Friday, August 23, 2013

Science Education

I see so many cases of scientific misinformation and errors on TV, in the press and in advertising that I think it would be a good idea for someone or some organization (perhaps a university or  Consumer Protection Agency) to provide high school science teachers with a set of weekly topics.  The thrust would be how to protect yourself against fraud and misinformation – how people will try to use your lack of understanding of science to mislead, trick and cheat you.  If you don't understand science, no one will help you.

Here is a shocking example from a newspaper report from earlier this year (May 7, 2013) showing how sloppy journalists can be about science.  Dateline Cape Canaveral, “Two robotic U.S. rovers are back in business on Mars after a month long solar blackout that blocked communications with engineers back on Earth [due to] a solar conjunction [when the] sun in early April moved into an orbit directly between Earth and Mars, interfering with communications between the planets."  [Emphasis added].  Really?  The sun moved into an orbit between the planets?  Didn’t the columnist or his editor know better?  This is scary - reporting based on 15th Century science.  With this in mind, how much other, more damaging, bad information is passed along through the sloppiness or ignorance of the press? 

Many subjects, some covered in these posts over the past two years, would be helpful to young adults to keep them from wasting their time and money or becoming unnecessarily panicked.  Suggested topics include:  the placebo effect, pros and cons of dietary supplements, what to look for in properly designed experiments or tests for effectiveness, genetic engineering of food, the pros and cons of organic farming, a brief history of diet scams, the truth about vaccines and autism, fluoride in drinking water, understanding irradiated food, and common scientific myths.  Without an understanding of these subjects along with training in critical thinking as part of a science education, future generations will be vulnerable to deceptive advertising and the pleas from advocates for every crackpot idea that comes along.

What will happen when they step into high school chemistry class and find out that everything in the universe is made of chemicals and that "chemical" is not a bad word, nor is it the opposite of natural or organic – ideas that seem contrary to what they've encountered from family and the media?  It has almost come to the point where science is being replaced by religion in the public mind, not a standard religion, but a new quasi-religion where the truth is based more on what you believe or believe in than what can be scientifically tested.  Unless this behavior changes Americans will continue to waste money and energy supporting products and services backed only by scientific-sounding arguments and celebrity endorsements.  Let's change it early, before another generation is taken in.

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