“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” - Aldous Huxley
Humanity today faces several ethical dilemmas that require, at the very least, a rudimentary reverence and understanding of science. Questions like when does a cluster of cells become a person, or how can we make cities more resilient to rising sea levels can only be tackled by someone who believes that early abortion isn’t murder and climate change is real and serious.
One day, future generations may have to answer even more anxiety-inducing questions like: Should artificial intelligence be granted rights? Is it morally right to genetically modify our offspring?
But it’s hard for a community to confront big questions like these when some of its members still believe that fluoride is poisoning our tap water, planes leave chem-trails, and that the Devil scattered dinosaur bones everywhere to confuse people. It’s no surprise then that a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center found that there are widening gaps between what scientists report as fact and what the general public believes to be true.
If scientific literacy is the ability to draw from existing knowledge to solve problems rationally instead of just the raw memorization of facts, then it’s at an all-time low here in America.
For example, Dave Champlain told me that he frequently encounters people who don’t believe that we share a common ancestor with apes.
As a biology professor at the University of Southern Maine, who often reads surveys about modern Americans' growing skepticism about established science, Champlain is frustrated by those who disregard evolution. To him, being skeptical about science is an oxymoron.
“Skepticism on evolution is the ultimate source of this attitude that science is optional,” said Champlain. “It’s the starting point of widespread science denial.”
According to Champlain, if a student of his shows skepticism towards evolution, they’re more apt to deny other objective realities like the importance of vaccinations, the seriousness of climate change, or the dangers of antibiotic resistance.
“With freedom of speech comes this enthusiastic attitude that we can agree to differ, but there are some facts that we simply can’t disagree on,” said Champlain. “When someone is pro-science, they’re not making a political statement.”
I spoke with Champlain on Saturday, April 22, during Portland’s March for Science, which two of his former students helped organize. Over a thousand scientists, educators, and enthusiasts marched down Congress Street, many with humorous signs, professing the importance of science in everyday life.
“We’re all benefiting from science,” said Champlain. “None of us would be alive without it.”
“It is because of scientific exploration that we have been able to eradicate Polio, land rovers on Mars, and create life-saving and life-enhancing devices like artificial hearts and mechanical limbs,” said UMaine graduate student Amber Hathaway. “Science has brought us computers, smartphones, and so many other devices that would have seemed inconceivable even 50 years ago. Imagine where we could be 10, 20, or 100 from now if we continue to invest in scientific research and support scientists.”
Last week’s march ran in solidarity with over 600 other events around the world, which aimed to be the first step in a movement to “defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments,” according to the movement’s official website.
Despite Champlain and many other marchers' statements that science isn’t a partisan issue, the march stood firmly against President Trump and his administration, which has called for cuts to vital research organizations like the National Institutes for Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, and NASA. During the march, giant paper mache puppets of Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon reimagined as grotesque swamp creatures wound down Congress Street amidst signs like “no alternative facts,” “Science Trumps Propaganda,” and “fund the EPA, not the wall.”
Many marchers I spoke to said that it’s ridiculous that science — which is fact and data driven — has become so politicized and dismissed as a “liberal conspiracy.” But they reconciled this inconvenience with the fact that Trump’s administration may be the most “anti-science” administration this country has ever seen.
“I’m marching today because it’s reprehensible how U.S. policy has downplayed the role that science should play in shaping our thought,” said Ben Rosenbloom, a Portland-based high-school physical science teacher. “Progress towards climate change has stalled because we still have to waste time debating with others that it’s happening.”
Rosenbloom recognized that science should inform policy and does have a bit of a political agenda, but that the agenda is foundational to American politics and values. For example, Obama’s Clean Power Plan may have reeked of leftist ideals that call for more governmental regulations, but its intended goal, clean air, is something that every American should get behind.
The problem, however, according to Rosenbloom, is that we live in a country where it’s common to distrust our scientific experts who make claims that run contrary to our political or religious beliefs. This sense of skepticism in America, fueled not by facts but emotions and ideology, was one of the main reasons Rosenbloom decided to become an educator.
“The degree that Americans trust or don’t trust science often doesn’t come from a place of true science literacy,” said Rosenbloom. “It’s okay for people to blindly trust the experts, but I wish people could interpret data themselves. If everyone here was able to do that, then we’d be able to push policies informed by science. Data combined with values.”
My short conversation with Rosenbloom, who was dressed in a white lab coat while he marched down Congress Street, got me thinking about the overall state of science literacy in America. It’s one thing when fossil fuel lobbyists and politicians deny the science behind climate change to protect their financial interests, but what about the average citizen? What leads people, like some of Champlain’s students, to dismiss evolution, antibiotic resistance, and climate change? How do they perceive science as a discipline?
“In our society, we think of scientists as inhumane, but they’re just a bunch of people,” said Champlain.
Others at the march agreed and said science and its educators come with some negative stigmas attached.
“People fear scientists, but their work is so universal,” said Nathan Katsiaficas, a Portland-based geologist. “Science literacy is at an all-time low.”
James Cormier, a science buff, and astrophotographer who grew up after the space age of the '60s experienced a time when people cared deeply about science and understood how it benefited humanity. Back then, he says, kids were fascinated by it.
“But now, science has taken a backseat,” said Cormier, who also attended last week's Science March. “It’s a cultural problem. The youth need to catch on about the benefits of the scientific method and how we’ve come to understand reality.”
Cormier pointed to science celebrities like Bill Nye and the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson (both with fantastic shows on Netflix) as examples of great science communicators — people who don’t just understand science but are able to convey it in an engaging way to the broader public. According to Cormier, we need more people like them to promote a more comprehensive (and entertaining) culture of science literacy.
"Everyone should just take science more seriously," he said.
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