Americans don’t know their scientists.

September 12, 2009 | By | 3 Replies More

This article from raises a critical point.  Most Americans know the Harry Potter stories.  They know many professional athletes, movies stars and musicians.   But they know very little about the people who do science or how science is done.  For instance, “Only 52 percent of Americans in their survey knew why stem cells differ from other kinds of cells; just 46 percent knew that atoms are larger than electrons.”

What is the cure?

Americans should be far more engaged with scientists and what they’re doing. They should know the names of leading researchers (most Americans do not) and the nation’s top scientific agencies (again, most Americans do not). To the extent possible they should know scientists personally, both so they can get a sense of the nature of scientific reasoning and so they feel they are being heard, not just lectured to. Perhaps this way, when it comes to the toughest and most politicized questions, they will better recognize that scientists will not rally around a firm conclusion unless it really is precisely that.


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Category: Education, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    I'm not as concerned that Americans don't know who our scientists are, as that they don't know what science is.

    One common attack on science matches a quantity of credentialed anti-scientists to counter claims of an equivalent number of scientists. Essentially canceling experts with "experts" in the public sphere.

    If people knew what science is about and how it worked, this ploy wouldn't fly. We'd get fewer legal battles to suppress science where it falls afoul of popular understanding. We'd elect fewer politicians for their promises of fair and balanced representation of ancient theology in science classes.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Dan: I think that knowing some scientists is a terrific way to respect all scientists. In most realms of life, there is no escaping that personal relationship are critically important to advancing the cause.

      If most people don't have any acquaintances with scientists, It makes it easier them to make cartoons out of all scientists. Knowing the facts and the theories are good enough for some of us, probably a minority. But there is nothing like a good theory combined with a personal connection. For me, reading the powerful and emotional story of Charles Darwin makes me want to delve into the theory of natural selection all the more. These two aspects feed upon each other.

      I think that most people would benefit significantly by having the stories of real, hard-working scientists made accessible, along with their theories.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    I agree that stories are how people can connect to science. But serious scientists are good at what they do in part because they are not good at human communication. The geniuses are generally antisocial louts.

    Newton had to be browbeaten into publishing his work by one of the very few people who spoke with him. Darwin waited decades between realization and publication. Einstein would likely have been much less popular had he not been forced by circumstances to communicate in his limited English.

    Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan are examples of good communicators, but not stellar scientists.

    I grew up among scientists. They are an odd group; goofballs one and all. I've met a couple of Nobel laureates. Most of them got the award for significant contributions of which most people couldn't comprehend the point.

    It would be nice if the people who move civilization forward were to get as much recognition as entertainers. But professionals at getting attention (like sports, politics, and other performing arts) will always steal attention from any other endeavor.

    As long as people have bread, they don't care about the American born scientist who invented the stove (Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford who led a very interesting life, with several significant contributions to science).

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