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This newspaper editor knows how important science is

October 20, 2014

In this information age, where Professor Google has become the expert of choice, being scientifically literate is an essential life skill. It is as important as reading and writing.

Sydney Morning Herald editorial, 20 October, 2014

At a time when the Murdoch media are focused on bullying scientists who won’t come round to the empire’s way of thinking, it’s good to know that there are newspaper editors around who are not only intelligent, but have a lot of integrity. I refer particularly to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald who today published one of the most lucid and timely articles I’ve seen about the importance of science and the state of scientific literacy in the general population. Here’s some of the text:

Science the benchmark of an educated society


Last week Treasurer Joe Hockey denied Australia is the highest greenhouse gas emitting country in the OECD per capita, despite evidence to the contrary.

In August, Liberal politician Eric Abetz repeated an unfounded link between women who have had an abortion and breast cancer while being interviewed on prime time TV.

Meanwhile, highly influential Tony Abbott supporter Maurice Newman continues to deny the globe is warming.

While the scientific ignorance associated with each of these events is disturbing in its own right, the trend among some of the nation’s most powerful political and business leaders to deny or ridicule scientific evidence is alarming.

Given the role science and technology must play in understanding and developing solutions to many of society’s most pressing challenges – climate change, Ebola, famine, water scarcity – what sort of messages are our leaders sending the rest of the world?

What sort of message are they sending impressionable young Australians who, in classrooms around the country, are being introduced to the idea of scientific reasoning?

Science is more than just a body of facts or theories. It’s more than a long list of formulas and elements on the periodic table.

Science provides a way of thinking. It encourages a healthy dose of skepticism and offers a guide on how to evaluate false claims made by politicians, advertisers, business, and almost anyone selling anything.

Scientists aren’t the only ones who need to know how to spot pseudoscience – think of popular diets and therapies such as paleo, clean eating, superfoods and homeopathy.

In this information age, where Professor Google has become the expert of choice, being scientifically literate is an essential life skill. It is as important as reading and writing.

Scientific thinking is central to almost everything we do, and yet to many outside the fraternity it’s seen as exotic. This problem is not new.

In his 1956 essay titled Two Cultures, CP Snow, a chemist and a writer, observed that society’s intelligentsia described a person who had not read War and Peace as uneducated. But, if Snow had asked those same people another question,  “Can you the describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics?” the scientific equivalent of asking “Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s”,  he doubted many would have known the answer.

Had he asked an even simpler question: “what is mass?”,  the scientific equivalent of “Can you read?” not one in 10 of these highly educated people would have responded appropriately, he guessed.

Six decades on and how many people could answer those same questions if asked today?

Skills in critical thinking can be acquired through other areas of study, the humanities, languages and the arts, but the consequences of being scientifically illiterate as a nation or an individual are profound.

It is important for well-being to understand the science on vaccination, smoking, alcohol and obesity.

Every Australian has an equal vote so a healthy democracy needs citizens who understand the science on issues such as nanotechnology, stem cells, GM crops, coal seam gas and climate change. The Herald accepts the overwhelming evidence on human-induced global warming.

And while scepticism against dodgy claims and pseudoscience is one thing, crusading against science misses the point entirely.

The Herald will continue its campaign for greater respect for science as an essential part of a stronger economy and a better society.

We need to hold scientific literacy as a benchmark of an educated nation, the same way reading and writing are deemed a right of every man, woman and child.

Read the original at the Sydney Morning Herald.

Further reading

Trusting the science

One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on AmandaQuirky and commented:
    A change of pace, for my blog; today, I thought I’d share a blog post on science, and its importance in our everyday lives. The reason I’m sharing someone else’s post, and not writing my own, is because I’m new to this 🙂 As far as having scientific knowledge or experience goes, I’m a newbie with less than 2 years of university-level study under my belt. But I am learning. I am getting better at separating the wheat from the chaff, with regards to science vs. pseudoscience, evaluating scientific studies, etc… and this article explains (better than I would) why it’s important for me to continue improving.

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