Save us from anti-science

September 13, 2010

News of a conference affirming that the Sun goes round the Earth is a depressing reminder of a poll from 1996 which found that a third of people (33%) in the UK didn’t know that the Earth goes round the Sun (as reported on the Gallup website – although I have not yet found a link to the original poll data).

Gallup repeated the poll in the US three years later, with improved results: four people out of five (79%) gave the correct answer.

I’m not sure whether to be encouraged or depressed by the findings. While the ignorance of a third of the adult population is cause for concern, perhaps – in this era of anti-science –  we should be relieved it isn’t higher. After all, the Guardian reported last year that half of adults in the UK didn’t believe the theory of evolution (or were confused about it), and a dispiriting one in five believed some form of creationism. The same poll also found that people aged 18-24 were most likely to believe in creationism and least likely to believe in atheistic evolution.

One has to wonder to what extent the rise in faith schools has contributed to this conflation of the religious and the scientific – but that’s for another time.

What is of immediate interest is the rise in a fashionable anti-science standpoint which seems to me to be born out of a lack of curiosity about the world around us. It is a return to an era when views were formed a priori based on how the universe should be, rather than formed from evidence based on how the universe actually is. Admittedly, many today probably adhere to the former camp out of indolence rather than philosophical conviction, but the end result is the same – a distorted and impoverished picture of reality.

Educators, and journalism educators in particular, should be strengthening the role of science as a foundation of mutual understanding – as the lingua franca of rationality – as opposed to the rise in muddled spirituality which obscures rather than illuminates our shared humanity.

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