Science Illiteracy in the United States

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Photo by Lucas Vasques on Unsplash

The pandemic has made a few things much clearer. And one of them is just how little the average American knows about science.

I actually had somebody on Facebook, whom I won’t name and shame, refer to COVID as a “viral bacteria.”

People don’t understand the scientific method. They don’t grasp the difference between absence of evidence and evidence of absence. They want certainty (and I get it, I crave certainty too, and it’s been short lately). They don’t know what the word “theory” means.

So, why is it that the general public is so clueless about science? And why is it a problem?

Poor Quality Education

It really boils down to a lack of quality of science education at the K-12 level. Teachers are consistently underpaid and often overworked. Middle and high school science teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree in their field. Substitutes, on the other hand, may not have to have a degree in the field (or a degree at all!).

Teachers also have to battle large class sizes, a lack of good equipment and, of course, students who would in many cases rather be somewhere else.

So, some of it is just that a typical American public school really isn’t that good.

Macho Ignorance

Then, there’s the people who pride themselves on not knowing anything about science. The jocks. They took as few science classes as possible and may have skipped the ones they did take. And, of course, they have zero interest in educating themselves outside school.

Note, I’m not talking about people who have little classroom education but live solidly in the real world. Lumberjacks need to know physics. Farmers need to know more about biology than anyone short of a doctor or vet.

Knowing about science, to these people, makes you weak. (Unless you’re a woman, in which case it makes you uppity). These people are more likely to be conservative than progressive, although I’ve definitely met exceptions and it’s certainly not all conservatives.

The Religious Right

And the third part of the unholy trinity? The “religious right.” These are the people who won’t let biology teachers teach about evolution because it “contradicts the Bible” (Funny how Jesuits have been studying science since they were created, right?).

The people who deny kids sex education because they shouldn’t be having sex before marriage anyway.

And that crowd has a lot of cultural clout across swathes of the United States. You might have heard it called “Jesusland.”

To them, knowing too much science is literally of the devil.

So, Why is This a Problem?

Why not just let people wallow in their ignorance?

Viral bacteria.

I have literally talked to people who didn’t know viruses were contagious! And on the other end of the extreme are people who are panicking because they don’t understand how immunity works.

Scientific illiteracy is killing people in America right now, and we all need to step up and educate the people who maybe didn’t have a great teacher in school, or who were raised to believe science contradicts God, or whatever.

Those of us who do know these things have a responsibility to help those who don’t. And, moving forward, we need to think about how we make knowing science cool, how we get kids to love it. (Maybe Tony Stark has a few things to say here).

Because otherwise, scientific illiteracy will keep killing people.

Written by

Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades.

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