Friday, November 14, 2008

Give Me an S, Give Me a C, Give me an…

The Necessity of Science Literacy
How do modern day snake oil salesmen make millions selling over the counter weight loss pills, arthritis cures and memory enhancers? Why have so many research projects become political footballs? Why do we risk losing our competitive edge in science and engineering? Two reasons, I think. We’ve allowed science to be devalued – denigrated, even. And, because science doesn’t occupy its proper place in the hierarchy of our society, our capacity to separate the good from the bad – the junk science from quality science – is at a frightfully low level.

Remember the first court case involving the arthritis drug Vioxx(R)? The jury awarded $253 million to the plaintiff. It was reported that the case for Merck, the manufacturer, was lost well before the conclusion of all the testimony. “We didn’t know what the heck they were talking about,” a juror told The Wall Street Journal. (In an NPR interview, plantiff's attorney Mark Lanier noted that Merck learned from this expensive lesson and communicated successfully with subsequent juries "in an everyday way.")

This isn’t just some isolated event or some trivial issue. We’re all hurt by the generally poor public understanding of science and our uneven ability to communicate it. In a New York Times piece on science literacy, Jon D. Miller, director of the Center for Biomedical Communications at the Northwestern University Medical School said, “People’s inability to understand basic scientific concepts undermines their ability to take part in the democratic process.”

There are, of course, bright spots. I’m on the Board of the Southern Connecticut Science and Engineering Foundation and we’re gearing up again for the annual science fair that we sponsor. Over the last seven years, the fair has grown from half a dozen student participants to about 120. And more schools are joining in. Still, it hits me each year that we have to struggle to get local press coverage. How about showing the same pride for the student scientists as we do our student athletes?

By the way, our need for judges has grown also. So, if you’re in the neighborhood this February and would like to help inspire some terrific young scientists and engineers, let me know!

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