Has the U.S. Become an Anti-Scientific Nation?

On Sunday night our book club met to discuss Richard Dawkins’ Greatest Show on Earth. While I had a bit of difficulty with his style of writing, the data Dawkins presents in explication and support of evolution is exhaustive. Even with such overwhelming evidence, he reports that a full 44% of Americans surveyed in 2008 do not believe that evolution occurred. They deny the fact that all life forms on earth, including humans, descended from some common ancestor; Dawkins calls them 44% ‘history-deniers.’

On Saturday night, we finally saw Avatar. Among the themes explored in this movie was the strong prejudice that exists today against science and scientists. Technology…the practical outcome of scientific endeavor… is valued. Everyone on that space settlement was a technician of some sort. But the science that got them there and the science allowing the use of real avatars was denigrated by the majority.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about behavioral health professionals use of evidence based treatments. Behavioral health professionals and psychologists in particular are generally well-trained scientists, having a good understanding of the scientific method plus training in critical judgement of research. One goal of this education is to choose the soundest methods of providing care. And yet, large numbers of psychologists indicate that they do what they “believe” is best for their clients rather than what scientific research indicates is likely to provide the most effective course of treatment.

Numerous writers and commentators have bemoaned the state of science education in this country. At one time the U.S. was generally regarded to be the place to get the best education in science. Students from across the world came to the U.S. to study. Some stayed, some returned to their home lands to teach others. A 2007 article in the Christian Science Monitor ranked U.S. high school students 29th in the world in science literacy. While others would argue this figure, the common perception is that we have slipped as a nation in our interest in, and understanding of, science.

Simultaneously, we have become technology addicts. I would venture to say that many young people who are technology drones have never really thought about the science that went into creating the devices they cannot live without. Nor do they care that they do not know about the science. Just make sure that they continue to have access to their toys and to the technological infrastructure that supports them.

I believe this trajectory puts us as a nation in a very vulnerable position. Technological innovations are only one aspect of scientific endeavors. The knowledge gained from pure science is one of the things that keeps me most in touch with my creativity and my humanity. Take a listen sometime to Science Friday, an NPR program and podcast that weekly explores a whole variety of science topics and themes. It is impossible for me to listen to more than two or three of these shows without coming away with a book I want to read. I referenced one of these shows in my article on Evidence Based Treatment.

Those who provide behavioral health care services are unlikely to find the bulk of their work taken over by technology. There will be technologies that facilitate treatment and technologies that become treatments, but the bulk of human services will still be provided by humans. Assuring that we are good scientists, or at least can judge when a study is good science, is a worthwhile goal for behavioral health providers of every stripe.

How do you rate our science literacy? Are you interested in or bored to tears by science? Do you see science as relevant to your life…as a human being or as a provider of services?

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