maryland heroically fought to contain that outbreak at the risk of their own lives, and Ebola is one of the most horrible ways to die you can imagine. Now, Hollywood bought that book, turned it into a movie called "Outbreak" starring Dustin Hoffman, about evil scientists trying to spread the Ebola virus.


CAVANAUGH: Yeah, and this is – Ron, you address exactly what Sheril is talking about when it comes to Hollywood and science.


CAVANAUGH: Sheril, did this whole idea that you can't play science straight, that you have to sort of distort it, you have to make it more dramatic.


CAVANAUGH: And you – you have that in your book.

KIRSHENBAUM: Well, I mean, you know, I'm not naïve and I know that Hollywood is about entertainment but I think that Hollywood can certainly be more informed to tell a better story, perhaps even a more entertaining, more engaging story by getting some of the science right because there's some egregious errors. Like I think it was "Red Planet," there was a scene where one of the scientists says, you know, I speak in the code of DNA, I know A, T, G and P. So he's getting his base pairs wrong. I mean, they could've gotten a high school, well I hope high school, kid studying genetics to just get certain small things like that right. And there are some good exam – "Contact" was certainly a movie that celebrated science.

CAVANAUGH: But Carl Sagan was involved in that.

KIRSHENBAUM: Carl – Exactly, Carl Sagan wrote the book, which I absolutely loved. We celebrate Carl Sagan in – throughout the book as this luminary to science ambassador. And point out that sometimes he was punished by his own colleagues, by his peers, I mean he wasn't included – he wasn't nominated – Excuse me. He wasn't allowed in the National Academies while he was alive. Probably, I mean, we don't have historical records from the room but when you look at some of the conversations about what happened, it seems like there was a lot of jealousy involved because he was doing Johnny Carson and that's kind of frowned upon in some circles.




KIRSHENBAUM: …we need to change the – change the way that we see scientists, change the way that we celebrate scientists and science heroes in American culture.

CAVANAUGH: I'm intrigued in your book in the way that you basically say that popular culture, Hollywood and other forms of popular culture, are more in love with science fiction than science. And a lot of us think that, you know, there's a lot of real science in science fiction. Is that not true?

KIRSHENBAUM: There is sometimes but the, I mean, the – there's definitely reason to see encouragement. We've seen the rise of a lot of medical dramas and things like that. But a lot of the shows that are being promoted are kind of this fringe science or, you know, the skeptic who doesn't believe the scientist is the guy who is right in the end all along. And these kind of "X-Files" plot lines that drive the story which, you know, could also promote pseudoscience and not trusting the real scientist who's trying to tell their story and explain how science works.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Let's take another call. Rick is calling from Escondido. Good morning, Rick. Welcome to These Days.

RICK (Caller, Escondido): Good morning, Maureen and Sheril. This is a great conversation. Thanks for having this on.

CAVANAUGH: You're welcome. Thanks for listening.

RICK: Just a couple of comments. I was once a very naïve scientist and I would think that once you present the data and you analyze everything together, the policymakers and leaders would listen to this and make decisions accordingly. But what I found, especially in our region here, is sometimes local and regional governments, they'll listen patiently and hear what you have to say but if it doesn't correspond to their particular policy objectives, they'll ignore it. In fact, the science advisory panel that the County used to have has basically dissolved. The chairman quietly kind of disappeared last year because, well, partly I'm sure, because of frustration that their recommendations were ignored. So I don't know if you address that in your book at all but it's pretty frustrating for those of us who want to try to get the facts out.

KIRSHENBAUM: Umm-hmm. Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that, Rick.

KIRSHENBAUM: Well, something that I – one of the strongest kind of take home messages from the time that I spent on Capitol Hill was about learning to get my message to resonate in a way that wasn't quite what might turn on a lot of my peers from grad school or from a lot of the conversations that I was having with like-minded folks and it's a different world. I mean, the first day I was there, someone came up to me in the Longworth Cafeteria and said, is this climate change thing real? And I just thought, wow.


KIRSHENBAUM: I'm not in Kansas anymore. But, you know, we're so – I would get these big reports and I'd have to really kind of get them into a few bullet points in a memo that I could hand to my boss and he'd understand, you know, what was the issue, why did it matter, and what did it have to do with our state? But for example, one of the big issues we worked on in 2006 was keeping oil off the coast of Florida and it was hard for me to even get my boss – I mean, he's busy. He's dealing with the war, he's dealing with, at the time, a crisis in Lebanon. How could I get his attention? And it wasn't so much arguing the ocean science of the issue, why it mattered, but when you start drawing connections between the welfare of the entire state—in that case it was Florida so socioeconomics and tourism was really important in terms of the state's income and I could talk about how if we drilled oil, you know, obviously it would be bad for marine organisms. But the tar balls rolling up on the beaches might not be such a good thing for the economy. It was kind of creating the argument around issues that seemed more paramount to his constituents that they would understand too. And there's a lot of different ways to do that, but that got me in the door, that got him to check the box, and think more about that legislation that was coming up and, ultimately, craft a way to avoid oil drilling off the coast. So there's a lot of lessons to be learned but, again, I cannot overemphasize that I'd love to see more scientists get engaged in policy and not be afraid to take the risk and to take a small time off publishing and, I mean, it can be – it can be very scary but it's also extremely enlightening in terms of what you can do with the knowledge that you have.

CAVANAUGH: And, Sheril, I want to talk – We've been talking about politics, media, entertainment, but one of the big debates in recent years has been between religious belief and scientific knowledge and theories.


CAVANAUGH: And I – I'm wondering what you think after having written this book and dealing with the religious sort of politics? I’m wondering how we can bridge that divide between religion and science?

KIRSHENBAUM: Umm-hmm. Umm-hmm. Well, for me it's very simple. And I'll just – I'll start with a small anecdote and this is just in graduate school I was working on the underappreciated but very majestic sea cucumber.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, yeah.

KIRSHENBAUM: Part of my research was going out on fishing boats with a very religious fishing community and collecting organisms that I could later, you know, take back to the lab and work with. And it took me at least a good three months to get them to even talk to me. I mean, having a woman on the boat wasn't good luck, so there was that.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, dear.

KIRSHENBAUM: But a lot of them thought just because of the stereotype that they had about what scientists – what science was, a lot of them thought that I was kind of this Godless heathen who thought they were stupid and sort of snubbed my nose at them because they had these, you know, this sort of religious way of life. It wasn't until they got to know me and they realized I didn't have a problem with them and we had a lot in common that we started getting somewhere and eventually some of them ended up writing a paper with me about saving the species. So when it comes to science policy and enacting good science policy and when it comes to things like conservation where you're working with people and communities, it does science no good to alienate a broad swath of American culture. Instead, I mean, we need as many allies as we can get and we need to engage as many different people into science conversations. So there's just – I mean, there's – there's no benefit to attacking religion.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take a call. Don is calling from Bonita. Good morning, Don, and welcome to These Days.

DON (Caller, Bonita): Good morning. Good topic. And your guest just kind of covered my concern. I think science and religion and faith are fundamentally different and has to butt heads at the highest levels and I think that's the elephant in the room in terms of the diminishment, if you will, of scientific education and influence, or at least a big part of that in the last, let's say, eight years. And that was what my – I wanted to talk about. The other comment I would have is that I think I see a – I work in a science and engineering community and – and I love the work and the approach we have to take and the way we make observations and testings and readjust, so forth, the scientific method. We deal with facts and absolutes, those types of things but I see in a lot of scientific training there's this influence on micro-specialties, micro-niches, and that the big names in science that we were educated about and taught about when I was in school, the people with the broad overlook, the broad overview, are missing. Or at least maybe they're here and there and, like you said earlier, they're not someone that gets broadly publicized or is known about. But I just see a real micro-specialization in a lot of different scientific areas nowadays…

CAVANAUGH: Don, thank you.

DON: …and I think that's the problem.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that. And, Sheril, I'd like to get your reaction to that: Scientists are too specialized to even sometimes talk to other scientists so how are they going to talk to the public?

KIRSHENBAUM: No, that's absolutely true. I mean, if you just look at the journals out there, there've been so many more added in the past decade it's kind of unbelievable, so you wind up with a situation where, you know, the people talking about one field are so far removed from someone else who are doing something, you know, just slightly different with a different machine. I mean, it is pretty unbelievable. And it's necessary, too, in some cases. I mean, a lot of this is about basic science. Basic science is necessary. It might not be as flashy and we might not hear about it in the news but it leads to the bigger science, it leads to the things we all hear about like finding cures for disease and, you know, iPhones, for instance.


KIRSHENBAUM: I mean, it's a new technology so it's not that, you know, that's necessarily a problem but he's absolutely right. We do need people who are able to bring why this is important, why it matters, especially when it comes to federal funding, to the attention of not just policymakers but the constituents that motivate the way that they vote. And, you know, I'd love to see that happen and I – I have – I spent several years working as a radio deejay and picked up a lot of social marketing skills along the way and I…

CAVANAUGH: That's good.

KIRSHENBAUM: I really think that there's a lot of instances where science can probably benefit from making science more engaging and more fun and not dumbing it down in any way but making people feel like they can be more engaged and involved.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you're certainly doing your part here with – just here on this show and with the book with Chris Mooney on "Scientific America," and you're, you know, embarking on class lectures and trying to engage scientists, student scientists, to be more outgoing and to translate what they know to the public. I'm wondering, though, Sheril, what – why is this so important? What happens if we don't make the changes that you recommend in the book?

KIRSHENBAUM: Well, it's about our future and it's about our children's future and it's about the kind of world that they're going to inherit. And I certainly want my children to be able to go out and enjoy the ocean like I'm – I'm actually sitting in an office in – at Scripps watching people surf. I want it to be here. I want to see the right kind of legislation pass to mitigate climate change. I want to see us find cures for some of the things that we all have relatives suffering from right now. And science needs continued funding, continued support and scientists need to be celebrated and made role models and it's – it's all part of the big picture.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us today.

KIRSHENBAUM: Thanks so much for having me on. This was fun.

CAVANAUGH: Sheril Kirshenbaum is a marine scientist and co-author of "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future." We have so many callers, I want you to know that you can continue this discussion online. We want to encourage you to post your comments at Stay with us. We're going to be talking more about surfing when we return on These Days here on KPBS.

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