Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Uncientific America - A Pluto Moment

Pluto can't get no respectImage by the mad LOLscientist via Flickr

The LA Times (what not the NY Times) has an article about Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshenbaum's new book, Unscientific America. The article, by Lori Kozlowski, Bringing science back into America's sphere laments the pitiful state of America's understanding of science.

The "demotion" of Pluto from a planet is used as a metaphor for what people know about science. It seems that the Pew Research Center did a study about what the public understands when it comes to science. They found that 60% knew that Pluto had been reclassified. On the other hand 54% thought that antibiotics kill viruses and 46% knew that electrons are smaller than atoms.
Given how little the public knows about science Kozlowski writes:
It is exceedingly rare that science does anything that reaches almost everybody anymore. So, when you get your moment to put it all before everybody, you don't want it to be a Pluto moment.
If science is going to be a candle in the darkness (as the late Carl Sagan subtitled his great book: The Demon-Haunted World) then it needs to go viral. It has to grab the imagination of the public. In the preface to The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan relates how he had a limo driver ask why science guys, like Sagan, didn't work on finding the secret to unlimited power that supposedly powered the mythical island of Atlantis. This event was one reason why such a serious scientist, as Sagan, would write popular books. He wanted to make science interesting to the masses.

Kozlowski then talks about how so many people erroneously believe that vaccinations cause autism. These people are often well to do and educated. In a book that is similar to Sagan's Michael Shermer, in
"Why people believe weird things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time" writes:
In day-to-day life, as in science, we all resist fundamental paradigm change. Social scientist Jay Stuart Snelson calls this resistance an ideological immune system: 'educated, intelligent, and successful adults rarely change their most fundamental presuppositions.' ... That is, the higher the IQ, the greater the potential for ideological immunity.
Maybe Mooney & Kirshenbaum have figured out how to break though ideological immunity and to make the excitement of the discoveries of science go viral. I'll have to add their book to my list to read.

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  1. Most who know of the "reclassification" of Pluto also know that it is highly controversial and was done more for political reasons than for scientific ones. Four percent of the IAU, most of whom are not planetary scientists, adopted a confusing, linguistically nonsensical definition that was immediately rejected in a formal petition signed by hundreds of professional astronomers. When people see something like this, it sheds a negative light on science in general. Dr. Alan Stern was right to call the demotion "an embarrassment to astronomy." Even worse, the IAU has refused to re-open this issue in spite of the fact that even proponents of the definition find it problematic. If scientists want to engage the public, they need to take one look at the IAU 2006 proceedings as the perfect example of what not to do.

  2. Bravo, Laurel! Personally, I have very little interest in the outcome of Pluto's actual status. However, I am very interested in, shall we say, "the state of the decision process itself". I have become very wary of today's "scientists" with their so called conclusions. Sadly, it appears to me that way too much politics, personal agendas (usually leading to person attacks on the individual being argued with) and/or greed has become an almost a necessary part of the scientific process. Perfect example in a comment made, by "anonymous" no less, to your blog's post on 8/24/2009 (http://laurele.livejournal.com/10565.html) regarding Pluto.

    An honestly open and unbiased look at any issue based on ALL data and evidence, has appeared to have followed the route of the some of today's species, near extinction. Also, the verbiage utilized by current day science has become inaccurate, (e.g. "Planets are created..., We have proven that..., etc...)

    Thank's for a small glimmer of hope for it's survival "in the wilds" of today's environment.

  3. Thanks for the comments. To be honest I don't have a dog in the Pluto fight but am concerned with anti-intellectualism in America. Dr. Steve has assailed one of my pet issues the use of the term proven.

    In my research methods class, I teach my students that one word they are forbidden to say is proof. If one wants proof then one must become a mathematician because in biomedical research one only gets evidence that supports or does not support a particular hypothesis.

    It is obvious to me that for the lay public it is confusing that a clinical trial does not prove something. Statistics and probability are scary and conceptually difficult. The best evidence of this to me is the amount of money amateur gamblers spend in lotteries and casinos.

  4. Ha! I find amazing when a newly-minted gambler really believes he can win and even make a living at it (in his or her mind anyway). It is an interesting process to watch as a person believes they are learning, then mastering the game (whether it is poker or sports, whatever)and some how know more than other players or the odds-makers.

    And I don't think it is just science that is lacking. How many people can form a decent grammatically correct sentence? Or even care about it?

    So how much dumber and can Dumb and Dumber become?