Saturday, February 15, 2014

Scientific illiteracy in elected officials

A chapter from INTELLIGENT DESIGNER: EVOLUTION FOR POLITICIANS, available from, as well as from kindle, nook, and
14. Why is scientific literacy of such importance?
. . . I wonder whether we may not envisage modernity rather as an attitude than as a period of history.  And by “attitude” I mean a mode of relating to contemporary reality . . .
—Michael Foucault (What is Enlightenment?)
Literacy in general, not just scientific, is of profound importance to any civilized society, or, for that matter, to any civilization that is to sustain itself in a particular environment. Of course “literacy” can refer to any domain of information, so that in truly primeval societies such as African Pygmies or the western New Guinea highlands Ndani, the ability to read and interpret signs in the forest is just as important as an ability to read street signs or graffiti marking gang territory boundaries would be to an urban American. But scientific literacy is a special kind of literacy because it addresses our relationships with the natural world on a grand scale, and these relationships with nature are crucial ones because Earth is the only planet known to support human life, and we are humans. Now, having said that, I admit that vast numbers of people believe that this planet is doomed to obliteration, that Earth is only a temporary home for our bodies, that our spirits will live for Eternity in some far off place, and so whatever actions we take here and now are not really very important in the long term. History suggests, however, and fairly strongly, that such thinking makes truly bad foreign and economic policy.
Widespread scientific literacy is crucial to the welfare of any so-called developed nation for several reasons. First, most such nations are heavily armed, and in the Third Millennium, armaments are fairly sophisticated machines. That is, they are built using technology derived from our understanding of substances and forces present throughout the universe and built in accordance with various scientific principles. We can believe in Heaven but faith alone cannot direct a missile to its correct target; instead of faith, we need computers, software, sensors, explosives, propellant mixtures, transportation, electronic communications, and highly trained people, all products of a scientific enterprise. If we are at war, science allows us to aim our weapons at the enemy instead of at ourselves. And if we view war, and the potential for war, as a major economic engine, as we obviously do in the United States, then basic science to support technological development is crucial to a large segment of our economy.
Scientific literacy also is vital to a developed nation because so many of our public policies, especially ones having economic impacts, are linked to management of natural phenomena. Good examples of this relationship include water allocation, crop subsidies, energy resource development and utilization, natural disaster preparedness, the provision of health care, flood plain designations, and zoning. There may be public debate over “environmental issues,” but in the end Mother Nature will decide how much rain to deliver and when to deliver it, how much corn can be produced on an acre of Iowa farm land, and whether to bash New Orleans into oblivion or break San Francisco off the country and dump it into the Pacific Ocean. So “debate over environmental issues” really translates into a contest between what we know and understand about the way nature works and what we want to have happen. In other words, scientific literacy shapes the contest between reality and desire.
This contest between reality and desire is perhaps the most important reason of all for a nation’s citizens to be, on the average, scientifically literate. Scientists have a certain mindset, one that is governed by evidence, observation, and technology, and in which interpretations or conclusions are always subject to modification based on additional information. In the vast majority of cases, this scientist’s approach to his or her profession carries over into everyday life outside the laboratory. Scientists certainly are not alone in exhibiting this particular type of behavior; artists, attorneys, and physicians, indeed virtually all of us, tend to view the world through lenses shaped by our professions. But we need to remember the fundamental nature of science: an exploration of the universe using falsifiable assertions as the primary working tool, assertions that are developed within the context of a general explanatory theory.
This basic nature of the scientific enterprise generates some rules about evidence used to support assertions. Put bluntly, the scientific mindset demands falsifiable assertions and observations that will test those assertions. Scientists typically heap scorn on unfalsifiable assertions, good examples of which can be found daily in American political discourse and indeed throughout American domestic policy of the Third Millennium. Scientists are equally scornful of assertions for which the supporting evidence is exceedingly flimsy, borderline unattainable, or subject to severe sampling flaws. Some such assertions are so burdened with ideological baggage that studies to test them, while technically possible, are not always politically possible. Again, our public political discourse provides ample illustrations of such assertions. Here are a few familiar ones:
(1) Abstinence-only sex education in public schools will significantly reduce sexual activity among teenage children, unwanted pregnancy, the incidence of sexually transmitted disease, and abortion.
(2) A combination of standardized testing and threatened punishment for low performance on such tests will significantly improve the levels of math and science literacy among American school children, especially the most disadvantaged ones.
(3) Reducing taxes for the wealthier Americans will improve the economic status of all Americans.
(4) Some kind of a national health care program will bring economic ruin to the United States.
(5) Prescription drugs purchased in Canada are a public health hazard.
(6) Elimination of prayer in public schools leads to moral decay of the nation.
(7) Hollywood is eroding American moral fiber with its never-ending supply of sex and violence.
            This list could be longer, and with a little bit of effort, any American could add to it just by reading the newspaper or listening to the radio. Thus we are besieged with assertions that seem to be congruent with our internal logic yet to the scientific mind fail for all the above mentioned reasons. A good example of such an assertion might be: “If we ‘teach’ abstinence then teens will be abstinent.” Inadequacy of data, which reflects mostly an inability to actually obtain relevant data, probably tops the list of reasons for scientific scorn. Assertions that cannot be tested because we can’t actually design the studies and get the appropriate numbers can be highly effective political weapons, but these weapons tend to be used on members of the society that develops them instead of on enemies, perceived or real. We turn our arguments upon ourselves and the fact that they cannot be scientifically evaluated means they never go away.
As an example of an untestable assertion, consider the abstinence education assertion mentioned above. To test it, we would need several experimental groups (carefully matched economically and demographically), and several control groups (not taught anything about sex), just to start a truly legitimate scientific study. Modern studies involving humans all require approval by oversight committees, usually ones associated with medical schools, and such approval involves informed consent waivers that in turn require either adult status or parental signatures. Imagine some scientist coming into a PTA meeting to inform assembled parents of middle school children about this study and its design. In essence, you’d be telling these parents: we’re going to teach abstinence to some of your kids but not others. Then we’ll measure sexual activity. You now have an explanation why this assertion about the effects of abstinence education is essentially untestable. After-the-fact surveys, however, provide a sort of test, and this sample assertion (= hypothesis) is generally conceded to be rejected. In other words, abstinence-only sex education classes don’t have any observable long term effect on teenage pregnancy rates (
In general, survey data usually are at least somewhat indicative of attitudes and resulting social change, but tend to be highly variable in “quality.” That is, such data are subject to bias arising from ignorance, improperly phrased questions, inadequate sampling strategies, and population traits hidden from people conducting the survey. These potential failings support a professional polling industry, the Gallup International organization being a prime example ( Survey design professionals try to write questions that are self-validating, reveal specific attributes, and minimize emotional impact. In other words, if you are contacted by someone being paid to collect survey data, and if you are willing to answer the questions, you are very likely to be asked as many as twenty, and sometimes up to fifty, questions about how likely you are to exhibit some kind of behavior, with responses limited to phrases such as “very likely,” “somewhat likely,” “somewhat unlikely,” and “not likely.” The behavior can range from voting for a certain candidate to buying a certain service or product. Among the questions, however, will probably be some internally-validating ones. Thus if you answer a particular question with “very likely,” you will probably also answer the internal validation question the same way, assuming you are telling the pollster the truth about your experiences, attitudes, or behaviors.
A scientifically literate citizen understands, or at least appreciates, the variability inherent in study design, the range of reliability of data on social issues, and the ideology built in to assertions by politicians. A scientifically literate citizen always asks first about evidence that a particular assertion will be, or has been, true. One excellent example of an assertion that probably should have been subject to close scrutiny typically reserved for peer reviews of scientific studies was Public Law 107-110, otherwise known as the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The assertion (= testable hypothesis) was this one: “A combination of standardized testing and threatened punishment for low performance on such tests will significantly improve the levels of math and science literacy among American school children, especially the most disadvantaged ones.”
Any teacher knows that this testable hypothesis is actually a formula for derailing an educational system that might be doing about as well as could be expected, given the resources, level of parental involvement, and economic status of students’ families. Thus if you’re threatened with punishment because of low standardized test scores, you teach to the test. If you’re required by law to report performance by student category, then you divert human resources into reporting. As any scientist could have predicted, the main result of NCLB legislation was a booming statistics industry and a generation of students, and their teachers, who are far more concerned with the answer to a particular question than with acquisition of transferable skills such as reading, writing well, and understanding quantitative issues in the public realm (taxing practices, interest rates, public indebtedness, real costs of military action, etc.).
Scientific literacy, like visual and other forms of literacy, influences a citizen’s views about, and actions relative to, public policy and behavior of elected officials. Scientifically literate people tend to adopt positions, on public policy, that reflect an understanding of all factual information available. Sometimes religious or other beliefs shape opinions, but scientifically literate people recognize this influence and understand when they are acting out of personal belief, even if that belief overrides rationality. The national debate over stem cell research exemplifies this situation beautifully, and the State of Nebraska, of all places, with its elected University of Nebraska Board of Regents and heavily-Catholic constituency, provides the clearest illustration of the role played by science, or non-science, in this political conflict. Because of its clarity and simplicity, the Nebraska case is worth exploring in detail.
The University of Nebraska Board of Regents has eight voting members, elected by districts and serving six-year terms. A complete description of this board and its duties can be found on the web site: The institution they are elected to govern includes units ranging from a vocational agriculture campus in Curtis, Nebraska, to the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) in Omaha, the latter a sprawling, expanding, and well-funded behemoth a few blocks away from another well-funded behemoth, Creighton Medical Center, the latter supported by the Catholic Church. Omaha is at least 65% Catholic and Lincoln, where the main—that is, football-playing—campus (UNL) resides, has one of the nation’s most belligerently conservative bishops. The fall, 2008, elections saw a battle for a Regents’ position between Earl Scudder, a middle-aged, highly knowledgeable, broadly-educated, and experienced attorney, former president of the UNL Parents Association, and Tim Clare, a young, very Catholic, attorney, son of Pat Clare, orthopedist and Husker football team physician. Clare’s campaign focused on two issues: in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants, which he played up far beyond its financial importance, and stem cell research at the Medical Center. Naturally he was against both.
Both issues, it turns out, were covered by existing laws, regulations, and policies, but Clare evidently was convinced, and probably correctly so, that the University could, if it so desired, add to those laws and regulation. The assertion that illegal immigrants were costing the state significant amounts of money because their children were given resident tuition at our colleges and universities was simply wrong, although it was played up as an outrageous insult to American sovereignty, maintained by a duped Board of Regents. The simple truth was that state law more than adequately covered this uncommon situation, and if some poor kid actually made it to the university, managed to graduate, obtain citizenship, and become a productive, tax-paying, citizen, then both the state and the nation would benefit.
The stem-cell research issue had long been resolved by a set of Regents-approved guidelines that were relatively restrictive and completely consistent with National Institutes of Health regulations, giving sperm and egg donors total control over the fate of their frozen embryos. As far as Nebraskans in general were concerned, the issue of whether and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) personnel should conduct research on stem cells was a forgotten issue. In the political realm, however, the phrase “stem cell research” has functioned very well as code for “killing babies.” Moreover, in the public mind, the term “research,” often conjures up images of Federal funds spent on meaningless arcane projects such as the evolution of flies. (Do a Google® search on “golden fleece award” for an historical account of such projects.) What [now] Regent Clare seemed to be promising the electorate was use of the power of his office to invalidate years of serious faculty and administrative work, eventually approved by a conservative Board, to tightly regulate politically sensitive areas of university activity. In other words, he reminded us of what we’d already accomplished, and rekindled a settled issue, one settled by extreme professionalism on the part of all concerned, for his own political gain.
It’s a little difficult to determine why people run for the office of University of Nebraska Regent, aside from the fact that they get football tickets in the press box with luxury, enclosed, seating, and trips to bowl games. The Board position is not very functional as a springboard for higher office, and once elected, an individual discovers very quickly that the work-to-glory ratio is much higher than originally envisioned and that one’s capacity to effect major changes in society is severely limited. Past Regents have been relatively diverse, although mostly conservative, some astonishingly so, and usually finish their terms feeling like they’ve performed a public service and that’s enough of that, regardless of the football tickets and bowl trips. For the record, as of this writing, the UNMC stem cell research policies and practices, and university system policies regarding resident tuition, along with the state law governing resident tuition, remain unchanged. Regent Clare has his tickets to athletic events, and as of the day I am writing this paragraph, a pretty good chance of attending a bowl game somewhere warm in the middle of the Nebraska winter.
What does this example, involving a relatively minor election in a relatively unpopulated state have to tell us about the nation’s scientific literacy and its importance? The answer is: quite a bit, although I’m sure with a little bit of searching, anyone could find a dozen or more equally useful scenarios as reported in the media. The illegal immigrant and instate tuition issue probably is the more glaring case of public illiteracy in action. State law provides resident public college and university tuition for any immigrant who has lived in Nebraska for three years, graduated from a state high school, and declared his/her intent to become an American citizen. The number of such individuals applying for admission to Nebraska public colleges and universities is relatively small, although in states with similar laws, for example, California, the number is likely much higher, and because out-of-state tuition in California is so high, the financial impact is substantial.
What’s missing in this highly simplified discussion is the intangible benefit of a young person graduating from high school with an education adequate to support an application for admission to college, then following that graduation with actual attendance at college. Presumably, subsequent graduation from a college or university prepares one for a job, or a career, with a regular (taxable) paycheck, a desire to purchase real estate, and a rather extensive list of life-long expenditures of the type that support a healthy economy: groceries, clothes, automobiles, services of all kinds, insurance, travel, and, ultimately, college tuition for children. This social/economic trajectory is, in the vast majority of cases, accompanied by successful application for citizenship.
Is the alternative to this “American Dream” scenario a life of drugs and crime? Not necessarily, but then it doesn’t take very many drug pushers and street gangs to cancel out the economic benefits of one well-employed, law-abiding, tax-paying citizen. A scientifically literate person, unafraid of numbers, might easily conclude that there are plenty of cases in which public policy that offends an individual, and seems quite counter to the tenets of Christian morality, does in fact work for the common good. Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of books addressing social issues, is an excellent source of examples. For one such case, see “Million-dollar Murray: Why Problems like Homelessness may be Easier to Solve than to Manage,” (The New Yorker, Feb. 13, 2006). The bottom line is that the law enforcement costs of dealing with this one individual far outweighed the cost of a treatment and supervision program. Similar data exist for needle exchange programs (do a Google® search using “needle exchange program”).
In the end, the main question for a scientifically literate person is: which is more important to a civilized society, solution to a costly social problem or adherence to my personal beliefs about individual behavior and responsibility? Ideally, these two factors match and public policy that reflect my personal code of moral behavior, supported by religious documents and practices, does in fact solve the costly social problem. A scientifically literate person, however, says “good luck; don’t bet the family farm that this will happen, and certainly don’t bet the farm that your personal religious beliefs make the best public policy for a highly complex, technology-dependent, society.”

Go to and search on "Janovy" for e-books on science and religion, including TEN MINUTE ECOLOGIST and CONVERSATIONS BETWEEN GOD AND SATAN.