Time Magazine has released its top 10 science stories of 2008. Number One is the LHC which promises to do fantastic science, despite a problem in its first test. Ian O’Neill of Universe Today points out that 4 of the 10 are space and physics related. Woo hoo!
I was particularly intrigued by number 9, that the percentage of scientifically literate adults has greatly increased! … to 17%. Boo. Although, confusingly, the blurb also cites 25%, so let’s be optimistic. I have to applaud the writer for pointing out that only 1/4th of the population, all of whom can vote on such scientifically entrenched issues as stem cell research and global warming, may actually understand the issues at hand. Almost everyone you meet has an opinion on global warming and other environmental issues. What are these opinions based on? The TV talking heads? The opinions of their neighbors? A feeling?
Of those that are considered scientifically literate, how many of those have even looked closely at the particular science? I doubt it’s more than a few percent. I think my own exposure to it is limited to the occasional NatGeo or SciAm article, hardly what you would call an investigation.
This is not to say that scientists have one opinion of it and everyone else is wrong. Of those that actually understand the science of climate change, there are still arguments over the mechanisms, the extent, the causes, and solutions for global warming. It is one thing to agree that it is influenced by man’s activities; it’s a whole other issue to pinpoint which activities are the worst and how limiting certain activities will help, or hurt more. A global solution will certainly have to incorporate the science as well as sociology, economics, and politics. I’m optimistic that a solution would unravel itself, possibly through some trial and error, as long as we’re all educated on the basic facts. When opinions are rooted in scientific evidence, we all win and can work towards whatever solution might be out there for our environmental troubles. (There is also an argument there for those of us who are not so historically, economically, or politically literate to brush up on the basics!)
With a 25% scientific literacy rating, we are far from that goal. That should be the drive for scientists and educators to get out there and promote science at every opportunity.