Scientific Illiteracy Isn’t Just a “Them” Problem

Scientific Illiteracy Isn’t Just a “Them” Problem November 5, 2018

Ugur Peker, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story.

Recently on Facebook, a family member posted a series of “facts”, supposedly meant to operate as food for thought. You can guess how many of them were well-cited and accurate, but the one that made me laugh read simply:

“According to Albert Einstein, if honey bees were to disappear from earth, humans would be dead within 4 years.”

My laugh was cut short, though, by the reminder that this is a serious problem for the fight against scientific illiteracy. When people conflate expertise in one field with automatic authority on them all, they illustrate a profound misunderstanding of how authoritative knowledge arises in any field of rigorous study. And when that profound misunderstanding exists, it can be devilishly hard to apprise people of new and critical information–about medicine, about food safety, about public-policy needs for a world undergoing drastic environmental change.

But what really sobered me was not that one of my family members had posted this meme. Rather, it was the simultaneous realization that other family members, as well as many friends and colleagues, would in a heartbeat consider themselves “above” falling for such an absurd appeal to authority. Take a theoretical physicist’s word on ecosystem science? Tosh!

…And yet, recently, many of them had disseminated conflations of their own.

Maybe you did, too.

How did you respond when you read the news about Stephen Hawking predicting that a race of genetically modified “superhumans” would wipe us out, if AI hadn’t already?

A cosmologist commenting on human engineering, in an age when anthropologists are increasingly cautious about using the term “species” amid fascinating developments about hybridization’s role in human history?

Sure, okay. Everyone’s entitled to their opinions.

But if you disseminated this news, if you played into the idea that Hawking was an expert worth hearing from on this subject, how much more seriously have you really been taking scientific literacy? How are you fostering a more careful discursive climate than those who credulously accept Einstein’s authority on bees?

The Real Illiteracy Problem Starts at Home

We secular types have a real reckoning upon us when it comes to conflated authority.

Absolutely, the first big wave of public atheists for the 21st century, the “New Atheists”, lifted many people from religious beliefs with books like The End of Faith (2004)The God Delusion (2006), and God Is Not Great (2007). But what happened concurrently? Ever so many people regarded Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens (as part of The Four Horsemen) with startlingly strident reverence. As if they had simply transplanted pre-existing beliefs in divine masculine authority to a more earthly domain. As if an answer to the god question rested on the elocution and general character of these mere human beings.

And of course, media had a field day with this phenomenon. Salon.com was especially good at posting one clickbait article in favour of one of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism… and then a provocative retort or three–maybe against some imagined slight, or maybe against some knuckle-brained thing one of them actually said or did as flawed, complex human beings.

Terrific for driving site traffic, no?

But terrible for advancing meaningful discourse.

Now, I grew up in a “freethinking” household, which is a little different from a default-atheist household. I was encouraged to read widely–On the Origin of Species begun when I was eight, and processed at a painstaking three pages a day; the Christian Bible, the Tao Te Ching (and The Tao of Pooh!), and the Qur’an read before I was ten; Greek myths and legends so beloved by me as a small sprog that I put my kindergarten class to sleep reading aloud from the story of Prometheus at four. (Should’ve started with a teaser about the liver, but I wasn’t savvy on clickbait SEOs back then!)

As such, by the time The God Delusion and God Is Not Great came out, well into my undergrad, I had little interest in their themes, because both texts would’ve been preaching to the choir (so to speak), when I had been taught instead to seek out different opinions, to challenge my preconceptions at every turn. As such, my favourite Dawkins text is The Extended Phenotype. My favourite works by Hitchens? His collected essays, especially for The Atlantic and The London Review of Books. I recognized these two, and Harris, as experts in specific fields… and so it surprised me, deeply, when fellow atheists tended to rely upon them for more.

But lest we fall prey to binary thinking…

I want to be clear, though, that I do not blame Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris for their humanity. What a complicated thing, to suddenly skyrocket into fame! I doubt many of us could handle the care and consideration required when a slew of strangers around the world write you adoringly, telling you how you’ve changed their lives and they love your work… while, simultaneously, other strangers are writing you with death threats, and railing against you as the bane of modern civilization.

We are human beings. Our lives are brief. Our experiences, limited. And our minds? Even at their most brilliant, ours are the minds of animals, with natural fight-or-flight and tribalist instincts that have very little appreciation for the differences between, say, a written threat on Twitter and direct, violent confrontation in the wild.

What I see in the broad-spectrum authority bestowed upon such figures is simply this:

  1. Human beings making statements about all manner of topic, whether or not it’s our field of expertise, to usually modest audiences of family and friends and colleagues.
  2. Some human beings gaining a larger audience from work in specific fields of expertise.
  3. These larger audiences then hearing statements about all manner of topic from human beings who gained their platform from specific fields of expertise.
  4. These audiences then choosing to take those more wide-ranging statements seriously, simply because they came from someone on an elevated platform. And finally, optionally,
  5. The human beings on that platform doubling down when challenged for what they said about areas of non-expertise, perhaps because they see their original platform threatened in turn.

 

So who’s to blame, really? The idolized individuals, or the idolators among us?

And obviously, there are different ways to handle challenges in fields of non-expertise: some better, some abysmal. I tend to respect Hitchens’ open admission that he was wrong on waterboarding, for instance, even though I wish we didn’t need to experience every awful thing under the sun ourselves in order to believe others. Conversely, I find Harris’s refusal to be swayed by experts in subjects like racial profiling to show a profound reluctance to admit error and self-correct.

But at the end of the day these are simply human beings. And human beings always have blinders.

The real danger lies, for me, in the people who forget that fact.

The Audience as Lousy Arbiter of Authority

What do New Atheists–like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens–and figures who embody some of the worst scientific and political illiteracy–like Bush and the current POTUS–all have in common?

A fan base with some members, sadly, who adore authority for authority’s sake.

If Bush, for instance, had not been hastened up the political ladder, not been supported by a massive GOP fanbase that saw his folksy speech and familial connections as affirmation of his worthiness to lead… then he wouldn’t have been in the highest U.S. office, in a position to employ his approach to foreign affairs to start an unjust war and become responsible for the increased suffering of millions. Who would he have been instead? Considering his family connections, maybe a middling Southern rancher! Someone inspiring half-affectionate, half-exasperated eye-rolls among the neighbours, as they recalled his latest drunken exploits and the storied parties he sometimes threw from his estate (at least, when his oil operations were in decent standing).

Likewise, the current POTUS, whose name I do not like writing for precisely the reason I am about to mention, exists because of the amount of infotainment dedicated to him, and because of some baffling claims that his businessman “credentials” made him fit to lead. There is so much handwringing among the media, so much astonishment at the fact that this, this is the POTUS! And yet many news outlets continue, as Michelle Wolf sagely pointed out at the 2018 Correspondents’ Dinner, to profit off the shock value of any fresh gossip about or directly from him. If we didn’t want him to be seen as someone whose opinions mattered, why in blazes do we continue to give him the elevated platform?

But! But! How can you name The Four Horsemen in the same breath?!

Settle down. I’m not trying to suggest that New Atheists have caused anywhere near the level of global disruption as two U.S. Presidents. What I am suggesting is that the same underlying human behaviour–to conflate authority, to assign broad-spectrum expertise to figures based on prominence–starts at home, and as such needs to be nipped at home.

At least, for those of us sincerely striving to become better humanists.

So how do we do it? How do we change the conversation? How do we diminish the impact of a platform on the absurdly elevated social value ascribed to every damned thing said upon it?

Knowledge as a Conversational Continuum

My answer arises from a related heartbreak regarding scientific illiteracy in the media. Every time I see a headline that connects the most recent evolutionary breakthrough to the name “Darwin”, I feel a little worse about our chances of improving scientific literacy. Why? Because every time we do this, every time we invoke Darwin as a basic unit of measure for understanding new research, we teach our audiences to do the same. We train the general populace to think of 150 years of evolutionary discourse as nothing more than a set of comparisons against an 1859 standard (itself predicated on a great many critical forerunners in biology, geology, and Malthusian thought).

In so doing, we treat scientific history the same darned way that rigid religious thinkers treat social policy–namely, by running back and checking it against millennia-old texts. And I’m pretty sure my fellow atheists consider that practice absurd… so why do we permit it when it comes to more recent scientific research?

Imagine if we did the same in other fields. Imagine if every new book out of Britain was announced in relation to, say, Shakespeare, with headlines like,

“Was Shakespeare right about gender? Nancy New Writer’s First Novel Says Yes!”

“Did Shakespeare get it wrong on race? What Prolific Paul’s Latest Murder-Mystery Suggests about Ethnicity!”

Ludicrous. Absolutely ludicrous.

And also deeply damaging to our democracy. Because whenever we allow people to think that a field of expertise exists within singular, iconic (and for good measure, dead) figures, we teach them that knowledge is discrete, not discursive. That authority is a limited good, rather than a balance of power that needs to shift wherever new evidence does, too.

So say it loud, and say it proud:

  • Shakespeare is not important because he was Shakespeare. Shakespeare is important because of what he contributed to a myriad of ongoing conversations–about language, about art, about being human.

 

  • Darwin is not important because he was Darwin. Darwin is important because of what he contributed to a myriad of ongoing conversations–about biology, about scientific process, about human teleology.

 

  • Einstein is not important because he was Einstein. Einstein is important because of what he contributed to a myriad of ongoing conversations–about the nature of time, about mass-energy equivalence and the photoelectric effect, about the critical ethical conversations necessitated by the development of new technologies.

 

  • The Four Horsemen are not important because they are/were the Four Horsemen. The Four Horsemen are important because of what they contributed to a particular moment in the long and storied history of atheistic discourse, and the ongoing conversations they made way for in their understandably human limitations.

So now it’s our turn.

As 21st-century humanists it is not sufficient to point and laugh at the scientific and political illiteracy of others. Instead, it is vital that we identify the way that our own cultural systems support the very same conflations of authority, the very same misapprehensions about how knowledge is held and furthered in our species, that we’re so quick to condemn in others.

The situation today, on the eve of the U.S. midterms, might seem dire… but I have elsewhere contended that it has probably always been dire. And probably always will be.

Such is the nature of a discourse: it keeps on going, even when we are so sure we have come to definitive conclusions about elements therein.

So long as there are new human beings, though, living in distinct temporal and geopolitical contexts, the best we can do is to keep advancing better methods of critical thinking. And then to hope that, in the bleakest hours of our democracy, this might be enough to turn the worst of the illiterate tides.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Luciano Joshua Gonzalez

    A popular and prominent Honduran rocket scientist who has worked with various agencies and helped conduct market research for organizations like NASA and is a well-respected journalist in and out of Honduras is an anti-vaxxer. He’s a polite man, a well-educated man, a literal scientist, and yet he is wrong on this, devastatingly so. It’s interesting for me to read articles like this when I remember that.

  • David Eadington

    ‘Because whenever we allow people to think that a field of expertise exists within singular, iconic (and for good measure, dead) figures, we teach them that knowledge is discrete, not discursive. That authority is a limited good, rather than a balance of power that needs to shift wherever new evidence does, too.” — This is *so* well put and so important, and, yet, seems such a Sisyphean task to overcome (appeals to authority being such a bedrock of human belief systems).

    I suppose we must fight the good fight and imagine ourselves happy.

  • Yet another extremely thought-provoking article. You’re right, the worst mistake we can make is to think we’re totally without blinders or biases.

    As 21st-century humanists it is not sufficient to point and laugh at the scientific and political illiteracy of others. Instead, it is vital that we identify the way that our own cultural systems support the very same conflations of authority, the very same misapprehensions about how knowledge is held and furthered in our species, that we’re so quick to condemn in others.

    I don’t think any two sentences could better sum up what I’ve been trying to say for years on Disqus and Patheos. We have to be careful to make sure our approach to science isn’t just to weaponize knowledge against people we consider our intellectual, moral and (ahem) socioeconomic inferiors. As I always say, what we know and believe has to be part of an ongoing dialogue with reality and each other.

  • epeeist

    Einstein is not important because he was Einstein.

    And he is still important even though he was wrong about a number of things and quantum mechanics in particular.

  • TinnyWhistler

    As 21st-century humanists it is not sufficient to point and laugh at the scientific and political illiteracy of others. Instead, it is vital that we identify the way that our own cultural systems support the very same conflations of authority, the very same misapprehensions about how knowledge is held and furthered in our species, that we’re so quick to condemn in others.

    I want to tattoo this to my face.

  • I wonder how much it helps to focus inwardly. I sometimes wonder who are the bedrocks in my life, the people I imbue with intrinsic authority instead of earned authority, and how best I can move way from that damaging practice myself. Can we still teach from personal example, or are the stages of our performative selves too digitized to serve in that capacity anymore?

  • Everyone has their blinders, because our beliefs are rooted so deeply in emotional contexts. I suspect persons like your rocket scientist are so caught up in the performance of authority that it’s even harder for him to see his own weak spots, let alone to permit himself the vulnerability to be fallible. How exhausting that must be for *him*, while also of course dangerous for communities that listen to his opinions even outside his main field of expertise. 🙁

  • Oh, I love that last part: *an ongoing dialogue with reality and each other*, in that order, because if we’re simply confronting one another’s beliefs we’re not really doing the work required to keep our personal beliefs at peak operating efficiency. Thanks, as always, for reading and replying, Shem–and for all your work advancing the same discourse for years to date. It must be a daunting task, to speak of calm, consistent self-reflection for so long, and through so much alarum in the world at large.

  • Hah! Good heavens, this might be both the highest and the most alarming compliment I have ever received. Can… can you maybe wait until I write something just as impactful but a little on the shorter side?

    Thanks for reading and responding, TinnyWhistler! Glad to hear it resonated. 🙂

  • Ditto with Darwin, and Shakespeare, and Hawking, and oh, how the list goes on. 🙂 Thanks for reading and responding, epeeist!

  • David Eadington

    I think we have to focus inwardly — we will fail our own tests if not. I think we can teach by personal example, but I don’t know what kind of audience we can find that will truly pay enough attention and be willing to see and listen to the quiet model as opposed to the screaming voices to which we are subject.

  • TinnyWhistler

    Haha, I’ll settle for sending this article to anyone who I think will read it without immediately dismissing it out of reflex.

  • “In so doing, we treat scientific history the same darned way that rigid religious thinkers treat social policy–namely, by running back and checking it against millennia-old texts.“

    And perhaps give the religious an excuse for their insistence that there is such a religion as “Darwinism”.

  • Jim Jones

    > Likewise, the current POTUS, whose name I do not like writing for precisely the reason I am about to mention.

    I call him #AMDP

    America’s Most Dishonest President.

  • Jim Jones

    > I want to tattoo this to my face.

    I’d prefer: “Insert pizza here”.

  • Jim Jones

    Like Fred Hoyle was wrong about the universe.

  • Hah! JJ, you’d better be very specific about the placement of that one, or you might be looking at some seriously distressed nostrils!

  • Jim Jones

    Upper lip with directional arrows.

  • Yeah. People do tend to go overboard with considering someone an expert on everything, just because they’re an expert on something. And scientific literacy needs to start with a solid understanding of formal logic and probability theory.