Can 'Unscientific America' Be Science Literate?

Is the rift closing between scientists and the general public? Sheril Kirshenbaum, co-author of Unscientific America, discusses the challenges of communicating about science and engineering, what scientists can do to help, and why science literacy is especially important today.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You know, we do live in a world made possible by science. It's in the drugs that cure our diseases, the technology in our iPhones and the reason we get those really good pictures, cool pictures, from the surface of Mars. There is hardly anything that you can touch or see or feel or hear that is not connected in some way to science and technology.

And science is also a really big part of our national budget. The budget for the three main science agencies, that's the National Science Foundation, NASA space agency and the National Institutes of Health, those three add up to more than $50 billion, that's with a B, a year. And that's enough of a reason for all of us, really, to be interested in what the lab coats up there are up to. So how come so many of us just don't care about or know so much about science? Is it a failure? Do we have a failure to communicate here?

Here to talk about that is my next guest, Sheril Kirshenbaum. She's co-author with Chris Mooney of her new book, "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future." She's also a research associate at Duke University. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. SHERIL KIRSHENBAUM (Author, "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future"): Hi, Ira. Thanks so much for having me on the show.

FLATOW: Good to have you back. You know, when I - this point was driven home to me about science and science illiteracy many years ago. There was a short film called "The Private Universe" - remember that film? In which virtually no one, nobody, maybe two out of 32 people at the graduating class at Harvard could tell you why it's hotter in the summer than it is in the winter.

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: Right, right.

FLATOW: And these are students who were specializing in astronomy and physics. So we are faced, scientists - and when we talk about science, we're faced with a public that really does not know much about science. How illiterate is the public?

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: How literate? Well, you know, we constantly hear embarrassing stories like that, and we hear about how Americans are so often failing at answering simple science questions like how long does it take the Earth to revolve around the sun, or which is bigger, an electron or an atom? But the book isn't really about that.

We definitely want to work to improve people's - what we remember from elementary school education and beyond. But the book is more about the need for the public to be more engaged in science issues, because it's critical to meeting a lot of the challenges of the 21st century, and that's climate change, that's hurricanes like we were just hearing about, that's human health and so many more issues, when instead it's often sort of relegated to this special interest status in policy discussions and elsewhere.

FLATOW: You describe the issues in your book as ongoing problems. So why a book now about them?

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: Well, we always need a book about this. It's about time we sort of started talking about a lot of these disconnects more. The book started as a re-examination of the famous lecture by C.P. Snow 50 years ago in Cambridge about the two cultures, and it was the difference in the way that we train people in the sciences and in the humanities.

But instead, we kind of turned that upside down and looked at it from a 2008, 2009 and beyond perspective and looked at why this divide exists between American culture and science and the different ways that that gap is widening. And we focus in the book on four particular points, and that's: science in the media; how scientists and science is portrayed in Hollywood; science and religion and the perceived conflicts, when it matters, when it doesn't; and finally, of course, science and politics, which is really an extension in many ways of Chris' first book, which is called "The Republican War on Science." But looking at the big picture, especially now with the change in administration and then ultimately moving on to what some of the solutions are and how we can do a little better.

FLATOW: Can social media, this - these new kinds of ways that people are talking to one another, like blogging or twittering and things like that, can they help reach a broader audience? Will they help in, you know, in people talking about science?

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: Well, they can certainly help, and I love that so many forms of new media are being utilized by the science community, and that's in the name, science blogging. Chris and I blog for Discover blogs, there's a lot of established networks. We also blog at Talking Science, which is the nonprofit you guys are involved in. And of course, the Seed community has their science blog network.

So all of these are great new arenas to get science out into broader discussions and for people who don't always hear about science to encounter it through a Google search or what have you. Twitter is very effective, as well. I know you have people tweeting in and, of course, Science Friday is on Second Life. So I want to say hi to everyone out there watching or listening on Second Life, as well.

But it's a mixed bag because the Internet isn't exactly peer-reviewed. You can put anything up there, and in a lot of these other mediums, as well, and it's going to get read. Just because something's called science doesn't mean you're going to find it.

So for example, the most popular science blog in the last sort of public voting was a climate-change denial blog called What's Up With That? On the Internet, you can sort of shop for your science the way that you'd shop for your Christmas gifts. So it's a question of what's valuable information and what's kind of frivolous and put up there with a partisan agenda. So it's very difficult for the public to kind of weed out what information is the information that's credible.

FLATOW: Talking with Sheril Kirshenbaum, author with Chris Mooney of "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future." Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Also, you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Just going right from the title of your book, how scientific illiteracy threatens our future, give us some examples of how our future is threatened by illiteracy.

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: Well, we certainly need a better voice when it comes to politics. My own - a lot of my perspective was developed when I was working as a congressional science fellow on Capitol Hill. And I went in and I sort of got how the whole process worked. I had taken a lot of policy courses. One of my masters is in science policy.

So I had this idea of how decision-making occurred, and it wasn't until I was in an office, until the first day I was there, someone asked me in the Longworth cafeteria, is this climate-change thing real, that it really occurred to me that I was sort of stuck in my ivory tower in a lot of ways, even though I thought I was getting out and understanding the way things worked.

I would take five meetings a day on one science topic. My background's in ocean science, so it might have been on the way that the - the pH is changing in oceans, which is called ocean acidification. And I could have four different scientists come and talk to me with four different take-home messages, not really organizing on what they wanted a policymaker to understand about an issue.

They weren't communicating with each other, while at the same time, the other side, sort of the anti-science, the climate-change-isn't-happening type of folks, were very organized, very articulate, came in, organized great big briefings. They served food, which is really important. And they were funny, and they were engaging, and they were talking about something that's going to impact all of us and all of our children and beyond.

And so, as scientists, we really have to do a better job at getting our message out and explaining to the broader public, broader society in America and beyond, why it matters.

FLATOW: So they're really at a disadvantage, then, the way they're operating now?

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: A lot of the time, unfortunately, yes. I mean, there are organized groups. There's the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is constantly moving and talking to Congress; the Science and Engineers for America. So there are these efforts. And then there was Science Debate 2008, which you were very involved with and Chris and I worked at founding with two screenwriters, Matthew Chapman and Shawn Lawrence Otto, and Lawrence Krauss to give science a voice in policy, to get the candidates on the campaign trail before the presidential election talking about science and technology issues and why they matter.

But we have to sort of get away from the stigma that talking about science could be a trap or could get you in trouble because it's also about policy, and it's about the economy. And it's much bigger than just a bunch of equations and calculations.

FLATOW: Yeah, we see a lot of times science being portrayed in science fiction, there are so many science fiction movies now talking about disasters, you know, the end of the world coming.

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: Yeah, that's - we have a chapter in the book called "Hollywood and the Mad Scientist," and the thing is, most people, when polled, don't know a scientist personally. I think it's only something like 18 percent. So when you get beyond that, the rest of us, the rest of folks, are really kind of informed by the stereotypes that persist. And when you're talking about Hollywood, obviously I'm not naive, I know it's very much about entertainment, but at the same time, we're usually seeing a scientist as a jerk or a scientist who's socially inept like Rick Moranis in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." Or we're seeing Dr. Evil, who's a crazy scientist out to destroy the world. And we're really very infrequently seeing a human face on scientists, the scientist who's also a person and has a life.

"Contact," though, is a great example of a movie that didn't do that, that got, you know - science hero Carl Sagan wrote and then it became a movie. But really did do a good job, which was a very popular movie, of making a scientist into someone who's very relatable, very approachable and very real.

FLATOW: He was good at that, Carl Sagan, yeah. And Ann Druyan is sort of picking up where he left off now.

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: Yeah, it's wonderful.

FLATOW: Yeah, 1-800-989-8255. Well, let's see if we can get a phone call or two. Let's go to Mike(ph) in Toledo. Hi, Mike. Mike, are you there?

MIKE (Caller): ...taking my call.

FLATOW: Hi there.

MIKE: I guess I had a quick comment. I wanted to say that - I'm kind of four minutes behind on what you guys' discussions, but I've found the Yahoo! Answers - I'm a biologist and I get questions from not only students but from people just interested in, you know, natural phenomenon, and it's really a helpful tool.

FLATOW: So you trust the answers you get out of Yahoo! is what you're saying?

MIKE: Oh, no, well, I try and give answers. You really, you can't check anyone's credentials on it but you can hope. And you can, you know, try and fact-check with the Internet or possibly a textbook, if you can find it.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, Sheril, what do you think about sources like that?

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: Well, as I said, the Internet is a Wild West, and there is a lot of great material. What is nice on the blogs and elsewhere is people tend to sort of beat on each other if they get things wrong. But it's also a lot of sort of like-minded circles of conversations that develop, where if someone dissents, no matter what side they're on, they're just sort of put down and put down and then they don't have a voice. So, it - it's - it depends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: My answer for the Internet is, it depends.

FLATOW: Yeah. You had to - it's like a - it's like reading a newspaper, which newspaper do you trust.

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: You know, you find somebody that, or something that you trust to give you good news and you stick with it.

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: And it's the same way looking for science. And, of course, there are so many more sources than there used to be, and trustworthy sources for science on the Internet now.

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: Yes. But also, there has been proliferation of scientific journals, and unfortunately most of the public doesn't have access to them. So, unless you're in academia or you have one of these expensive subscriptions, you really do go to the Internet, use Google to find what you're looking for. And in a lot of cases, it's not always right.

FLATOW: Hmm. Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255.

You say that scientists need to learn how to speak up more and speak - and learn how to talk the talk with politicians in Washington and with the public. Are there any good ones out there that you could point to that say that they, you know - Carl Sagan is not here with us anymore. I'm thinking Neil deGrasse Tyson is a great one.

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: Of course, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene. I work here at Duke with Stuart Pimm, who is a professor but also very involved in the Union of Concerned Scientists and also very involved in the communities where he works.

And there are so many different ways to do this. I mean, you can be sort of this - there was only one Carl Sagan. I don't know that there is anyone sort of comparable to compare with him today. But there are scientists acting within communities in such a huge variety of ways, and we want to encourage that. I think so often folks are sort of intimidated to get involved because they'll seem not objective, they'll seem like they might be risking their reputation by taking a stance.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: But when you're working on issues like in marine science -like I was just saying, acidification - or you're working on issues like climate, then it matters that you get your voice out there and that you talk about why your research is important. And you convey it in a way that isn't complicated with statistics and figures that you can emphasize just simply that science matters.

FLATOW: You have a marine biologist in the cabinet now, don't we?

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Jane Lubchenco...

FLATOW: Right. Is she as...

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: ...at NOAA.

FLATOW: Is she working hard, as hard as she used to as an individual? Is her voice being heard?

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: Well, it certainly seems that way. I have a lot of friends working within NOAA. And I know they're trying to push some legislation through as quickly as possible. But I'd love to see NOAA be authorized by Congress. I mean, there is a simple example of something that seems so basic, and it is federal agency but it's - it was started by executive order and it's never actually passed as a bill. And so, every now and then you hear about the NOAA Organic Act coming up in the House or in the Senate, and it sort of gets glossed over - maybe because it doesn't seem like a very pressing issue. But I know a lot of the scientists involved would love to see their agency authorized, so it's clear who is doing what and who has authority over what.

FLATOW: Talking with Sheril Kirshenbaum, co-author of "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

You know, what happens sometimes is that scientists who are very vocal when they're in private life, they get into public life you never hear from them. You know, they've toned down their rhetoric.

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: I sort of worry that she has done that also.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: Well, you bring up a very, very important point that we discuss in the book, but it's just very necessary. I mean, it's so encouraging that Obama has surrounded himself with different scientists in his cabinet. But there's a danger that scientists their selves might become complacent and just feel like we won.

And the important thing now, I think, is to stay vigilant and make sure that a lot of the issues that we discussed on the campaign trail continue to come up in policy discussions, and in well beyond policy, because this is bigger than politics. This is a lot about media. This is a lot about getting people who aren't engaged in science on a daily basis to pay attention to how it impacts their lives and stays relevant. So, it's part of the solution. But we have a lot of work to do.

FLATOW: Let's go to Kyle(ph) in Kalamazoo. Hi, Kyle.

KYLE (Caller): Hi. How are you?

FLATOW: Hi, there.

KYLE: I just wanted to comment on your guest's statement that there is a mass of new journals, excuse me, that are kind of clogging the system. I'm a biologist and I tended to spend hours of my day going through all of these journals. And we have got a fairly simplified system at the university that I work for, and I still spend most of my day going through all of these journals, trying to tease out, you know, my particular area. And I can't even imagine what somebody that doesn't have these resources available to them has to go through to get, you know, simple answers to things.

FLATOW: Yeah. It's tough to be able - you know, even as a layperson, a journalist, it's tough to weed through all those journals.

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And I think that that sort of proliferation of information coming from the inside, staying on the inside of academia, has led to people who, you know, want to find out information for themselves go to the Internet and find whatever they're looking for. But it's perpetuated the anti-vaccination movement, it's perpetuated evolution denial and climate change denial. And it's - I mean, Jenny McCarthy talks about being proud of getting a degree from what she - you know, the University of Google. It's because she's looking. She wants to be informed.

A lot of people who listen to her and read her want to be informed. And these Web sites sound credible and it's hard to judge. And then, as - I think it was Kyle who was just saying, even the scientists themselves have trouble kind of poring over this. And this is true. When I had to give a report for my boss in Congress, I had to take what I was used to digesting as a full scientific report and get it into a few bullet points, and get it in a way that matters to him enough to look at a memo at the end of the day.

So it's a lot more complicated than sort of the basic lessons we learn about communication through a traditional trajectory through academia. But I think that the way we're educating young people is changing. There are more and more opportunities to kind of get an interdisciplinary education and move beyond the course that we usually take. And that keeps me encouraged, it keeps me hopeful.

FLATOW: That's good to hear. Thank you very much, Sheril, for taking time to be with us today and good luck on the book.

Ms. KIRSHENBAUM: Thanks so much for having me on.

FLATOW: I'm talking with Sheril Kirshenbaum, who is author, with Chris Mooney, of "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future."

We're going to take a short break and talk about DNA made into computer chips. Wow. It's not science fiction. Be right back after this break.

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