Danger is at hand, and you may have voted for it. Science educator Bill Nye weaves a passionate argument for the importance of science literacy in a country's elected leaders.
It’s not unusual to hear someone openly say that they can’t do math at all; that they can’t figure out the percentage to tip on a bill. If someone said that chemistry hurts their brain and they can’t even look at an equation, or that they have no idea how a certain part of the human body does what it does, that wouldn’t be too surprising. These are usually light-hearted statements that go down well – many of us would sympathize, nod and say: yeah, me too.
But turn the tables and imagine someone announcing jovially they can’t read words that are over 3 syllables, or that a certain sentence is too beyond them to even try. That wouldn’t be considered funny. En masse, we’d raise our brows and say: Excuse me?
The ignorance involved in both scenarios is comparable, but the shirking of effort when it comes to science and math is so normalized we don’t always catch ourselves.
This is the bee in Bill Nye’s bonnet today. An engineer by origin, he wants science literacy to be a national priority so that people can understand that the daily magic around them every day – all the technology, medicine, and innovation that makes our lives easier, isn't some kind of wizardry – it's cold, hard science. Understanding the way things work, from the basics to a minute level, is so profoundly important to a country’s progress and its citizen's health and daily lives. As an example, Nye looks at the spread of a disease like Ebola in North America compared to Africa; the education levels about how germs are transmitted corresponds directly to the amount of deaths from this terrible illness. Understanding basic concepts like bacteria and hygiene saves lives.
Nye goes on to make an interesting point about some of the U.S.’s elected officials and their fluctuating stance on science. Those who panicked about Ebola – rightly so – and implemented preventative measures take a very different approach when it comes to a crisis such as climate change. Here, the U.S. has failed to make meaningful change and start measures to look out for the future. Nye also points to officials who cut funding to the Center for Disease Control, which demonstrates a serious lack of literacy about the nature of infectious disease. The Spanish Flu of the early 20th century killed an estimated 20-50 million people – even at its most conservative estimate, that’s more than all the deaths in WWI. In Nye’s words, cutting disease research is "not where you save your money, Congress!"
There is also a general mistrust of science among civilians and leaders, and unfortunately shady science practices, such as the sugar industry buying off Harvard scientists to write negative studies focusing on fats while omitting research that would hurt the sugar industry, does a lot of damage to the public perception of scientific method. Those stories make it a little easier to believe scientists can be bought, and therefore that science as a whole can be doubted.
But science largely stands strong, and research by Dan Kahan at Yale University shows that those with the strongest views tend to have the greatest scientific literacy. Kahan asked 1,540 Americans to rate the severity of climate change as a global threat on a scale of zero to ten. Interestingly those that rated it closest to zero or closest to ten had the highest levels of science comprehension.
That middle ground proves to be a dangerous place because the greatest sin in science is to not ask questions, and not challenge conventional wisdom. That’s the whole point of scientific enquiry, but dismissing it or failing to understand it really is a crime, especially when you trace it to the tangible cost of human life from increasing natural disasters and preventable contagions. This idea is perhaps expressed best by Canadian-American physician and Nobel Laureate Charles Huggins, who said: "Nature can refuse to speak but she cannot give a wrong answer." Science, when not corrupt, works as nature's translator. We have to trust it, not be blindly skeptical.
Bill Nye has spent his life promoting science education and while here he is visibly frustrated by this high-level mistrust of science in the U.S., another famous champion of science, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, brings reinforcement in the form of optimism. Tyson recently said to the Wall Street Journal: "Science is being born into public consciousness in a very big way, for the first time. And we’re doing it on the shoulders of those who struggled to get it going in that regard. I look forward to the impact it could have on the 21st century, where we have a next generation of people who only know science literacy as a fundamental part of an educated citizenry."
Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.