This outstanding address was delivered by Barbara N Burkett PhD/Biology, on 12th April 2011, to Sigma Zeta (Honor Society for Mathematics and Science) / Beta Tau Chapter/ at Gardner – Webb University, North Carolina USA, on the occasion of its annual induction of new members.
Science Under Attack
Numerous surveys show that although the American public supports science and technology, it is increasingly confused about what science is and how scientists approach problem-solving. The public’s understanding of basic science lags well behind the rapid changes in scientific research. A survey conducted for the National Science Foundation (1) showed that more than two-thirds of Americans have only a vague understanding of how DNA, the stuff of heredity, functions. Only ten percent of us have even a limited understanding of radiation and how it affects the human body.
The recent disasters in Japan have heightened the fear and paranoia in the United States that this lack of knowledge generates. At this time in American history, anti-intellectualism is rampant; scientists often are described as “elitist.” If the public dislikes or disagrees with the facts of science, it directs blame at the scientists who tell them what they do not want to hear – what former Vice President Gore referred to as “inconvenient truths.”
I am a staunch apologist for science, but I also believe that scientists must share the blame for the public’s ignorance of basic science. Our failure to share the philosophy that guides our work is partly to blame for the current confusion and angst over issues such as evolution versus creationism/intelligent design* or global climate change. Even our common language, particularly words such as truth, fact, proof, and theory, divides us. That divide resembles what George Bernard Shaw must have had in mind when he commented that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”
The public tolerates our scientific jargon, but often chafes at the way we insist on using those four very familiar words, particularly “theory.” By explaining what science is and what marks its boundaries, and by defining some key terms, we can narrow the divide between scientists and the public. If we cannot agree on the contentious issues, we can at least defuse the heated debates, and promote greater understanding of what we do and how we approach problem-solving.
*Since these two terms describe the same concepts, I treat them as one. “Intelligent design” is a ploy to make creationism more palatable to those who are uncomfortable with creationism.