The literature of truth

According to Dr. Jon D. Miller, Director of the Center for Biomedical Communications, the number of scientifically literate adults in the U.S. has doubled over the past 20 years.

The bad news? That only gets us up to 20 percent.

Only 48 percent of Americans know that humans didn’t live at the same time as dinosaurs. Less than half know that electrons are smaller than atoms. And few know what DNA is or can define a molecule.

We live in a world highly dependent on the fruits of science. Yet most of us have little scientific knowledge.

Does this matter?


Without some minimal scientific understanding, we can’t possibly have informed opinions on important issues. We surrender our ability to participate as responsible citizens in society.

Uncle Sam spends more than $100 billion annually on science agencies, university laboratories, and grants for independent research. Most of us know very little about where this money is going or why.

But there is an even more compelling reason to remedy our ignorance: Scientific illiteracy diminishes the quality of our lives.

For most of human history, our ancestors looked up at the night sky and never realized the twinkling lights were suns unimaginably far away.

We created myths to explain the phases of the moon, the appearance of comets, meteor showers, and solar eclipses. Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, plagues, and volcanic eruptions were attributed to angry gods.

Our ancestors hadn’t the slightest inkling that the universe is nearly 15 billion years old or that our sun is one of 400 billion stars in the Milky Way. (Which, itself, is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies.)

Science has been called the literature of truth. The systematic classification of experience. The antidote to enthusiasm and superstition.

Of course, few scientific truths are self-evident. Many are counterintuitive. It is by no means obvious, for example, that empty space has structure or that everything is made of the same basic elements.

Science writer Isaac Asimov once noted that we are among the tiny fraction of 1 percent of human beings fortunate enough to live in the era where science finally got the big questions right.

Until Einstein worked them out, we didn’t know the basic rules that govern the universe.

We didn’t realize the universe is expanding before Edwin Hubble discovered it in 1923.

We didn’t understand the mind-bending rules that govern subatomic particles until the advent of quantum theory.

Still, science makes no claim to truth with a capital T. All scientific knowledge is subject to revision.

The scientific method is successful, in part, because it acknowledges human failings. With its critical thinking and error-correcting mechanisms, it advances knowledge through reason and evidence, revealing successive approximations of the truth.

Today the basic picture is complete. No future scientist, we can safely say, will disprove the principles of chemistry, the germ theory of disease, or the interrelatedness of all life on earth.

Yet despite all that science teaches us, many smart, talented people can’t be bothered to learn.

We appreciate the countless medical and technological advances that extend and improve our lives. But most of us know little about the history of the cosmos… or life on earth.

That can’t help but diminish our awareness and understanding.

Fortunately, it isn’t hard to change. Here are just a few suggestions:

Subscribe to Scientific American. I read this magazine years ago and found it tough sledding. But the magazine is much improved. It is written primarily for non-specialists. Jargon is minimal. Most articles begin with a short summary of key concepts. And the monthly columns by Michael Shermer and Lawrence Krauss alone justify a subscription.

Rent or collect the BBC documentaries with naturalist David Attenborough. Especially “Planet Earth,” “The Trials of Life,” “Blue Planet,” “Life On Earth,” and “The Living Planet.” Astronomer Carl Sagan’s classic “Cosmos” series too.

For a crash course, read The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier. Or — if you prefer your science served with hilarity — A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

Science is a tool. A window on the truth. Carl Sagan often referred to it as our “baloney-detection kit.”

And there are other benefits. Science teaches us wonder, community, oneness … and humility.

Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once remarked that the common feature of all scientific revolutions is the dethronement of human arrogance.

Without natural science, we may also miss great beauty and understanding.

As Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins writes in Unweaving the Rainbow:

“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? … Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?”

[Ed. Note: Alex Green is the author of The Secret of Shelter Island: Money and What Matters, as well as the editor of “Spiritual Wealth,” a free e-letter about the pursuit of the good life.]