Scientific Illiteracy: Bridges Needed

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Who is your favorite science author? Better yet, can you think of any?

We don’t know a lot of science authors because many scientists are unable to communicate effectively. By now, it is clear that communication barriers between scientists and the public exist. In July 2009, the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued a report titled, “Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media.” It profiled America’s scientific illiteracy. For example, only 54 percent of Americans responding to the survey knew antibiotics do not kill viruses; only 52 percent knew stem cells can develop into many types of cells, and only 46 percent knew electrons are smaller than atoms.

Additionally, the study revealed that the gap between scientists and the public with respect to controversial scientific issues is even more revealing. Scientists overwhelmingly (87 percent) say humans and other living things have evolved over time and that evolution is the result of natural processes such as natural selection. Only 32 percent of the public accepts this as true. On the question of global warming, 84 percent of scientists say the earth is getting warmer because of human activity, but just 49 percent of Americans think human emissions are causing global warming.

Also according to the report, despite the general agreement among scientists on the issues of evolution and climate change, substantial minorities of the public say scientists do not agree: 28 percent say that scientists do not agree on evolution and 35 percent say that scientists do not agree that the earth is warming because of human activity.  In other words, the public’s perception of a lack of consensus among scientists is inaccurate. 

You are a student of the sciences. You know that the public needs to be informed to make educated policy decisions, participate in informed debates, and help direct resources toward promising scientific developments. Part of each scientist’s professional responsibility is to promote the public’s understanding of science. But just how can you do your part? The communication skills you develop while attending PSU are not just for classroom use. As a scientist you will need to build bridges for better communication between your general and specialist audiences. You will need to use your communication skills outside of the classroom. Tips for adapting to these audiences will be presented over the next few weeks. 

Did you have a difficult time coming up with popular science writers? Did Rachel Carson, Linus Pauling, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould–or maybe a future YOU come to mind!


Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media (2009, July 9) In The Pew Research   Center for the People & the Press. Retrieved May 5, 2009, from

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