“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…”
Matthew 28:19 (English Standard Version)
If there is one thing that unites Evangelical Christianity, it’s The Great Commission: Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to going out into all the world and to bring them the gospel. So enthusiastic about this command are some strains of Christianity that a friend recently walked out of his bedroom stark naked, only to be surprised to find that his front door was open, and that two representatives of the local church were smiling at him and asking if he had time to talk about the Good News.
This urge to tell others about your perspective, with the aim of persuading them of it’s benefits as a world view, is common as a social behaviour. If we accept that humans are tribal animals, then its in our nature to both want people to share our value system, and to distrust people who do not. I’m sure that anyone who’s watched the news will be familiar with this, because it’s at the core of any dispute between any two groups you care to name. Participants will each try to besmirch the name of the opposing group whilst promoting the advantages of their own.
I feel the same pattern can be observed in much the same about some of the periodic science communication conversations that come round time and time again. You know the type, the stories which appear in specialist and public press, claiming that, for example, science literacy levels are embarrassingly low, or that governments are spending too little on science and technology or, today, that hard-to-reach groups are disengaged or unengaged in conversations about science. In short, the bread-and-butter of the interface between science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and publics. Today, I see that Australians are jumping on this band wagon, complaining that communicators need to work harder to engage the unengaged.
The unspoken predicate for all these rhetorical attempts is that STEM is so important that in order to validate your existence as a consumer of its outputs, you must have a deep and meaningful understanding of, and views on, a wide range of STEM topics. If this assumption were not lying at the bottom of the discussion, it would be impossible to make a statement like: “But worse than any of the above [recoiling in horror or laughing heartily]: you may not have reacted at all [to news about STEM strategies]” (Cormick, ibid).
Consider the implications of that sentence.
If you recoiled in horror to news that people don’t do well on exams for which they haven’t prepared, then you are in Our Club. Alternatively, if you laughed at such ignorant fools who care so little for the universe around them, then we also approve of you, for you value Science.
If you celebrated that a government chief scientist is promoting the strategic consideration of STEM issues within a governmental context (and, by the way, I might argue that’s what a government chief scientist is paid to do, whether in Australia or Britain) then you are fighting the good fight, sister. If you shook your head, mildly embarrassed that such a basic step had yet to be properly implemented, then you too are a committed to the fight against the legions of uneducated darkness who threaten civilisation.
If, on the other hand, it passed you by, perhaps because you were distracted by the slightly-over-reported news of the birth of Royal Baby Prince Diana (it’s what she’d have wanted), or by news that supposedly-democratic states misuse surveillance technology, or by the introduction of fascist homophobic policies into Russian law, then you are a sinner! You will burn in hell for not caring the degree to which the government funds STEM development in universities. Your soul is forever damned for putting your immediate priorities (feeding the family, going to work, playing Candy Crush Saga) above the Gospel of STEM. AS Cormick puts it:
That’s three in every ten people lined up at the check-out at your average local shops who probably haven’t once thought of Brian Cox nor dinosaurs nor space, yet alone basic chemistry, in the last year!
I know! Thirty percent have not been saved! 3 in 10 of the population are trapped, forever doomed to not appreciate STEM. Worse, they don’t even understand what they are missing. So sinful are they that they cannot see the light, they deny the truth of the beauty of science, they say things like (brace yourselves, for this is horrifying to the True Believer):
Why do you think it so important that we know about your science?
(quoted in Cormick, ibid)
Such infidels hold deeply heretical perspectives, for example, worrying more about whether something is safe and works than how it works, or take sacrosanct rituals such as The Science Lesson and fail to see the inherent beauty in it. They might even take their teachings from people who aren’t Qualified Experts, and thus form an understanding that doesn’t appreciate the true, rational basis of the Truth being conveyed unto them.
Now, obviously, I am slightly paraphrasing and I am reframing the arguments, but if one were so inclined, one might find it difficult to differentiate between the rhetoric of the Science Zealot from that of the enthusiastic preacher from a pulpit of a Sunday morning.
There is a serious issue here: the less socioeconomic advantages a person has in life, the less engaged with STEM issues they tend to be. This to me is entirely understandable: the valency of a carbon atom tends not to be incredibly valuable information when you are working three minimum wage jobs, nor do you tend to have time to watch the latest Epistle from St Brian of Cox. When your education was punctuated with bullying because of your sexuality, when your ethnicity acted as a boundary in the classroom, or when your parents weren’t home and you had nothing to eat, I frankly find it unsurprising that STEM doesn’t seem like a priority.
This serious discussion, in which the failure to engage with STEM is placed at the door of the unengaged sinner, doesn’t address the underlying problem of social inequality and instead goes for the traditional Evangelical approaches to conversion: send more preachers out into the places where the poor wretched delinquents congregate, and
TESTIFY the Word of the Lord, sorry, promote the benefits of STEM unto the blasphemer unengaged until he (or she!) sees the light.
Such a conclusion about outreach (also what churches call it) can only be supported if you accept that without Science people cannot truly be citizens in society. It’s a fundamentally scientistic position in which we take a small step from the Creed of Scientism “everything that is worth knowing is science” to “unless you know science, you have no worth”.
I, for one, cannot accept that conclusion. I love science, I love the way in which science has transformed the ways in which I perceive the world, and I love the ways in which the world is transformed by science, but science is far from the only way to perceive the world, and it’s a privileged perspective at that.
Because if we accept Evangelical Scientism, we are but a step away from instituting a Science Literacy Inquisition. We are but a step away from using our privilege to oppress people whose perspectives differ from ours. And we are a mere step away from knocking on people’s doors at nine o’clock in the morning to ask them if they’ve heard the Good News about evolution.
After a conversation with Jonny over at Leaving Fundamentalism, this post was a write-up of the discussion we had. Preview here, read the rest over there!
This was originally intended to be a comment on Jonny’s post “5 jobs a Creationist can’t do”, but after an extended conversation on Facebook, we thought my thoughts might be better presented as a post in its own right, extending the discussion.
First, I understand the position that Jonny is taking; all other things being equal, young earth creationism (YEC) is intellectually incompatible with many disciplines. However, there are doubtless people who identify as young earth creationists who are in those disciplines.
An example which springs to mind is nursing (I know of several nurses who believe in YEC), yet effective nursing requires acknowledging that microbes evolve in response to antibiotics. Does this mean these self-defined creationist nurses aren’t really nurses?
What I think is actually meant is that holding YEC beliefs requires one to perform intellectual gymnastics in some way, or to compromise one’s beliefs in order to function effectively within one’s chosen discipline. I note that Answers in Genesis explicitly give this advice:
“Because of the intense persecution and potential discrimination, some have chosen to keep their biblical views “under wraps” until they receive their degrees.”
What does this look like in reality?
One of the topics which comes up a lot in social studies of science – and which comes up regularly on the skeptical circuit – is the complaint that the public don’t understand science. There are numerous questionnaires which test the public’s knowledge and they get published about once every three months. One which I noticed earlier was this one, looking at relative levels of scientific knowledge between men and women. Another is this, also by Sheril Kirshanbaum. There are countless other examples of what is generally known as scientific literacy.
Many people take the view that the poor numbers of people who know these answers to the questions – in the examples cited, about the relative sizes of subatomic particles, orbital periods of planets, genetics and origins of the universe – shows that members of the public are not adequately educated about science. However, despite extensive efforts by educators, the relative rates of knowledge remain static between surveys.
For me the question really is what we’re measuring, and what the significance of that measurement is. When were people asked and in what social setting? The only time I’ve ever been invited to participate in social research is on the high street when shopping: how many people could cite scientific facts when worrying about getting a hot sausage roll from Gregg’s?
In addition, what relevance to every day lives does knowledge being assessed have? Whilst I knew the answers being sought to the questions above (and I’d love to discuss the question on genetic gender determinism further), I can’t say they form anything other than an interesting backdrop to the day-to-day decisions of my life. So what if it takes the Earth 365.25ish days to orbit the sun, does it affect the housework I’m procrastinating doing by writing this? The relative size of electrons have equally little import, and I’m becoming less and less concerned about how people think the universe was created (it was nearly 14 billion years ago expansion started, wait), provided they don’t think they have the right to force that onto other people. Granted there may be a positive correlation between people who believe in special creation and people who want to force that belief on me, but such people remain a small minority.
And why don’t we expect publics to know facts about philosophy and literature and religions? What is it that means people should definitely know that electrons are even smaller that small, but we don’t care if they know how and why Socrates died? Why does the rotation of our planet excite rage when knowledge of the contributions of Keats, Ives and Spinoza barely raise an interest?
Whilst many members of the public may fail these crude general knowledge tests, we also know that people don’t operate in a scientific vacuum. When they need to know something, they have the resources, either in themselves or in the people around them, to gain understanding. Classic examples are diabetes and cancer: non-specialists can gain a sophisticated understanding of the conditions and their treatment options when required, but might otherwise fail these tests. One of the advantages of the Internet is access to a vast library of human knowledge (which comes hand in hand with access to a vast library of human ignorance, of course).
Demanding that people have these pieces of knowledge may also lead us to underestimate the knowledge they do have. As a classic example, during the BSE crisis, failure to into account the knowledge of butchers about the preparation of meat meant that the first set of rules designed to prevent BSE entering the food chain failed to work, something which was only discovered by the policy makers 5 years after the regulations came into force. (I am assured by my master butcher brother-in-law that the first regulations were laughable, showing a compete ignorance about what happens in an abattoir.) People build complex knowledge structures of the world they live in. Sometimes, these knowledge structures are implicitly scientific but if you asked the people they wouldn’t say they had any scientific knowledge.
One of the groups I have an interest in, ambulance crews, have a vast body of knowledge about humans, their bodies and their responses to illness and injury, but not many of them would necessarily say they are applied scientists. If such a person is unable to answer questions on subatomic particles, should we discard the complex, subtle and deep knowledge they have gained over years of practice and declare them unscientific?
Even if we agree that pop science quizzes have some kind of intrinsic value (and that’s as much a question for the philosophers!), what implications does it have for society? The common assertion is that the scientifically illiterate cause harm because of poor quality decisions. For example, if someone doesn’t know how dilution works, they may mistakenly think that homeopathy works and fail to get vaccinated. I think it’s worth pointing out at this point that there’s a clear difference between science as a body of facts and science as a process. For example, a physicist and biologist probably have a good understanding of how science works, but probably don’t compare in terms of factual knowledge about each other’s fields.
Indeed, the evidence on science-as-knowledge doesn’t really support the position that ‘ignorant’ people make ‘bad’ decisions. In fact, the evidence suggests that the more science (both types) people know, the more ambivalent they are about science. Thus the people most likely to reject genetically modified foods and vaccination are also the people who would be most likely to pass the knowledge assessment. Indeed, anti-GM often have depths of knowledge which are comparable to those of practitioners in the field.
Indeed, I’m not even sure how a more scientifically literate world would differ from the world we see today. This is particularly true when we take into account evidence about motivated reasoning: people with pre-existing opinions are less likely to change their minds when confronted with evidence which strongly conflicts with their existing beliefs.
Now, I’m all for ensuring that science is made accessible to different publics, that publics have opportunities to engage with science if they wish and that our education system is as good as it can possibly be. Wrong information, particularly when it’s associated with exploitation, can and should be countered, if necessary by reference to appropriate enforcement bodies (the ongoing ASA campaigns, for example). However, we can’t use these measurements as indicators as evidence of anything other than what it measures. And the only conclusion that I can draw is that people who are given a science test without a chance to revise tend not to do very well.
But any undergraduate could have told you that though.
[Edit: Sheril pointed out that both of the posts I referenced were actually authored by her, so I corrected the text]
Have a look at this amazing PDF of the top pharmaceutical products sold in 2009!