Sowing the seeds of literacy for the new millennium

man_in_space.jpgThe latest issue of Seed magazine is a must read, announcing the winners of the 2nd Annual Seed Science Writing Contest, which addresses the question: “What does it mean to be scientifically literate in the 21st Century?”  Lest you think that this is a fringe geekosphere question, both the 1st and 2nd place winners, as well as the cover article by Chris Mooney (alas, not available free online, although you can hear an interview with him on NPR here) make compelling cases that scientific literacy is the critical issue of the coming century. As Mooney puts it in his essay, “Dr. President”:

“Under George W. Bush–the man who pronounced climate science ‘incomplete’, who misled the nation in his first major address about the availability of embryonic stem cells for research, who claimed that Iraq was collaborating with Al Qaeda–America’s relationship with reality itself reached a nadir.  At the same time–and perhaps not coincidentally–the fortunes of the nation have suffered and the prospects of many Americans, of the American dream itself, have diminished . . . Along with the neglect of science has come a broader neglect of expertise, competence, and even functional government . . . Americans desperately need to be encouraged once again, as they were at other times in the nation’s history, to take an interest in the vital, exploratory world of science.  The next president must foster that interest . . . Reason, logic, a consideration of fact, and healthy skepticism–all of which are tenets of the scientific approach–are critical to a successful democratic government”

In the same vein, here is 1st place winner Thomas W. Martin’s essay “Scientific Literacy and the Habit of Discourse“.  Some excerpts:

“‘Each of us is trapped in a place, a time, and a circumstance, and our attempts to use our minds to transcend those boundaries are, more often than not, ineffective.’ The reason science does manage to be astonishingly effective is not because large groups are automatically wiser or less prone to self-deception than individuals. History adequately demonstrates that, if anything, the opposite is more nearly the case. Science works because its core dynamics—not its methods or techniques per se—are rooted in pitting intellects against one another. Science eventually yields impressive answers because it compels smart people to incessantly try to disprove the ideas generated by other smart people.  The goal of science is to find those ideas that can withstand the long and hard barrage of evidence-based argument . . . Several current presidential candidates have insisted that they oppose the scientific account of earth’s natural history as a matter of principle. In the present cultural climate, altering one’s beliefs in response to anything (facts included) is considered a sign of weakness. Students must be convinced that changing one’s mind in light of the evidence is not weakness: Changing one’s mind is the essence of intellectual growth. By forcing students into evidence-based debates with one another, this mode of interaction, like any other, can become habitual. After being consistently challenged by their peers, most students eventually see that attempts to free themselves from facts are a hollow, and fundamentally precarious, form of “freedom.”  In an era in which we tremble at offending the sensibilities of our neighbors, students must comprehend that it is not only possible but absolutely vital that we criticize each other’s ideas firmly yet civilly . . . We do our children no favors by going easy on them—or, more to the point—allowing them to go easy on each other. Nature has a way of being far tougher.”

chemistry_set.jpgAnd finally, an excerpt from Steven Saus, 2nd place winner with “Camelot is Only a Model: Scientific Literacy in the 21st Century“:

“A literate person is not a walking dictionary, but someone who has enough knowledge about the language to be able to read. Being able to examine our models, critically evaluate them, and even discard them is far more scientifically literate than being able to regurgitate facts for a standardized test . . . Ultimately, our models and descriptions of reality must be subject to two overriding criteria: How useful is this model, and how much does this model resemble our observations?  Scientific literacy requires an understanding that science is only a model. We have to be able to jettison our models when our critical thinking leads us to that conclusion.  Our society has largely lost that understanding. We desire immutable facts and constant certainties. We want clean, hard edges to our world and our knowledge about that world. Politicians, educators, and business leaders crave quantitative metrics that can be compared, compiled, and correlated. As agenda-driven pundits have attacked scientific thought, we have countered their extremism with our own. Both attackers and defenders blur the distinctions between theories, facts, and hypotheses. A scientifically literate society knows none of that is necessary. The edifice of science is not in danger of crumbling; it is under constant renewal. Each generation’s orthodoxy was the prior’s heresy.”

jesus_votes_republican.gifNoble thoughts all. Maybe it’s just me–it’s hard to imagine such an obviously sensible approach to the world taking root in the dank cesspool of superstition, paranoia, partisan thuggery, and general venality of modern American politics.  But hope springs eternal.  Maybe this time Americans really will get sick of it all. And why not?  They seem to have figured this out in other civilized countries

Wake up America!  

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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