Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Educating the non-scientific public about science

Liza Gross, Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology, PLoS Biology, May 2006. This article isn't about OA but it has implications for OA. Excerpt:
Jon D. Miller, who directs the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University Medical School,...has devoted his 30-year career to studying public understanding of science and technology and its implications for a healthy democracy....Since 1979, he says, the proportion of scientifically literate adults has doubled --to a paltry 17%. The rest are not savvy enough to understand the science section of The New York Times or other science media pitched at a similar level. As disgracefully low as the rate of adult scientific literacy in the United States may be, Miller found even lower rates in Canada, Europe, and Japan --a result he attributes primarily to lower university enrollments. Scientific literacy doesn't call for a deep understanding of Maxwell's equations or Hardy–Weinberg equilibrium, but it does require a general understanding of basic scientific concepts and the nature of scientific inquiry....One-third of Americans think evolution is “definitely false”; over half lean one way or another or aren't sure. Only 14% expressed unequivocal support for evolution --a result Miller calls “shocking.”...

Given the partisan attack on evolution and stem-cell research, he thinks scientists need to learn more about how the political process works. They need to be willing to run for the school board, write $500 or even $5,000 checks to support moderate candidates, and defeat Christian right-wing candidates. “Scientists need to become involved in partisan politics and to oppose candidates who reject evolution or attack scientific research,” he says. “It takes time, money, and paying attention to the issues.”...And as Miller's research shows, when you get away from the religiously charged issues, there is an even greater opportunity to increase scientific literacy....When Americans are diagnosed with cancer or some other life-threatening disease, “the vast number of these people go online and learn more science in the next 12 months than a typical undergraduate will ever learn. It is impressive how much people can learn with the proper motivation. We need to get people to be savvy about how to find the information and make sense of it....There's a lot of work to be done for us to tell people what we do, why we do it, and why it's important....We in the scientific community have to treat them seriously, talk to them, and make our arguments. This is a great opportunity for us.”

Comment. My question is, What role can open access play in this? I'm not so optimistic as to think that simply making primary science easily available online will do much to foster scientific literacy and scientific knowledge among non-scientists, let alone convert creationists to evolutionists. Easy access completes the puzzle when there is antecedent interest and background, and we need help from teachers, journalists, and politicians to create that interest and background. For the same reason, however, I'm not so pessimistic as to think that OA will make no difference.

There are two mistakes to avoid here. One is to think that OA has no role to play in helping non-scientists understand science. We can call this the Royal Society mistake, after the RS's recent report on educating lay readers about science that doesn't even mention OA. The other mistake is to think that the overriding purpose of OA is to educate lay readers. No OA advocates believe this, but some publisher-opponents of OA either believe it or pretend to believe it in order set it up as a straw man and knock it down. (The most recent example is the American Society of Human Genetics, as quoted in the NYTimes for May 8.) To avoid both mistakes we have to accept that the problem and solution are both complicated. OA will play a role in public education about science --it's neither irrelevant nor sufficient-- and the size of that role is up to all of us.