leo_m_chalupa's picture
Neurobiologist; Professor of Pharmacology and Physiology, George Washington University
The Growing Gap Between The Scientific Elite And The Vast "Scientifically Challenged" Majority

On a cross country flight I once found myself sitting next to a successful attorney who had remembered attending a lecture I had given on brain research about ten years earlier at a private club in San Francisco. During the course of our conversation, he asked me if I was still trying to figure out how the brain works. When I indicated that I was still doing research in this field, he seemed surprised because he thought that after ten years of effort this would now be all figured out!

At that moment, it struck me that this highly educated man had no understanding of how science works. He was scientifically ignorant, and the degree he had received at a leading research university before entering law school failed to educate him in the most basic tenet of the scientific process, that research is a never-ending quest.

Now consider the vast factual ignorance that has repeatedly been documented in recent years. A majority of people do not believe in evolution, a substantial proportion believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old, many think that vaccines do more harm than good, and a particularly troubling one for those of us in the brain sciences, is that it is commonly thought that the brain is a muscle.

Contrast this dismal state of affairs with another personal experience. This involved the hosting of the Siemens High School Science Competition by the George Washington University where I serve as Vice President of Research. The finalists in this competition, selected from high schools around the country, presented the results of their research projects. These far surpassed anything I could have possibly accomplished when I was a student at New York's elite Stuyvesant High School in the 1960s. Indeed, as was remarked by several of the professor judges, the research of these high school students was on par with that of graduate students or even postdoctoral fellows.

So here is the crux of my worry: the growing gap between the small minority of Americans who are part of the scientific elite and the vast majority who are to put it kindly "scientifically challenged." This is a worry on several different levels. For one thing, support and funding for research is vitally dependent on informed voters, and even more so on scientifically literate elected representatives. Moreover, as our world faces progressively more challenges (think climate change) how we deal with these complex issues is dependent on an understanding of science and the scientific method.

It is also a worry that for the most part our educational institutions (from grade school through college) do not teach science the way scientists actually do science. Far too often, science courses involve memorization of a vast array of seemingly unrelated "facts," many of which are of questionable validity.

We must do far better and we need to do this now. Students at all levels should be introduced to science by asking questions and designing experiments to test specific hypotheses. Every town and city should have a hands-on children's science museum, and every professional scientific organization should have an outreach program to the community. Some of this is already being done, but the gap between the scientifically informed and the uninformed continues to grow. So I continue to worry and will do so until we come up with a realistic plan to reverse this troubling trend.