Not long ago, after being accused of trying to “clone a Neanderthal”(1), geneticist George Church suggested in an interview that it was time for society to give some thought to scientific literacy (2). As it may be expected, many of my colleagues -and I- nodded vehemently. Was this backing more sectarian than rational? How much knowledge of molecular biology would people require to realise that -at present- we are not even close of doing something like that? Furthermore, do they have time to acquire and to keep up-to-date this kind of knowledge?
The deficit theory assumes that if people knew more about science then they would back scientific research, embrace genetically modified (GM) food, support vaccination, look down on creationism, etc. But research has shown that the deficit theory may not work (3, 4).
In a recent interview (5), sociologist Hans Peter Peters argued that -because we live in a society with division of labour- not everybody needs to be scientifically literate; being him a social scientist, I was not really surprised by his comment (and I would not have been surprised neither to see a mob of indignant scientists chasing the heathen with the intention of lynching him afterwards). However if we accept that the deficit theory is impractical, then Peters’ view may not be completely wrong.
Why do people seem to ignore or underestimate scientific advice in so many issues? The problem may lay in the way scientific knowledge is transmitted to them; the book of science is presented to them like any other holly book full of facts that readers have to accept. Any clever individual can apply the same system and mimic the language used by scientists to communicate his pseudoscientific beliefs as if they were scientific facts.
If we admit that not everyone is, can, or want to be scientifically literate, but we still want to have the public on-board, we need to focus on helping the public to understand the difference between scientific and non-scientific knowledge.
The general public (and some researchers) thinks that scientists are just contemplative loners that do experiments. But performing just one flawed experiment to confirm a dodgy hypothesis is not hard and is not science. Therefore, the general public fails to grasp why we know what we know and is vulnerable to be misguided by all sorts of pseudoscientific charlatans.
Leaving Popper aside*: What separates scientific knowledge from dogma, pseudoscience and other forms of belief is that scientific knowledge is not arrogant presupposition but tentative belief strongly supported by evidence. Scientists -contrary to fundamentalist bigots- will always be willing to change their mind if proven wrong; we accept things as true not because we fancy them being that way but because we think that there are enough evidences of them being that way. As an extra security check -and this is very important- science is a collective enterprise and the ideas of an isolated scientist count very little until he has convinced a substantial proportion of his peers that he is right.
Plain old-fashion science communication is an ineffective tool. It is impractical to expect that the majority of the population will ever read Darwin’s Origin of the Species, or Albert’s Molecular Biology of the Cell or Feynman’s Lectures on Physics (although I feel these books are worth reading)**. How many scientists have ever read Plato or Aquinas or Kant? Instead of simply communication our knowledge we need to make sure that the public understand the difference between scientific and non-scientific belief. This will increase public reliance on scientific advice without necessitating unrealistic levels of scientific literacy. It will also enable the public to contrast the scientific way of thinking and behaving with that of anti-GM campaigners, organic foods fanatics and religious fundamentalists.
* Scientists don’t do experiments to prove hypotheses (that is impossible) but to disprove them. If after several well-thought experiments we can’t show that a hypothesis is wrong then we accept it as tentatively true; we remain thinking so unless a subsequent experiment or observation shows that the hypothesis is inconsistent.
** And books contain only old knowledge. Who will suggest that the public should be kept up-to-date by reading the journal Cell (that even I find dull sometimes)?
1 – Read the Daily Mail article plus comments: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2266108/Neanderthal-man-DNA-experiments-shadow-Dr-Frankenstein.html#comments
2 – Reuters. Neanderthal cloning chatter highlights scientific illiteracy.Jan 24, 2013
3 – Public Understanding of Sci. (2001) 10:1-18
4 – Journal of Science Communication (2010) 9:1-5
5 – Hans Peter Peters in Podcast: What Can Scientists Learn From the Public? http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2013/02/podcast-what-can-scientists-lear.html