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Monday, August 24, 2009


Pluto and Science Literacy

I've just did a depressing test, the Science Knowledge Quiz from the Pew Research Centre. Yes, I got them all right, but they were astoundingly easy. What was depressing was that only 10% of the population (mostly US citizens), could get it right. The questions included such brain teasers as "Electrons are smaller than atoms, true or false".

It's enough to make a grown scientist cry.

In terms of astronomy, only 60% of people were aware that Pluto had been demoted! Given the huge publicity over the demotion of Pluto, and the fact that the demotion of Pluto has been made an icon of how badly scientists treated the public by springing the demotion on them (not) by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, the fact that 40% of the American public is unaware that Pluto has been demoted is worrying.

You would expect that all the "public protest" that Mooney and Kirshenbaum report would have raised awareness (unless, of course, it was all a beat up, and most of the public didn't actually care). Still, that such a high profile event has by-passed the conciousness of so many people is worrying. Similarly, NASA has a well financed publicity office, with lots of press releases and informative websites (and online TV), yet, yet, only 61% of people were aware of the discovery of water on Mars (whereas if I see another press release saying "more evidence of water on Mars" I'll scream). Heck, only 65% could identify CO2 as a greenhouse gas, with the amount of reportange flying about, how could you miss this?

If such high profile, front page media events penetrate to just over half of the public, how is more mundane science going to make an impact? Mooney and Kirshenbaum are big on scientists becoming communicators (something I'm definitely in favour of), but given the failure of high profile, well sported media exposure from these three key events (Pluto, Water on Mars and CO2 in global warming) to penetrate the conciousness of more than 3/4 of the American public, just how are ordinary scientists, with average budgets and far less exciting results going to make an impact at all.

If Mooney and Kirshenbaum can answer that, I'll listen intently.

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I have yet to finish reading Mooney and Kirschenbaum's book and write my own review, but personally, I put a lot of blame on the media for people's lack of scientific knowledge (notably, there is a similar deficiency in knowledge of other subjects as well, such as history, writing skills, and mathematical ability).

Just look at what the media are most reporting: Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, the Octomom, etc. How many people know about the stolen election and subsequent protests in Iran? There has been a complete breakdown in the distinction between information and entertainment. When every major news station passes off "celebrity gossip" as news, it is not surprising that more people know about Lindsay Lohan than about Pluto.

In the Pluto case, the tiny number of IAU members who voted on this demotion did in fact spring it on everyone, including on other astronomers! Many people who know Pluto was demoted also know that many planetary scientists reject the demotion, and this remains an object of contention. Public protest has raised awareness from where it would otherwise be (much lower than 60 percent), but what might really make a difference is in depth programming/discussion in the media of the reasoning behind the contending views in this debate.

Also, many members of the public who have taken part in these protests, instead of being praised for taking an interest in science, have been denigrated simply for not following a decree by an "established authority." Science is not about blind obedience. It is about questioning, looking at the evidence for all viewpoints and drawing one's own conclusions--very much like democracy, which is equally in trouble here in the US.
12/12. I was almost worried for a minute.

It's been somewhat refreshing to see the commercial stations in Australia promoting more "sciency" stuff in the last few weeks, even if it is drowned out by the fluff.

The sensationalism irks me at times, though. Science (especially astronomy) is cool. Let it speak for itself.

On the other hand, the "Science Outside The Square" sessions seem to be attracting good crowds, too. (I'm still annoyed I couldn't make it to Simon Singh's lecture.)

Hi again, Laurel. :-)
I'm surprised that the number getting things right is as high as 60%. A while back, in a geography test, about that fraction could locate Europe on a world map.

But, no, it's not the fault of the media. Blaming our school system comes closer to it, but even there they bear only a small part of the responsibility. The main fault is the home, where children are brought up to value inquiry, or not, as the case may be. Sorry to be so direct about it, but it's the early years in a child's life that matter the most.
Astronomy,and with it all Science has
become so specialized it's no wonder the exposure people get is very confusing? unless your up on a expanding disipline(astronomy) you'l
find yourself quickly left mumbling.
after 20yrs absence from this i can not keep up?
(still scored 12of12)so what! if you want people to understand and
appreciate science
you must keep it simple. todays science is impossible to keep up with.
"I've just did??"
One way of looking at we humans is that, like all life, we're a means to an end, that end being continued self-replication of what we call DNA. I'm afraid that in our present circumstances in the US DNA has "figured out" that its human hosts really don't need to know much at all in order to reproduce, and that knowing too much might actually hinder reproduction. Eventually if not sooner this has to come to an end; with luck we'll fall back to some social condition where learning things increases the odds of survival and reproduction.
I'm not sure that reproduction is the key factor toward human survival these days when the planet is so heavily overpopulated with people. Not only don't we need everyone to reproduce; the Earth does not have the resources to support the further increase in population if everyone does. For personal reasons, I've chosen not to have kids, and I don't think that choice is doing any harm to human survival. Personally, I've never had the desire to reproduce. At this point, it is more important for human survival for the people already here to learn new ways of living in harmony with the Earth and consuming fewer resources than it is for them to reproduce.
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