How long does it take the Earth to orbit the
sun? Half of U.S. adults don't know, according to a recent National
Science Foundation survey. In fact, a 2001 NSF survey found that 42%
of adults said they couldn't be bothered with science and technology
issues--this at a time when literacy in both have enormous impact on
the nation's health and economy.
Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University's Office for Science
and Society in Montreal, says indifference and outright rejection of
technology and science are stunting progress in both areas.
Thinking that better communication of the topics might turn
things around, the National Institute of Standards and Technology
convened a panel of scientists, journalists, educators, and others
to coach those in the know on how to effectively communicate with
those in the dark. The panel's report
has just been published, and it calls for a two-way, all-media push
that, among other things, relates science to everyday life and does
more than preach to the choir.
"A lot of people feel it's all incomprehensible," says Jesse
Gordon, a senior systems analyst with consulting firm Technology
Planning & Management. It isn't, he says, "but too often, the
people teaching science are so into it that they can't communicate
it in a way that people grasp it."
Gordon says there needs to be more "popularizers" of science and
technology, perhaps in the mold of Stephen Hawking. Schwarcz,
a chemist, is one popularizer: He has a weekly radio show in which
he answers listeners' science questions.
"I've learned you can't communicate with those who have very,
very strong beliefs, like in astrology or that the moon landings
were faked, but you can give education early on," he says. Children
and adults need a "vocabulary" for critical thinking.
Both Schwarcz and Gordon acknowledge that the Internet is a major
source of bogus information. But, they say, as the world learns how
to judge the worthy online information from the worthless, the
Internet will be a heavy tool for beating back superstitions and
Gordon says he has talked with people who in the course of a
conversation espouse questionable beliefs. He walks the person
through the idea, or as he puts it, "I reduce the argument to its
absurdity." Were someone to say the world is flat, for example, he
might ask that person where people fall to when they go over the
Schwarcz isn't put off by what seems to be an increasing number
of dubious alternative beliefs about the world. He says it's likely
that the same percentage of people have odd thoughts today as 100
years ago. Communication options have multiplied in the interim,
though, giving voice to more people.
Maybe so, but one wonders why that percentage hasn't dropped as
fast as the planet's gotten smaller.