Liza Gross has an article in the May 2006 issue of PloS Biology entitled "Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology." The primary source of the article is Jon D. Miller, who directs the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University Medical School. Miller is someone who "has devoted his 30-year career to studying public understanding of science and technology and its implications for a healthy democracy."
Since the essay was published in a scientific journal, the target audience is the scientific community. Gross's article spills a large amount of ink on the issue of scientific illiteracy in America. Yet the article provides a stunning example of turning good news into bad news.
First there is this observation:
Since 1979, he says, the proportion of scientifically literate adults has doubled"”to a paltry 17%. The rest are not savvy enough to understand the science section of The New York Times or other science media pitched at a similar level.
Did you see that? Scientific literacy has doubled since Jimmy Carter was president. Yes, 17% is a paltry number, but it is much better that 8.5%. Furthermore, such complaining is typically associated with tunnel vision. Yes, scientific literacy rates are paltry, but the same could be said about math literacy rates, geography literacy rates, spelling and grammar literacy rates, economic literacy rates, and history literacy rates. There is no reason to single out science education as if it alone is a victim of some mysterious insidious force.
This is then followed by this bit of news:
As disgracefully low as the rate of adult scientific literacy in the United States may be, Miller found even lower rates in Canada, Europe, and Japan"”a result he attributes primarily to lower university enrollments.
In other words, the scientific literacy among adults is even more paltry in the rest of the world!
So what do we have? Scientific literacy in America has doubled in the last generation and is higher than that of Canada, Europe, and Japan. Yet the theme of Gross's article is all "doom-n-gloom." I'll look more closely at Gross's article in the next installment.