Vol. 11, No. 2,553 - The American Reporter - January 5, 2005

On Media

by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif

LOS ANGELES -- John Allen Paulos wrote a book called Innumeracy and became a best-selling author. There ought to be a book about scientific illiteracy with a similarly clever title.

Innumeracy took the view that widespread ignorance of basic mathematical principles has consequences for our civilization. It affects the way we make choices in our personal lives and also in the wider political sphere which we inhabit.

Let's call today's topic scientific illiteracy. In particular, let's think about the scientific ignorance which apparently infects the profession of journalism, and think about how it affects our civilization.

We're not only talking about the theoretical pursuits such as physics, chemistry and biochemistry. Ignorance of the engineering sciences is equally involved.

Every one of these disciplines provides relevant information for important decisions that are made every day in every part of the world, and each is handled badly, if at all, by the everyday press. The result is public ignorance about critically important questions.

One example: There has been a movement to persuade parents that immunization of children is unsafe and ineffective. The argument in favor of this proposition is dubious, but it requires a modest knowledge of statistics and immunology (and sometimes biochemistry) in order to write a proper refutation.

The failure to communicate legitimate science, particularly at this level, can lead to tragic outcomes. A developing polio epidemic in present day Africa is the direct result of rumor mongering about asserted deleterious effects of the vaccine, assertions which are preposterously false. In another tragic example, refusal by parents to allow their infants to be immunized for pertussis has resulted in substantial increases in the number of childhood deaths from this disease.

The human health aspects of scientific ignorance are to be found everywhere. A gentleman of our acquaintance who practices one form of alternative therapy explains proudly how he reassured a woman that she did not have to have a suspicious lump biopsied. He asked her if she "really believed in herself," and offered his own brand of protection in the form of hypnotherapy.

At the more mundane, perhaps even humorous level, a woman of our acquaintance told us that she would rather take a homeopathic cold remedy instead of something "with chemicals." The fact that every tangible thing is in some sense made of chemicals was lost on her. The supposed remedy contains a pill which is to be swallowed, hence an object containing atoms, hence at least in some sense "chemicals," but this made no difference.

At the market I walk past rows of "conventionally grown" peaches and "organic" broccoli. Most people who buy organic produce do so because they believe that organic foods are somehow healthier, or at least less toxic. There is a substantial public movement, particularly in Europe, to regulate and limit the use of genetically modified plants in agriculture.

In every aspect of our lives, our politics and our public arguments there is some scientific aspect. Is depleted uranium a serious hazard to soldiers or to civilian populations? Is DDT an appropriate choice as an anti malarial? What should we do (if anything) to protect ourselves from mad cow disease?

All of these are questions which come up in our public discourse and in our political decision-making processes. In a republic which depends on an informed electorate to make wise choices at the polls and which relies on adequately prepared lawmakers, from the city council level on up to the Congress, it is important that issues be framed appropriately and that information be presented intelligently.

This is not to say that politics can be reduced to science. The choice whether or not to accept some risk, such as permitting the construction of a gas pipeline through a populated area, is a political question. But estimating the actual level of risk is a scientific question.

There is a serious issue here. How does the mass media handle scientific questions at the everyday level - not a feature article on the new genetics but the city council vote authorizing a new natural gas storage facility?

Experience shows that most reporters don't like to deal with everyday controversies about civil engineering or chemical science. When they do, stories are often handled more as personality issues than explored as technical questions deserving of competent technical answers.

Handling scientific and engineering controversies in the trivialized form of personality clashes leads to another journalistic malpractice: each scientific assertion seems to demand a counter-assertion, no matter how silly. If a reporter quotes three learned professors and the natural gas institute as to the safety of gas pipelines, it is considered appropriate to give space to the local gadfly who opposes the new project, even if there is no legitimate argument offered but merely rhetorical mud.

With the possible exception of the health sciences, it is hard to imagine a subject that offers more public ignorance (in concert with journalistic malfeasance) than energy production. What are the relative public health detriments of uranium vs coal power plants? What is the advantage of hydrogen as a fuel, if any? Are we, or are we not, approaching the end of the petroleum age?

The subject becomes almost unbearable silly when we hear demands for solar powered cars to solve our energy crisis. Demands for some new "Manhattan Project" to solve our energy shortage are almost equally silly, at least insofar as they reflect the fantasy that energy can be conjured up as if by magic if only we can be clever enough. Reporters should be knowledgeable enough to explain that most of our modern economic growth has been the result of our exploiting the energy present in petroleum. There is really very little else on the face of the earth that offers such an effective, cheap and portable source of fuel.

The role of the mass media in this charade has been dismal. There is something of a taboo on reporting the downside of the SUV revolution. One explanation which has been discussed here previously is the reticence of newspaper publishers to allow attacks on the auto industry because some have suffered advertiser boycotts in the past. Reporting on the deleterious effects of suburbanization seems to be equally taboo for much the same reason: the real estate industry is the other big advertiser in the daily newspapers.

It is not this self-censorship that is my major issue here. It is the general lack of scientific knowledge that seems to be acceptable in mainstream journalism. Yes, the big city major dailies have their collection of experts, but the everyday story about the city council decision on building that natural gas pipeline is reported by somebody who managed to graduate college without developing any understanding of technical principles.

Nobel Laureate I. I. Rabi once referred to our era as a scientific culture, implying that the study of science, although difficult, is important in our day and age, even if it was not so much the case in earlier centuries. This sentiment seems to have been lost on journalism students and, more importantly, on publishers who hire them.

Scientific illiteracy makes people more susceptible to charlatans who sell them quack remedies, to the fringe hysterics who oppose all progress and to the political hacks who try to scare them. A more capable press would be a good thing.

Let's close with an excerpt from a piece by Nicole Bailey, writing for Thunderbird Online Magazine,the online journalism review of the University of British Columbia. It is a piece about simple numeric competence among reporters but the argument applies equally well to knowledge of scientific and engineering principles.

The detrimental effects of innumeracy are abundant. "We [the public] become prey to commercial chicanery, financial foolery, medical quackery, and numerical terrorism from pressure groups, all because we are unable (or unwilling) to think clearly for a few moments," said A.K. Dewdney, professor of mathematics at the University of Western Ontario in his book, 200% of Nothing.

Furthermore, numbers are a fact of life for journalists. "Politics comes down to votes. Budgets and dollars dominate government. The economy, business, employment, sports — all demand numbers…Like it or not, we must wade in," said Victor Cohn, journalist and author of News and Numbers.

A content analysis of the Vancouver Sun newspaper and a math quiz administered to journalism students at the University of B.C. revealed that both working reporters and journalism students have waded in – and they are drowning in the numbers. They have difficulty performing simple mathematical calculations, they struggle to contextualize data and they disengage their critical faculties when it comes to numbers. It is not that the math that they must use is rocket science — in fact most involves no more than elementary or high school math — it is simply that they refuse to ask, "Does this make sense?"

Copyright 2005 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.