Back when Galileo risked everything to publicly defend the theory of heliocentrism, his biggest enemy was the Roman Inquisition: a movement led by a powerful group of doctrinaire clerics who didn’t appreciate pointy-headed intellectuals casting doubt on the biblical orthodoxies of the day. For the heresy of stating that earth revolved around the sun, the inquisitors forced Galileo to recant and sentenced him to a lifetime of house arrest.
Say what you will about the Roman Inquisition, but at least it was, y’know, inquisitive. Four hundred years later, the chief enemy of scientific literacy isn’t religious orthodoxy so much as it is ignorance—combined, dangerously, with virulent anti-intellectualism. Studies may show that more and more people are accepting the science behind climate change, but these figures would be far more comforting had the U.S. electorate not just sent a cynical climate denier to the White House, one who immediately promised to pull out of the international climate agreement reached in Paris last year.
It’s disturbing enough when a presidential candidate spouts anti-science nonsense. But when an actual president does, it lends institutional legitimacy to a dangerous philosophy of know-nothingism. This may indeed be our fate for the next four years.
We may be in the midst of a golden age for scientific progress, but when it comes to conveying the significance of these discoveries to the general public—getting people to accept, or even to understand, the facts and theories we collectively call science—we’re living in the Dark Ages. (To wit: A few years back, the National Science Foundation asked 2,200 Americans this question: “Does the earth go around the sun, or does the sun go around the earth?” Twenty-six percent of respondents got the answer wrong. Sorry, Galileo.)
Against this backdrop of cultural benightedness, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE)—a stalwart defender of scientific literacy and a sworn enemy of science’s politicization, especially in the classroom—launched a promising new pilot program last year that aims to turn things around. NCSE’s Science Booster Clubs are designed to transform public events and spaces into spontaneous laboratories where simple yet illuminating experiments can effectively bring science to the people . . . since the people, left to their own devices, don’t exactly flock to science.
In doing so, the NCSE hopes to answer a question that has enormous ramifications for the effort to recruit future generations in the fight against climate change. Can direct, person-to-person outreach within communities lead to a greater understanding of topics that are, in the NCSE’s words, “societally, but not scientifically, controversial”?
So far, happily, the answer seems to be yes. At farmers’ markets, county fairs, and other high-traffic spots, the NCSE has already connected with more than 50,000 people over the past 18 months by leading impromptu public workshops on topics ranging from climate change to evolution to physics and engineering. Thoroughgoing scientists that they are, the NCSE’s members have been tabulating all the relevant data. Their cultural experiment, they’ve found, has contributed to a statistically significant rise in science literacy among those with whom they've engaged. In one Iowa community, science literacy scores shot up to 17 percent from 13 percent in just seven months.
That’s a satisfying trend line, but that scientific literacy in that particular community was so low to begin with is still alarming. “When I started organizing these, I was working from the assumption that most people had a basic understanding of climate change,” says Emily Schoerning, NCSE’s director of community organizing and research. She was startled to learn just how wrong she was. In Iowa City, for instance, 70 percent of the participants didn’t know what the greenhouse effect was. “Iowa City happens to be one of the most educated cities in America,” Schoerning says. “When we went out to more rural areas, no one had even heard of it.”
Unsurprisingly, some who have heard of the greenhouse effect have heard about it on blogs, radio talk shows, and/or cable news programs where it has been angrily derided as a hoax. Schoerning recalls one booster club event in Iowa City where “some people were literally covering their ears and closing their eyes when they passed our booth.” Rather than stopping for a bit and chatting (or perhaps even arguing) with Schoerning about climate change—and then maybe taking part in an evidence-marshaling experiment lasting all of five minutes—these people preferred to keep their distance from the data, so worried were they that the facts might undermine their worldview.
That’s the worst-case scenario, but far more frequent are those moments where a genuine connection is made, a scientific concept is effectively communicated, and an anti-science prejudice is demolished. By allowing people to participate in fun and informative hands-on experiments, and by talking to people instead of at them, Schoerning and her colleagues are exemplifying the power of education to transform.
And wherever the booster clubs have popped up—they’re currently taking place (or preparing to launch) in Iowa, Michigan, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Virginia—she has noticed an interesting phenomenon. Even deniers want to take part, and they appear to become more amenable “when they see a line forming, when they see how positively the rest of the crowd is responding to our presence.”
The forces of anti-intellectualism and anti-reason win battles from time to time. Sometimes they even win bigly. But while they’re blustering and bloviating up at the bully pulpit and holding press conferences to spread fake news, it’s comforting to know that there are folks down on the ground who know that patience, respect, good faith, and actual science are what’s going to win the war in the long run—one mind at a time.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.