Science literacy and government persuasion

Jean has a great comment on my recent post on science literacy:

There would seem to be a big difference between scientists doing civic outreach as part of their professional activity, and the federal government declaring that citizens ought to know more about science, and funding the “problem” of “illiteracy.” Isn’t it kind of strange for the government to be trying to *persuade* citizens of anything?–aside perhaps (as you say) to attach themselves to the values of the constitution? It would be seen as propaganda for the government to proselytize eating beef, joining unions or attending church services.

The question is whether scientific illiteracy really does constitute a “problem.”  If it does, then you can make the case that the government should be persuading us one way or the other.  After all, we are persuaded to eat healthy, avoid smoking, buy car (and now health!) insurance, etc.  At some point we have to draw a line between individual autonomy and collective welfare.  While there can be reasonable disagreement on where to draw the line, it will have to be drawn.

Two factors make scientific literacy a bit more complicated to discuss along these lines.  The examples above all have some supporting data.  We can concretely debate the costs and benefits of, e.g., anti-smoking legislation because we know health costs are reduced if people smoke less and we know that people will smoke less if cigarettes are taxed.  This information can help us make a subjective decision on whether or how much to regulate cigarettes.  With respect to science literacy, we often have nothing more than platitudes and assertions.  Consider the introduction of Project 2061’s Benchmarks for Science Literacy:

The terms and circumstances of human existence can be expected to change radically during the next human life span. Science, mathematics, and technology will be at the center of that change—causing it, shaping it, responding to it. Therefore, they will be essential to the education of today’s children for tomorrow’s world. [Emphasis added–PK]

Well sure science will be important in the future.  But so will global capitalism, religion, and international law.  Will science be more or less at the “center” than these? And how “essential” is science education compared to economics education? For all the emphasis given to empiricism , scientists have shockingly little data to bolster their general claims about science.  Without some data it’s harder to decide if science education should be included in the list of activities the government persuades us to do.

The second issue is that the government promotes science literacy in no small part because scientists agitate for them to do so.  The government is simply doing what governments everywhere do–responding to a group of active, engaged citizens.  If we agree (as Jean and I appear to) that civic activism is a good thing, then how can we not expect the government to have a disproportionate focus on science education?  After all, scientists are disproportionately active in this regard.  Perhaps we can argue scientists should not have as much influence as they do, or they should not reflexively promote scientific literacy.  But given that they do have influence and they do strongly promote science literacy, I don’t see how we can avoid the current situation.  You might even say that the government would be shirking (part of) its responsibilities if they didn’t respond to a passionate interest group.

Of course all this gets into the role of interest groups in American democracy.  For what it’s worth, I found this article in the New Yorker insightful.  But I really don’t want to get into all this too much because I’m manifestly not qualified to do so.  It would also break my personal promise to not blog about traditional politics.  My banner should really read “Thoughts on science policy and science politics” rather than “science, policy and politics.”  I’ll fix that sometime when I figure out a more elegant phrasing!

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