“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” – Carl Sagan
Today, as in his time, Carl Sagan’s words ring loud and clear to those of us on the forefront in the public discussion of science. Unlike in his day, however, scientific illiteracy today is not an epidemic. It’s a movement. Those who don’t understand science have banded together to ensure that others don’t understand it either. Lack of understanding and outright denialism has become a popular trend complete with celebrity endorsement and sponsors.
A group called U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) has been funded to the tune of $194,500 by the Organic Consumers Association to attack bioetch scientists using FOIA (freedom of information act) as a weapon. This has resulted in threats and harassment of scientists like Dr. Kevin Folta and others on the academic side of the science. They used the FOIA to gain large sets of data from emails so they could quote mine and try to find ways to discredit the scientists, since they couldn’t actually refute the science itself.
We’ve seen outbreaks of vaccine preventable illnesses such as measles and whooping cough thanks to an ever-growing movement that began with the fraudulent work of Andrew Wakefield. Now, with celebrities like Robert De Niro and doctors who know better, but are pandering to their ignorant fans, like Dr. Oz and struggling presidential candidate Ben Carson leading the charge against vaccines, we’re seeing more and more illness where there’s no scientifically-acceptable reason we should.
We even see science denialism along party lines with conservative think tanks built to politicize and propagandize a fundamental misunderstanding of climate change, often funded by oil interests for the sake of their bottom line.
With this rise in anti-science culture and funded science denialism, we’ve also seen something that gives a grain of hope against the rising tide: A movement out of the scientific skeptic community comprising people devoted to science communication and advocacy has arisen and is growing exponentially. This movement has created what amounts to a new professional field, or at least a newly revitalized and expanded one, that gives the scientifically literate communicator a real outlet.
We’ve seen viral successes such as SciBabe with her massively successful article on the Food Babe (aka Vani Hari, a computer consultant by trade with no formal dietary or nutrition training). From there, SciBabe has gained many new followers on social media and her YouTube channel, as well as radio and TV appearances, and even live speaking engagements to dispel myths and misconceptions about various scientific topics in the effort to help increase science literacy across demographics.
There are well-established and well-respected journalists like Kavin Senapathy who spend copious amounts of time writing about science and poking holes in pseudoscience proponents such as David Wolfe with the #DontCryWolfe campaign. All the while, Kavin remains very accessible engaging in outreach advocacy and discussions to help the general public understand the current issues and further science literacy.
With pages like Skeptical Raptor and Science-Based Medicine have practically set the standard in science blogging. Sites like these have become convenient and credible resources on numerous scientific topics to serve as a resource to the many people that spend time and energy on activism within social media. These bolster the efforts of those engaging in the fight against spreading myths and misinformation to the public. With these resources, they’ve become well-equipped and effective. Even devout leaders in anti-science activism have changed their mind due to the efforts and outreach of science communicators.
With this seemingly “rising force” of science communication occurring within, and even powered by, the the public sphere continuing to gain momentum and influence, the question now becomes “where do we go next?”
Well, the answer is as complicated as the question is simple, I think. More people with the knowledge and background to effectively educate the public in all branches of science need to step forward and take up the torch. Those who have been doing it can’t do it forever, and certainly can’t continue to do it alone. Journalistic publications need to go back to the days of having dedicated science writers who understand the topics they’re reporting on, and know how to fact check claims to avoid even the inadvertent spread of bad scientific information, and ultimately reinforce literacy and understanding for the general public to benefit just about any education levels.
It’s up to all of us, and you, to pave the way for a more literate and scientifically progressive future.