Summer/Fall 2007, Vol. 10, Nos. 1 & 2

Religion in the News

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Articles in Special Supplement

Contents of

Education & Secular Values:

The Congruence Between the Scientific and the Secular

Science Education and Religion: Holding the Center

The Competition of Secularism and Religion in a Science Education

Scientific Literacy in a Postmodern World

High School Students Speak Out


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A Special Supplement to Religion in the News:

Scientific Literacy in a Postmodern World
by Jeffrey Burkhardt


For decades, science educators and scientific organizations have lamented the lack of scientific literacy among the American public. The lament reached its tipping point in the early 1990s,when the Science Establishment made concerted efforts to address the problem by way of such initiatives as the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s “Science for All Americans” and the National Research Council’s “National Standards for Science Education.”

These efforts enjoyed some modest success. More importantly, the National Science Foundation showed that the proportion of degrees awarded by American colleges and universities in science and engineering has remained constant (about 35 percent) since the mid-1960s, and that, contrary to anecdotal evidence, U.S. citizens and resident aliens have not been replaced by foreigners in most science and engineering programs in the U.S.

Yet far from disappearing, the worries about scientific literacy have if anything increased in recent years. Why does the Science Establishment still believe that continued and stepped-up efforts are needed?

The heightened distress may have been triggered by the upsurge in support for the teaching of Creationism (or Intelligent Design) in the public schools. But there is more to it than that.

The Science Establishment’s original concern with scientific literacy was in part a reaction to the relatively poor showing on standardized math and science exams of American students compared with students from countries like Japan, Korea, and Russia. Increasing Americans’ scientific literacy seemed to be necessary to assuring U.S. political and economic preeminence.

In addition there was a sense that, as the National Academies of Science (NAS) put it in a 1996 report, “Scientific literacy is important throughout students’ lives as they participate in public policy issues related to technology; as they stay current with advances in areas such as biotechnology, medicine, and space exploration; and especially as they enter an increasingly scientifically based workforce.”

The presumption was that more scientifically literate people would come to the right conclusions—and vote accordingly—on questions of, say, automobile emissions, nuclear power, environmental pollution, and so on.

The original impediments to scientific literacy identified by the Science Establishment are the usual suspects in critiques of how American education has generally performed, which boil down to inadequately prepared and overburdened public school teachers and inadequate textbooks, teaching methods, and curricula.

Yet the Science Establishment’s “improved education” model of achieving universal (scientific) literacy—and there are several approaches—is based on a couple of dubious assumptions.

The first is that knowledge and understanding of a specific set of concepts, or even broad knowledge about science, is required for (according to the NAS) “personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.” The second is that it is possible to achieve the desired ends, given the values of large numbers of people in the U.S. and across the globe who have no interest in, or use for, the concepts, skills, or understandings being promoted as scientific literacy.

Consider a barber we’ll call Ralph. Ralph knows how to cut hair, collect his payment, and make change. He knows how to drive, how to shop, and a myriad of other things. He and his family attend a Christian church every Sunday. Ralph is also active in his community—attends school board and city council meetings, pays attention, and speaks his mind whenever an issue directly affects him or his family.

By all rights Ralph is a functioning, productive member of society. Yet he is knowledgeable of few scientifically based concepts, unless one counts knowing that putting gas in your tank makes the car go and paying your bills guarantees the electricity won’t be turned off.

I believe it to be presumptuous to suggest that Ralph is illiterate or ignorant, and that Ralph’s life would be better off if he were more scientifically literate in any meaningful sense. There are a lot of Ralphs in the United States who are living whole, productive lives. Greater scientific literacy may not improve the quality of their lives in any way whatsoever, and may even diminish it. Attempting to change people’s values under the auspices of making them scientifically literate raises some important issues.

The goal of the Enlightenment was to substitute Reason for Faith. The idea was to replace religious ways of knowing with objective criteria for what counts as rational thought, rigorous methods for basing knowledge about the world on unwavering evidence, and moral principles based on an understanding of human nature.

Yet at some point, the Enlightenment project ran aground. Religious authoritarianism did not once again fill the void (at least in the West). Rather, we are now left with multiple conceptions of what counts as rational—varied and often contradictory methods for grounding claims about truth, and moral systems based on fear, wishful thinking, or blind adherence to a self-appointed leader.          

Neither science nor religion now provides adequate bases from which people can collectively come to grips with many of the problems of our time, and form consensuses. “The answer” to any question comes down to whatever value system or “belief set” a given individual or group happens to possess.

Survey data only begin to show the extent to which beliefs and attitudes vary across the America’s many subcultures. Certainly, in the superficial business of living, Americans manage mostly to co-exist peacefully. But when something basic to cultural or ethical belief-systems is challenged or threatened, there is no common ground to which “reasonable” people can appeal.

The notion that increasing scientific literacy will improve our individual and collective quality of life by giving people such a common ground seems misguided. Some studies purport to show that people’s attitudes toward a particular issue change with “more information.” National science leaders usually take these studies to mean that, when faced with a contentious issue that scientists have taken a stand on, public attitudes will come to favor the scientists’ stance if the public is more knowledgeable about the issue (and the scientific view of it).

But this is not always the case. For example, in the U.S. and around the globe, public attitudes toward genetically modified foods have been shown to grow increasingly negative as more scientific knowledge is provided. This has led to public calls for labeling such foods, despite the Science Establishment’s assurances that they are safe.       

The ways in which the Science Establishment has attempted to affect the outcome of public debates on battleground issues has not helped, in part because science is often perceived as just another story or belief-system—and sometimes that perception is correct.

Science students, especially at the college level, are inculcated into a particular “moral culture.” While they may learn many skills, gain many answers, and acquire the ability to “produce scientific results,” along the way they are also indoctrinated into an ideology that holds that non-scientific ways of thinking—including those based on “non-scientific” values—are not rational.

Here, it is important to recognize the degree to which there is not something called Science but a host of separate sciences, from high-energy physics to molecular biology to nanotechnology to (even) the various “social” sciences. What binds all these together as “Science” is not that they all practice and teach something called “the scientific method.” Each uses concepts, methods, and tools unique to its discipline in order to generate knowledge unique to itself.

A more accurate answer is socio-historical: Practitioners refer to their discipline as a science, and their collective practices as Science. They have had Ph.D.s conferred on them by the institutions where they learned their craft. They believe that they—and they alone—have the correct concepts, theories, ontologies, and methodologies to address the objects or phenomena they consider to be their province.

They do, however, defer to each other’s legitimacy in their proper realms. So even if they do not agree about what constitutes “the facts” or Scientific Truth, they do possess a common narrative: Members of these groups are entitled to pronounce authoritatively on matters that have “scientific content.”  They all seem to believe that answers to questions that have scientific dimensions should at the very least be based on “sound science,” and that not accepting the scientific answer is non-rational. 

But this is a self-conferred legitimacy or authority that is precisely what is being challenged (if not ignored) in the larger society. Are the scientific truths emanating from any of the disciplines true (within the limits of the caveat, “pending further study”), simply because a scientific community says so? 

In the context of promoting scientific literacy, why should the public defer to Science, even “Sound Science,” on matters that have “scientific content”—say, global warming, abortion, biotechnology—since they are also just as importantly about values? Is science literacy good because scientifically literate people are people who agree with what the scientists say?     

There is little doubt that the Scientific Establishment is a powerful force in contemporary society. The amount of resources, human and financial, that the sciences command is huge. Scientific experts are routinely called on by the media, by government, and by corporate entities to pronounce on virtually every aspect of our physical and mental and social lives.

There is little doubt, also, that science and technology have changed and improved, but sometimes negatively affected our world in demonstrable ways. Americans usually appear to agree that scientists have positively affected our lives and are deserving of trust and respect. So again, the question: Why the continued push for scientific literacy, especially when the public appears as willing as it is to go along with what the Science Establishment appears to want?

It may be that the Science Establishment remains fearful of a decline in scientific capacity or competence that will affect American competitiveness in science and technology. The Science Establishment may be horrified that so many people disbelieve in evolution because this may affect how the rest of the “literate” world perceives the U.S. The Science Establishment may hate the fact that celebrities promote Scientology or Astrology. And, the Science Establishment may be right to be so.

But it may also be the case that if people don’t continue to believe—or don’t come around to believing—that science is important, they may be less inclined to support scientific research, endorse science-based policy, or encourage their children to pursue studies in the various scientific disciplines.

The point is that the Science Establishment has a vested interest in scientific literacy. There are good social, economic, political, and even personal reasons for continuing to promote scientific literacy. But we should do so with the understanding that we are asking people to value the things we value.

If they do not, it is not necessarily because they are irrational or ignorant or illiterate. Rather, some of them may simply not wish to adopt the goals and values of the individual sciences or the Science Establishment.  An enlightened believer in Truth and the Good is obliged to respect the right of others to believe in Creationism, Astrology, Scientology and the like, even if these are all (scientifically) wrong.


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