Saturday, December 11, 2010

Life Lines 74


I thought it would be helpful to prepare a series of Life Lines articles on the sciences that directly applies to issues of importance to us. I do so because science literacy is appallingly low. In a study in Europe, 40 percent of adults did not know that tomatoes contain genes. They thought genes were artificial and introduced into genetically modified foods; natural foods being gene free. This misunderstanding comes about because science is poorly taught, science is not taught, or society in general looks upon science as so specialized as to be irrelevant to their concerns as citizens. This public ignorance of science is just as bad in the United States. I would argue that this phobia against science is dangerous to our health, threatens our survival, and leads to an impoverished view of the universe as well as how we see ourselves. The ten topics I will present are:
• Cancer arises from a single cell and takes decades to produce symptoms
• Radiation causes two types of changes in chromosomes, both no good
• Our minds are a product of our neurons
• Some chemicals produce birth defects by damaging the embryo
• How one things leads to another—the germ theory produced population increases which produced the birth control movement which produced an aging population
• How genetic services enable parents to reject fatalism in their lives
• How science helps the infertile to have children
• Why biological diversity involves more than loss of exotic species
• Climate change has both natural and human contributions
• Global awareness is needed for our stewardship of the earth we live in

I will conclude the series with a number of recommendations about science teaching at the K-12 and undergraduate college level as well as some recommendations about how science can be more effectively presented by our media.

I believe science ignorance is too dangerous for the highly technical world in which we live. When we rely on luck, superstition, prejudice, shallow values, or a trust that our legislators and leaders are knowledgeable we invite a Pandora’s box of troubles. Ignorant and fanatic people can use the tools of science to do great harm. Unfortunately, even people of good will if they have a very limited understanding of science, may contribute to abuse of their own bodies and the world we live in. This is as true of conservatives as it is of liberals, of Republicans or Democrats, or of the rich or the poor. We do not have to be a nation of scientists, but we should know some of the ways science works in the same way most of us know Shakespeare was a playwright, Mozart was a composer, Picasso was a painter, Thomas Jefferson was our President, pizza is an Italian food, Tiger Woods plays golf, and Marilyn Monroe was an actress. We can appreciate the arts and humanities without being creative in any of those fields. If science is properly presented in the context of the liberal arts, it can be assimilated by most of humanity.

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