Unscientific America


Sheril Kirshenbaum, research scientist at UT Austin and a favorite science communicator of mine, delivers a brief and depressing yet poignant presentation on science literacy in the U.S. Or perhaps the gaping void of science literacy among the U.S. majority would be more germane. A 2011 survey asked U.S. citizens to name a scientist today. The three responses which scored highest? Albert Einstein, Al Gore, Bill Gates.

One is dead, one is not a scientist no matter how broadly you extend the term and Bill Gates, while not a scientist in the conventional sense, could technically be labeled a computer scientist. So +1 for stumbling upon a correct answer.

Today’s Scientists

The reality is that there are scientists living today who are every bit as important in our time as Einstein, Newton and Darwin were in their day. Stephen Hawking, perhaps the most brilliant astrophysicist of all time, is a pioneer of theoretical physics and cosmology and is most famous for his study of black holes, bodies of matter so dense that their gravitational fields trap light itself inside. Neil deGrasse Tyson, another astrophysicist, is Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and one of the most effective communicators of science the world over. James Hansen and Michael Mann are two of the most preeminent climatologists of the past two decades who have not only uncovered the damage we are doing to the planet with excess CO2 production but have been instrumental in effecting policy and awareness for climate change. A list of other influential scientists of our day – James Watson, Jane Goodall, Marvin Lee Minsky – would be simply too long to mention.

Where does America absorb its science knowledge?

Who or what is to blame for the dizzyingly low science literacy in America? Is it reality TV, sports obsession, Hollywood? Take our news programming, for example, which is often entirely politically motivated exchanges, and the pundits and guests chosen to speak on scientific matters are usually not experts on the issues in question. Most sci-fi movies, while very entertaining, are inundated with pseudoscience, ranging from the implausible to the ridiculous. This has emanated a culture that is singularly obsessed with the paranormal; “everyday” science is just not as interesting.

Authentic depictions of science are typically isolated to niche networks and programming. Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and Mythbusters are notable examples of science-related programming, but can often be quite dumbed down in a way that causes the essence of the message to be lost. Hat tip to Sheryl for mentioning “The Big Bang Theory”, as it does a commendable job of altering the mainstream’s perception of science. The Science Channel produces high quality programming, but is not included in the default package of any pay-TV provider and thus does not reach the major portion of America to which this discussion applies.

As a reflection of America’s sentiments toward science, most pay-TV networks’ focus is not on relevant, valuable science, choosing instead to cater to the lowest common denominator. How many fishing programs will air before America takes note of the over-saturation? The latest season of BBC’s documentary Frozen Planet features an episode on climate change, an episode that was initially canceled for U.S. viewers because “Americans don’t believe in global warming” and “climate change is a sensitive issue during the presidential race”. This motion wasn’t rescinded until an outpouring of backlash against the Discovery Channel and its partners provoked a reversal of the decision.

We might also want to consider that science just doesn’t interest some people as it does others. This is perfectly acceptable, but science should still be disseminated in a way that reaches the mainstream. As Thomas Jefferson was keen to note, the most important element of a democracy is a well-informed electorate, and this seems to be a responsibility the media has all but abdicated. The opportunity for science enlightenment should be readily accessible. How can we best bridge the science literacy gap in America? In a nation so deeply infatuated with reality TV and sports, is there any place for science in mainstream media?

Enterprise for change

Just today, The Huffington Post launched an all-new Science section to the website (perhaps Arianna watched this video?), aiming to expose scientific news and opinion to a wider audience.

Kirshenbaum, a blogger herself, emphasizes the role social media can play in engendering interest and awareness of science matters. In fact, the absence of relevant science in mainstream media has relegated scientific discussion almost exclusively to the social networking sphere. For those who have a wide base of social connections, Google+, Facebook and online forums can serve as effective channels for engaging in science communication.

Kirshenbaum also notes a few initiatives in place that aim to break down the barriers between the science and mainstream communities. The Science & Entertainment Exchange and Imagine Science Films are two initiatives which pair filmmakers with scientists to inject a more accurate portrayal of science into cinema. This gives scientists a new and much larger stage in a format that is more accessible to the mainstream.

CERN recently paired with up-and-coming hip hop artist Kate McAlpine (aka alpinekat) and made a YouTube video to promote news on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest and most potent particle accelerator, located along the Franco-Swiss border in Europe.


Courtesy of CERN


With such a concise presentation, Kirshenbaum does not comment on science-conscious demographics outside the U.S. It would be interesting to see a breakdown, survey or discussion on how the U.S. stacks up next to other nations with regard to the authority science has and how much the population is exposed to science.

I’ll close with a quote by Albert Einstein which I think underscores the idea that science can and should be accessible to everyone, and it’s the duty of multiple communities working together to make high science literacy a reality.

Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.


External link: Sheril Kirshenbaum’s blog


  • Richard Hurtz

    Can you do a blog about the science behind running? Much appreciated! 🙂