americans aren’t scientifically illiterate, they just don’t care about what science says
Popular science figures argue that we’re not taking real problems seriously because the public lacks scientific education. But that’s not the problem. The problem is much, much worse.
According to the expert statisticians and pollsters at FiveThirtyEight, while Americans are often billed as science illiterate and ignorant of many basic facts, the truth is a lot more complicated. It’s true that they might not be the best at knowing which discipline’s findings produce results more or less open to interpretation, and too many for comfort struggle to correctly answer some basic questions about scientific topics used as culture war fodder, as a whole, Americans are, in fact, getting more science savvy. The polls are just designed to make sure not everyone will get the right answer since they provide pollsters with the ability to identify different levels of scientific education which can be matched up with political beliefs and voting patterns.
In a way, this explains several paradoxes we see when it comes to polls about Americans and science, such as how they can’t be trusted to identify evolution is a major driver of biology but say that science is important to them, or say that they respect scientists but seem to think of scientific disciplines interchangeably. They know the basic facts, they know those facts are important, and they understand that we need experts to keep studying, but they also often don’t see how science affects them in more ways than new medical procedures and weapons, and don’t want to let scientific facts get in the way of deeply held beliefs. Their minds have a certain inertia and unless acted on by a compelling outside forces, they won’t change much.
In short, people tend to only care about the science that affects them personally, and when we pit scientific findings against confirmation bias, the confirmation bias typically wins. And this is a big problem for the popular science world which functions under the assumption that if we just teach more people more science, they would understand why the warnings about automation, dying insects, climate change, pollution, and antibiotic resistance are so important and why they need to treat them as the emergencies they are, and discard culture war fodder in favor of well understood and established scientific facts. This attitude can be taken to a fault as shown by a row over a now infamous book blaming scientists for not doing enough to educate the people in the face of anti-science activists in politics and pop culture.
We can teach people about the dangers of global warming, the merits of evolution, and the dire repercussions of antibiotic resistance until the cows come home, and when asked by a pollster they’ll be able to regurgitate much of those facts and figures on command if we bombard them enough. We can frame and reframe the debates and the data in hopes of winning more converts to the scientific stance until the heat death of the universe. But what we can’t do is make people act on these facts until they either want to or have no choice but to accept them. Until we can show people why they need to care and how it personally affects them, many won’t budge from their mental comfort zone, and the first step to doing that is to admit that we’re not fighting an epidemic of scientific ignorance, but one of stubbornness and apathy.