Scientific ignorance

Scientific illiteracy
Lack of scientific knowledge
Inadequate public understanding of science
In the UK, surveys indicate that 30% of the public believe that the sun goes around the Earth.

A 1995 report, involving 25,000 people from 20 countries of the world, suggested unusual ignorance of current scientific thinking. Despite events like the one at Chernobyl, only 14 per cent of Poles and 23 per cent of Russians knew that radioactivity occurs naturally as well as being man-made. Only one-third of Spaniards knew that the car was an environmental hazard, but most did know about the extinction of plant and animal life because of threats to the environment in Spain's mountainous regions. There was even widespread confusion over two of the most widely debated environmental topics: global warming and ozone depletion.

Although communications technology is highly developed, and storage and retrieval systems are achieving a promising stage of performance, and the store of scientific knowledge is accumulating at an alarming rate, people are still woefully uninformed, to the point where their ability to affect their own social survival is paralyzed. Appropriation of new knowledge into an understandable framework is impossible; the individual finds even the task of keeping expertise up-to-date faltering. People feel victimized by not being able to participate in the decisions affecting their lives.
1. The content of science is alien to ordinary experience and the culture of science is alien to the values endorsed by the arts. Art is seen to elevate humanity. A machine degrades it. Objectivity disempowers because it depersonalizes.

2. Scientific knowledge, as defined by scientists, is often of little practical use to people. By the time it is translated into usable knowledge, it is no longer recognizable to scientists as science.

3. What we need to establish is whether or not science has any grounds for special pleading. Any argument for the public understanding of science should be culture-based, not political, if it is to have appeal outside its protagonists. For example: the distinguishing feature of modern western societies is science and technology. Science and technology are the most significant determinants in our culture. In order to decode our culture and enrich our participation -- this includes protest and rejection -- an understanding of science is desirable.

4. What is missing from the "lack of public understanding of science" critical movement is clarity about the social role of science, how we would be different people if the level of our understanding of science were enhanced. It would need to explain what it is that science is about, its presuppositions, and where relevant its content, its tenets, its organization, its failures and successes, and its history, its traditions and its culture. It would be truthful about debunking the stereotypes -- about the possibility that the supposed certainties of science have limited validity outside science itself; that the successes of scientific explanation may be relativized to a narrow class of phenomenon that it addresses; that the "objectivity of science" is in some sense specious; that the acceptance of theories rests on belief as well as "evidence", tribal loyalties and political factors; and that scientists are as individually passionate, and therefore as illogical as the rest of us; that the authority of science has a strong cultural component; that science is individually creative, not simply technically competent.

5. Most scientists are hostile to colleagues who popularize science, an apparent paradox, since most scientists recognize the need to keep the public informed about science. Young scientists have been therefore warned they risk ruining their careers if they spend time communicating science to the general public.

6. "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." (Albert Einstein).

(D) Detailed problems