Homo homini rodentius est

Tracing the causes of scientific illiteracy

If it comes out of a lab it’s science, right?
In 2005, a political scientist at Northwestern [found] that one out of every five Americans believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Given this situation, when I wrote a piece on [genetic fundamentalism], I had no illusions about it making the slightest dent in the popular obsession with finding the “cause” of homosexuality. Even still, it’s disheartening to see the same uninformed debate play out [over] and [over]. Worse, even a respected magazine like New York trots out a puff piece (so to speak…) called [The Science of Gaydar] by David France that catalogs a string of meaningless correlations (Gay men’s cowlicks turn the wrong way!) that explain nothing because they don’t belong to any kind of rational theoretical framework. What is perhaps most disheartening is the profound ignorance of science and theory that makes any pseudo-scientific claptrap look reasonable not just to the general public, but to the editors of the piece.

The Medium is the (wrong) Message
Standing between the impenetrable opaqueness of the scientific academy and the man on the street are the science writers in the mass media who are playing an ever more important role in our society as translators and guides. In the gene piece I wrote I singled out a New York Times writer for contributing to the simplistic genes = culture meme that winds its way through our discourse. Well, over the weekend the NYT published [a story] on new understanding of the complexity of gene effects that implies refutation of some of the more breathless genetic coverage they’ve done in the past. Alas, those implications are not fleshed out in the article — out of scope perhaps. Too bad for readers who look to the Times to provide meaning to what they read. Is it too much to ask that writers for the most important newspaper in the country think about what their own paper has written in the past and place new findings in some context that will help their readers better understand the world?

Why is this man smiling?
Ultimately, the state of scientific literacy is a reflection of public policy priorities and political leadership. During the Cold War, when the Russians were breathing down our necks with a bazillion ICBMs and satellites floating over our heads, science education was a public priority — you better believe it was. One of the untoward outcomes of Cold Peace was the [relaxation] of science education priorities and [redirection of federal funding] from science programs. Coincidentally, conservative politicians came to rely on fundamentalist voting blocs who exert extraordinary influence over social policy. That helps explain the prominence of idiots like Senator Sam Brownback who, in a presidential debate, [brags his ignorance] of evolution theory and somehow doesn’t get laughed out of the building. In his case he probably believes the stupid things he says, other fellow-traveling ignoramuses are more likely pandering to their electorates when they backpedal on rationalist explanations of natural phenomena. And so the cycle of illiteracy is reinforced. Very disheartening, indeed.

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