November 24th, 2015
Answer: None. These are just a few examples of science fallacies, from a project by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which evaluated hundreds of student misconceptions of science. At least a third of grade- and high-school students said these facts were true.
The study underscores a chronic problem in American (and European) society; a lack of scientific literacy. A recent study from the universities of Bristol and Cardiff found that science was one of the most difficult-to-understand topics by the average reader (environmental issues, politics, economics and religion topped out the rest of that list).
Unfortunately, these are issues somewhat vital to functioning in complex society. So, what’s the problem? Why is science in particular, so hard to understand?
Some issues may lay in the way science is written. While Greg Benford’s “model” scientific paper was satirical, he underscores an important problem with science knowledge: most papers are poorly written, or at least not written for the lay public to understand.
Another problem is that science issues are largely based on math. Not necessarily integral calculus, but at least an inherent understanding of proportion, ratios, and basic properties of division and multiplication.
A third problem is an integral part of science; there’s a great deal to know, and it’s always changing. While sports, art and fashion aren’t necessarily complex (except for the rules of cricket and American football) and don’t require a body of knowledge, science does. The misconceptions above (and others like them) demonstrate that just a grasp of facts are eluding many of us.
What can we do?
Could journalism be better? Print outlets, which always competed with television and radio, now have digital outlets to contend with. While science stories exist, they’re written for a generic audience. Some experts have suggested that digital news sites could determine what stories interest certain readers, and tailor their offerings accordingly. To borrow a term from internet geeks, a digital site could switching from “pushing” stories on readers, to having the reader “pull” his or her favorites from the site.
Some of the emotion of science that’s lost in publishing or presentation could be restored. Discoveries are exciting, even though they required a lot of attention to detail, long-term focus on analysis, and most likely a frustrating trail of failures. These experiences get lost in the rigid structures of how science is presented; meanwhile, sports, art and entertainment are all about emotions!
In our age of complexity, it’s time we did a better job of “getting it.”
Flaounas, I., Ali, O., Lansdall-Welfare, T., De Bie, T., Mosdell, N., Lewis, J., & Cristianini, N. (2013). RESEARCH METHODS IN THE AGE OF DIGITAL JOURNALISM Digital Journalism, 1 (1), 102-116 DOI: 10.1080/21670811.2012.714928
is environmental science hard, is computer science hard, is earth science hard