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 STORY
The Earth Isn't Flat?
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By James Nash

 
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 misconceptions.

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 edge.

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.



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