Dumbing ourselves down : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture In an age when the relation between culture and science will only grow deeper and more involved, a functioning democracy can not afford to dumb its citizens down.

Science and Democracy II: Dumbing Ourselves to Death

The Universe is complex, so why should we dumb down our conversations. NASA hide caption

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Oiling spewing into the gulf, ecosystems and economies facing irrevocable harm, long-term energy systems that must be rethought from the ground up. All of this was on the table when the president addressed the nation from the Oval Office on June 17.

What gets reported the next day? Well of course folks on the right hated it for one reason and folks on the left hated it for another but what hit me hard was a headline on CNN telling us the speech failed because it was pitched over the head of the American people. Its level was too high. And what level might that be? The Tenth grade.

According to one CNN analyst, a Paul J.J. Payback,

Obama's nearly 10th-grade-level rating was the highest of any of his major speeches and well above the grade 7.4 of his 2008 "Yes, we can" victory speech, which many consider his best effort, Payack said.

"The scores indicate that this was not Obama at his best, especially when attempting to make an emotional connection to the American people," he added.

And there in lies the problem, the whole problem, the deep problem that we all face. We live in a world of staggering complexity, a world poised at a dangerous turning point with science and technology living at root of both our problems and our possibilities.  And yet, in this poised world and at this critical moment, our leaders are expected to speak to us as if we were seventh graders.  Anything else is considered too highhanded, too professorial for the American public. (Do professors teach tenth grade?)

In an age when the relation between culture and science will only grow deeper and more involved, a functioning democracy can not afford to dumb its citizens down.  But that is what we see happening everywhere around us.

“Pitch it lower” is the watchword to gain ratings, to gain sales, to gain votes.  The tragedy of this cynical approach is the disrespect it shoves down every throat as we are turned from citizens into media consumers.

I grew up in a working class town.  People there had, on the whole, not gained high levels of education.

They were, however, anything but stupid.

Faced with real and difficult problems, they were shrewd in finding their way and faced up to what was in front of them.  This is the national resource a culture of cynicism denies.  Every teacher at every level knows when you treat people like they can’t understand they won’t.  If you ask more of them, if you challenge them to dig deeper and use their inborn talents, they will find a way.

They will rise to the challenge.

The challenge we face as a nation is engaging in a deep and far reaching discussion about how we will live in the new world thundering down on our heads.  The crisis in the Gulf will not be the last time we will have to deal with overwhelming issues of energy, environment and economy.  The complex scientific issue of climate change with its huge potential for societal upheaval will not disappear.  Treat people like they are too dumb to handle these issues and you ensure that a real discussion can never happen.

The solution, obviously, begins with science education in the schools.  This is a key focus for change that we might have some collective ability to influence. But beyond the classroom is a world of information, a world of media.  An informed and enlightened public needs informed and enlightened informers.  This is one place where a demand for change must be heard.

The fate of democracies will rest on their ability to make intelligent bets with the science they deploy.  What fate are we casting ourselves to if, in assessing those choices, we are never allowed to leave the seventh grade.