I saw a blog by Jerry Coyne which referenced an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In particular there is a chart that shows a surprising percentage of adults who have false beliefs about science: 33% of adults don’t think the Earth goes around the Sun once per year. 49% think that “ordinary” tomatoes don’t have genes but genetically modified tomatoes do. 14% think that sound travels faster than light. And this one is a bit more challenging, 45% think that antibiotics kill viruses (they don’t; they kill bacteria).
The point of the article is that there are several reasons for scientific illiteracy. For one thing, we need to improve science education in order to help adults have a better understanding of science. With that I fully agree. Unfortunately, many commentators who claim to be supporting science really don’t understand science. How can they lead students into the 21st century when they’re lost in the 19th?
Scientism vs. Science
Many of these “experts” follow what I refer to as “scientism” rather than science. By scientism I mean:
AÂ set of beliefs, focused around a narrow interpretation of materialism, that purports eitherÂ to be a true defense of “real” science or science per se, but is closer to a type of religion.
So what, then, do I mean by “science?” Although I’m not a big fan of Wikipedia, I do agree with their definition of science: “anÂ enterpriseÂ that builds andÂ organizesÂ knowledge in the formÂ of testableÂ explanations andÂ predictions about theÂ world.”
One of the World’s Oldest Sciences
For thousands of years, people have used one of the best forms of scientific research, direct observation, to look at the stars and planets. They have built systems that organize the knowledge thus gained and how it relates to life and events in this world. The students of this scienceâ€”especially in India where this science is known as jyotishâ€”are able to make accurate predictions. In the West, a practitioner of this science, Evangeline Adams, proved before a court in New York that the science she practiced, indeed, was not a fraud. This science is astrology.
Yes, astrology fits all of the definitions of what is required to be a science. Those who practice scientism, however, decry it because the science of astrology doesn’t fit into their religion of scientism.
In the “Post-Gazette” article, the experts, followers of scientism, claim that because 41% of the adults interviewed disagree with the statement that “astrology is not at all scientific,” it is a sign of adult scientific illiteracy. I disagree. It is a sign that they don’t follow the religion of scientism. [Note: you may have to click on the link to the chart in order to see it.]
Believing that astrology is at least partially scientific is not necessarily a sign of scientific literacy, but it doesn’t indicate scientific illiteracy, either.
So yes, we do need better science education. That means not teaching religion in science classes, even if that religion is scientism.