Scientific illiteracy is not the tragedy of our times

Maya J. Goldenberg challenges the role of science in policy debates.


In a recent television appearance on Australia’s Monday Night Q&A, the eminent scientist and science communicator Neil Degrasse Tyson claimed that scientific illiteracy is “a tragedy of our times”. This remark was aimed at climate change deniers and other graduates of the University of Google who vocally challenge the scientific consensus on pressing science-based policy issues like climate change, vaccines, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Their outlandish claims then receive unwarranted consideration and sometimes acceptance by members of the public with poor science education.

Government leaders have been concerned for decades about the limits that public misunderstanding of science places on modern Western societies’ economic competitiveness and growth. Despite political investment in scientific literacy, especially in K-12 education, many politicians are rightly criticized (by Tyson among others) for abusing science to meet political ends. In Canada, for instance, environmental science research has been severely tethered so as to protect the leadership’s oil sands-intensive economic plan.

Public surveying by the National Science Board and the Australian Academy of Science indicate that public scientific competencies leave much to be desired (although Canada is doing fine!). Yet the popular view held by Tyson and many others—that scientific illiteracy is the root of public resistance to scientific claims—is false. That is, science scepticism is not rooted in poor scientific education.

book-168824_640Whether I know that an atom is smaller than a molecule or how long it takes for the earth to go around the sun (to borrow two typical questions from the National Science Board and Australian Academy of Science surveys of scientific literacy) bears little on my ability to evaluate the claims made regarding reviving cod populations in Atlantic Canada or protecting health by vaccinating school-aged children against Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Instead, there is a specialized knowledge and “interactional expertise” required to properly evaluate the scientific claims being made by science advisory boards and expert panels. Those of us who are not part of the community of scientists addressing the science-based policy issues of our time must place trust in the scientific experts and/or governing bodies who we hope and understand are working in the public interest.

But trusting those experts and governing bodies is sometimes difficult, due to well-documented past incidences of research misconduct like fraud and plagiarism, unethical treatment of human and animal subjects, and financial conflicts of interest. Unfortunately, vocalizing this mistrust in science will now get you accused of conspiracy theorizing. But the scientific experts’ and governing bodies’ checkered pasts strengthen the grounds for rationally held mistrust in them. We see that they are capable of acting against public interests and upholding the wrong values. This gets to the heart of public resistance to science.

It is not the science of science-based policy decisions that are dividing the publics, but the values at stake in contentious policy decisions. We know this because it is not uneducated people questioning vaccines while educated people lend full support. Similarly, disputes over climate science divide along political lines (progressive vs. conservative) rather than those who are educated and those who are not. Both sides of these disputes furiously point to the science to justify their claims, but the evidence serves as placeholders for the values that are on the line: individual liberties vs. common goods; medical progress vs. natural living; human innovation vs. environmental conservation; duties towards each other vs. duties towards future generations. None of these value disputes is easily settled and, importantly, none will be settled by the science.

This is not to say that the science is not important. Instead, science is forcefully leveraged in these disputes, and this requires careful attention. As Tyson laments, pundits routinely support the science that they believe promotes or protects the values that they hold dear. That science greatly dominates these contentious policy debates indicates that science is understood to offer a bipartisan means for justifying beliefs. This has powerful implications.

The misuse and abuse of science distracts us from giving proper political attention to gravely important social issues. Response to climate change requires immediate, accountable, and comprehensive social and political action. Insistent climate change denial is no more than a ruse guarding against the political responses to our environmental challenges that the deniers consider unacceptable.

Science, then, can make environmental controversies worse. It can be leveraged by both sides to shut down important democratic debate over the values underlying environmental controversies. Those values must be fully articulated and adjudicated through political means before science can play an effective role in resolving complex social problems. Science illiteracy, therefore, is not the problem of our time. The unwarranted belief that science will get us past politics may instead be the problem.


Maya J. Goldenberg is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Guelph in Canada. @maya_goldenberg

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