Is scientific literacy at risk of extinction?
By Natalie White, freelance writer and former reporter for the Standard-Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
[The complete article was published in the Spring 2011 issue of the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth Alumni and Friends Magazine]
Professors agree that creating a scientifically literate citizenry is key to the nation’s economic and social well-being…
Dr. Paz-y-Miño C. discussing scientific literacy and acceptance of evolution, photo Jennifer White 2011
Biology Professor Guillermo Paz-y-Miño C. points to the tented placard placed on the edge of his desk: Discussion Starter: Did you know that the US ranks 33rd in a list of 34 other countries where acceptance of evolution has been polled? Just 40% of Americans accept evolution. Dr. Paz-y-Miño C. thinks the data is a symptom of a nation lacking in scientific literacy and in danger of losing its innovation edge. The good news is that UMass Dartmouth students, thanks to a strategic approach by faculty like Paz-y-Miño C., are out-performing their peers on this measure.
“As a nation we are at the bottom. How could this have happened? How can we explain this? What can we do to fix it?” said Dr. Paz-y-Miño C., one among many UMass Dartmouth science professors working both on and off campus to increase scientific literacy as well as raise alarms about the scientific illiteracy of the nation. In ways small and large, UMass Dartmouth professors are reaching out to the public and to their students to bolster, not only the knowledge base for science, but also to build the support base for science, its findings and future.
The dismal U.S. showing is from an oft-quoted 2006 study on global acceptance of evolution first published in Science magazine (Miller et al. 2006. Public Acceptance of Evolution. Science, 313:765-6). Iceland ranked first, just above Denmark, Sweden, France, Japan and the United Kingdom. Only Turkey ranked lower than the United States which ranked 33rd among the other 34 countries.
Through his research, polls and newspaper columns, Dr. Paz-y-Miño C. has kick-started campus and community conversations about evolution, going back to the origins of the species. For the past few years, he has surveyed students and faculty at UMass Dartmouth regarding acceptance of evolution and expanded his research to other New England campuses…
Dr. Paz-y-Miño C., lecturing at UMass Dartmouth, photo D. Confar 2009
…Why scientific illiteracy? The reasons behind the science knowledge drop are complex, and observers point to everything from politics and religion to poverty and poor training of teachers. But the result has been a deep degradation of both the understanding of science as well as respect for science. The United States, once a scientific and technological leader, now lags behind other countries in science research, science knowledge and technological innovations.
“What we see now is the United States losing its edge. If we want the nation to be cutting edge, then that nation must value science and realize that science is intrinsically important and practically important for progress,” Dr. Paz-y-Miño C. said.
If the causes of scientific illiteracy are complicated, so too are the solutions, scientists throughout the nation agree, involving formal and informal education of legislators and society leaders, teachers and students from preschool through post-graduate and the general citizenry.
“We are losing ground in matters of accepting evolution and valuing science, and it is critical that we change this, or we are heading intellectually into revisiting the Dark Ages,” Dr. Paz-y-Miño C. said. He and others worry that “science stoppers”—creationism and intelligent design—are creeping into science education replacing science with pseudo-science. [Photo (above) by Jennifer White 2011]
…Conversation—at all levels—is the key to greater scientific literacy, said Dr. Paz-y-Miño C.
In addition to his research on attitudes toward evolution, and the revamping of university biology courses, he has also sought to engage the public with writings, most recently with newspaper opinion editorial pieces such as, “All History is Black History,” “A Stationary Ark on Isle of Jersey,” and “New England Professors Accept Evolution, But They Are Religious.”
The acceptance of evolution
Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño C., who has been studying attitudes toward evolution for several years, became particularly interested in the acceptance of evolution [at the college level] after the 2005 Kitzmiler v.s. Dover trial, a challenge brought in the United States court against a school system that required intelligent design be presented as an alternative to evolution.
The judge ruled against the school board, saying that intelligent design was essentially creationism in disguise and violated the constitutional separation between church and state. But the debate goes on, and evolution remains under fire. “It became evident that the court case would not be an isolated event, neither a resolved one,” said Dr. Paz-y-Miño C. “Creationism was back, with a new façade, and today we see the sequels of it in the numerous court litigations being addressed in the country.” He noticed that little attention had been paid to attitudes toward evolution among college students and their professors, which spurred him to more deeply explore these areas of research. He conducted his first campus survey in 2008 (see Figure below) and later expanded the studies to 35 New England Colleges and universities, collaborating with Dr. Avelina Espinosa, a professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. Their studies have been published in “Evolution, Education and Outreach.” [To access these studies visit Research Articles on Acceptance of Evolution].
“We need to be connected to society,” Dr. Paz-y-Miño C. said.
Acceptance of evolution at UMass Dartmouth (above): biology majors accept evolution as much as the highly educated New England faculty