A Special Supplement to Religion in the
Literacy in a Postmodern World
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resident aliens have not been replaced by foreigners in most science and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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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