Science Literacy as Presidential Criterion

Of course. No one disagrees with the claim that a president of the United States must have a fundamental understanding of science (at least no one without a leaking head wound or blinding religious prejudices). Also, I get that Mr. Otto is writing a book and wants to tease it with lots of leading questions. But let’s just answer the simplest one so that at least it seems like this article gets exactly what about science someone needs to understand to succeed in today’s complicated world.

So what happens to Jefferson’s insight today, in a world dominated by complex science? Science influences every aspect of life, yet very few people have a good understanding of most science.  Is the ever-increasing burden of education that science places on the people making it hard for democracy to continue to function as a viable form of government?  And if it is, what’s the alternative?

The point I want to pick out is that it seems that Otto drags the reader to the conclusion that to understand science at all, you have to be a scientist. That’s simply not the case. In fact, its almost insultingly not the case. People like E.O. Wilson, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Neil deGrasse Tyson have all argued that the fundamentals are what count: understanding the scientific method, the meaning of theory and hypothesis, the concept of reserving judgment where evidence doesn’t exist, the humility of the cosmic perspective, the similiarities inherent in Earth’s biosphere (e.g. that humans and trees share a common ancestor).

From talking to my non-scientifically inclined relatives, the crux of the problem seems to be the arrogance inherent in antropocentrism and solipsism. For example, the idea that one’s favoring a particularly sports team affects that team losing in the playoffs – as my uncle claimed last night before the Capitals lost and “proved him right”.

How can we expect any better from our leaders while we participate in the most arrogant thoughts and beliefs about our world – that a cosmic grand-daddy bestows judgment and retribution, that kissing the roof of the car when you run a red light will protect you from cops, the belief in Karma, knocking on wood, horoscopes. The list goes on and these things are just some of the more outrageous examples. However, these symptoms share a common disease – the very American disease that one’s own decisions affect and alter the mechanics of the universe.

If we want a better public understanding of science, let’s skip shoving chemistry and calculus down the public’s collective throat and go straight for a healthy dose of humility about just how small and irrelevant we are.

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