The Dangers of Scientific Illiteracy
It's frightening how common scientific ignorance is among politicians.
Posted April 28, 2017
The dangers of scientific illiteracy cannot be stated strongly enough. Yet, unfortunately, we live a world of dramatic and potentially incendiary clashes between scientific facts and ignorant opinions.
Part of this conflict stems from not understanding the difference between the word "theory" when it is used in every day language, and when it is used in a scientific manner. The confusion arises because when used in a non-scientific context the word "theory" implies that something is unproven and rests on a foundation of guesses, intuition, speculation, hunches, or pure faith. But when used in a scientific context, a theory is an explanatory framework based on observation, experimentation, and replication of results that helps in understanding and predicting phenomena.
So, for instance, we have a theory of gravity and a theory of evolution. These are not unproven guesses, hunches, speculation, or opinions. If you don't believe me, just step off a roof.
Similarly, remember the polio outbreak or smallpox epidemic? Well, neither do I — BECAUSE OF VACCINATIONS! (Some of you might be old enough to remember the devastation of polio and Dr. Jonas Salk's revolutionizing and life saving scientific efforts that led to the polio vaccine.) Similarly, I would posit that just about everyone reading this post owes his or her life to science and the medical breakthroughs it produced (e.g., sterile technique and antibiotics).
The epic conflict between empirical science and emotional reasoning (or pure faith) has been raging for centuries. One famous example is that of Galileo Galilei. In the early 1600's, his telescopic observations of the solar system allowed him to empirically confirm the earlier view of Nicolaus Copernicus that the planets orbited the sun rather than placing the earth, unmoving, at the center of the cosmos. Not surprisingly, this did not impress the Pope and other members of the Roman Catholic Church who condemned Galileo for heresy because he not only questioned the dogma of the church, but published irrefutable evidence of his conclusions.
Fortunately, rather than being burned at the stake (a common practice when people were accused of heresy, or, for that matter, were merely poor souls suffering from mental illness), Galileo was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life and forced to retract his "blasphemous" claim about the heavens. This relatively positive outcome was in part due to the wisdom of Cardinal Baronius, a predecessor of Galileo, who said, "The Bible tells us how to go to Heaven not how the heavens go."
Most alarmingly, we live in age of rampant scientific illiteracy that is not limited to disadvantaged and uneducated people. Rather, it seems to be the prevailing world view of our very affluent, highly educated elected officials and reaches all the way to the White House.
Ironically, the same scientific enlightenment that led to breakthroughs that ushered in the industrial, medical, and technological revolutions are now being questioned and discredited by our country's leaders. Yet it is that very scientific process that has allowed them to live long, healthy, prosperous lives, and, in many cases, acquire tremendous wealth and power.
In Galileo's time, denying and suppressing scientific realities meant only that church dogma could be preserved. Today, the stakes are much, much higher.
When our leaders cannot understand the difference between a casual "theory" and a scientific one; when they base their policy decisions on feelings instead of facts (actual facts, not "alternative facts" because a real fact is arrived at precisely because the alternatives have been disproven); when they operate based on opinions and preconceptions rather than verifiable evidence; and when they enact laws based on pure faith instead of rationality and reason; nothing good will result.
Indeed, the likely outcome of this kind of regressive, ignorant leadership and anti-scientific governance will be at best the deterioration of our once great country into educational, socioeconomic and environmental ruin. What's worse, the health of our nation's citizens will decline along with access to potentially life saving and revolutionary medical innovations, and virulent, once contained, viruses and bacteria will resurface causing devastating epidemics.
To avert this dystopian future, we need leaders who navigate more with the compass of scientific reason and rationality than with the map of ignorance and opinions.
In my view, it would be helpful if high ranking elected officials were required to pass a basic intelligence test, mental health screening, and demonstrate at least a 12th-grader's grasp of science. Perhaps that would be a good step on the path to intelligent and responsible leadership. Who knows? It might even "make America great again."
Remember: Think well, Act well, Feel well, Be well!
Copyright 2017 Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.
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This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional assistance or personal mental health treatment by a qualified clinician.