By Jaclyn Lipp
A leading scholar on the topic of scientific literacy points to an alarming statistic: Three-fourths of Americans are not scientifically savvy enough to grasp the basic concepts related to such topics as global warming and stem cell research.
He will address that shortcoming -- and how it relates to citizenship -- next week in the final event of Ohio University's student-inspired and -led Year of the Liberal Arts observance.
Jon Miller, who earned a bachelor's degree in government from Ohio University in 1963, is the John A. Hannah Professor of Integrative Studies and director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at Michigan State University. He will speak on "Scientific Literacy and Citizenship in the 21st Century" at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9, in Walter Hall 145.
Miller has researched scientific literacy among the public -- Americans and people around the globe -- for almost 30 years. He focuses specifically on how citizens maintain their commitment to democratic society by examining their knowledge of basic science concepts.
His research shows that even though the United States has the second-highest scientific literacy rate in the world, behind Sweden, many Americans don't have the knowledge to understand some of the most important issues of our times.
"Scientific literacy is a political issue," said Miller, who co-led a study during the 2004 presidential race that looked at how embryonic and adult stem cells were discussed in that campaign. "Few people had a firm stance on the issue, and we found people became more confused as they heard more arguments. They ignored the issue because they didn't understand it and made their decision based on other issues."
The questions asked in tests of scientific literacy do not look for explanations of complex scientific issues, but rather for knowledge of the core building blocks of science that don't change over time, such as atoms, molecules and DNA.
"If you can't remember what molecules and atoms are and how they come to be, when something else new comes on the scene, you have no chance of really getting it," Miller said.
Miller points out that unlike schools in many other countries, where students focus primarily on courses in their major, most U.S. colleges require students to take at least a year of science as well as a mix of other classes as part of a liberal arts education.
"Non-majors are not going to be scientists," he said, "but they need to know how to walk away with enough basic ideas to read the science section of the Tuesday New York Times," Miller said. "One in four Americans can do that. Democracy can't survive if only one in four citizens can understand these issues."