But Surely There’s an App For That?
When scientists, policy wonks and journalists wring their hands about the vast ho-hum that goes up when Canadians are asked to think about science, the conversation usually gets around quickly to the public’s befuddlement when confronted with numbers, but innumeracy isn’t the whole story. One of Canada’s top science writers gets to the crux of the issue
Journalist Peter Calamai is a former national and foreign correspondent for Southam newspapers, editorial page editor for The Ottawa Citizen and national science reporter for the Toronto Star. He is an adjunct research professor in Carleton’s School of Journalism and Communication and a director of Youth Science Canada
A discussion of the science literacy of Canadians—or lack thereof—resembles the fable of the blind men describing an elephant. Your opinion depends a lot on what part of the beast you grasp.
For some, the crux of the matter is the undeniable innumeracy of way too many people, robbing them of the ability to make informed judgments about such things as comparative environmental dangers or health risks. Others moan about university-educated friends who don’t have a clue how photosynthesis in plants works. Still others say the true illiteracy is not understanding the underlying culture of science and what motivates scientists. And finally there’s the conundrum of where to tackle the problem: through young people in school or through adults in the community.
With such a poorly defined problem, it’s little surprise that the approaches can be as different as an elephant’s ear and its trunk. Take two recent attempts to address science literacy among adults in Ottawa.
On a blustery winter night, two dozen chilled souls have climbed to a third-floor bar in the Fox & Feather Pub on Elgin Street for one of the periodic Café Scientifique evenings put on by the Canada Museum of Science and Technology. The café concept originated in Europe in the 1990s as an attempt at engaging the public with science in informal settings. Carleton’s science faculty and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research also sponsor science cafés in Ottawa. Tonight’s topic is Blockbuster Science, meaning how science and scientists are portrayed in movies and on television. As audience members munch fish and chips or quaff beers, four panelists find their places at the front of the room.
Leading off the talk is speaker Marc Furstenau, a Carleton associate professor in film studies. He says science has been on movie screens since 1902, with a focus on naive or evil scientists and their machines. “What we think of science and technology is largely formed by the way that science and technology are portrayed in popular culture.”
The discussion works around to the point where another panelist notes that television shows employ science advisers to make sure performers use the correct technical jargon so that the science ends up sounding right to a lay audience who may understand little of the actual science.
Those interested in science literacy have to understand how public culture deals with issues like error,” Furstenau says. “Most people don’t expect CSI to have a disclaimer saying not everything is solvable.”
A week later, the handling of uncertainty is also a theme at a very different exercise in science literacy. At 7:30 in the morning, about 135 attendees are tucking into breakfast in the bright cathedral-like central hall of Ottawa’s former downtown train station, now the federal government’s conference centre
Known as Bacon & Eggheads, since 2000 this monthly presentation has been exposing federal policy-makers to top Canadian researchers working on high-profile topics. Organized by The Partnership Group for Science and Engineering, an advocacy group, the event costs $25 but is free to media, MPs and senators.
Six MPs and five senators have turned up to hear Dan Krewski, BScH/71, MSc/72, PhD/77, now a University of Ottawa professor, discuss cellphone risks, mad cow disease and other examples of “Decision-Making in an Uncertain World.”
The parliamentarians are outnumbered by a dozen Carleton journalism students accompanied by their professor, Kathryn O’Hara.
Topics in the question-and-answer session range from protecting homes against cancer-inducing radon gas (ventilate basements) to whether Krewski uses a cellphone (yes, judiciously) to turning off school wireless networks out of health concerns (no).
“What if science can’t provide an answer, but you still need an answer,” Krewski asks rhetorically. The parliamentarians are all ears. Even more attentive are the bureaucrats whose ministers need to claim that their politically motivated decisions are, instead, “science-based.” Krewski’s solution turns out to be a sophisticated form of expert group consensus.
Are ventures such as Cafés Scientifiques and Bacon & Eggheads an effective way to raise science literacy, however it’s defined? “Maybe not,” says Frank Graves, BAHons/76, MA/78, president of Ekos, a market research company based in Ottawa.
Graves is an outlier in the graphs of opinions about science literacy. He points out that the Canadian population is much better educated than 75 years ago and therefore more familiar than their grandparents with the basics of modern science.
He believes, on the basis of his own polling, that there is a huge societal preference for a more rational and scientific approach to public policy. So why are creationist-favouring, climate-change-denying conservatives in the political ascendency?
“The constituency that favours an anti-science approach is having more success with the public because they better understand the role of emotions,” says Graves. “The progressive forces are making the mistake of thinking you just need to explain things more clearly to people. That’s not good enough. To make the case for science, you need to be emotionally engaged with people who already believe in the rational and scientific approach, to make the case more forcefully within their own constituency.”
Consider anti-evolution beliefs. Ekos polling of almost 1,000 Canadian adults last March found 14 percent who agreed with the statement that humans were created by God in the past 10,000 years (a.k.a. creationists) and another 19 percent who agreed that humans evolved over time, but through divine guidance (a.k.a. intelligent design). The comparable figures among Americans were 40 percent and 38 percent.
Carleton dean of science Malcolm Butler considers the Ekos statistics a sad commentary on a public deficit in science literacy. “We run the risk of having the development of public policy driven not by fact but by hysteria,” he says, citing hotly debated topics like alleged dangers from vaccines, cellphones and Wi-Fi. Butler occupies a decidedly darker portion of the spectrum than Graves. Improving science literacy is a “multi-generational problem that’s going to take 30 to 40 years,” Butler says. Improvements in school science education can be undermined by parents, and science cafés are probably preaching largely to the converted. “But I would never want to see the cafés end. They teach researchers how to shape their message about science in a way that is palatable to the general public.”
A physicist by training, Butler sees poor numeracy among many Canadians as a big contributor to the trouble faced by those who want more people connecting with science. Without some facility with numbers, he says, people have no way of evaluating the true risk that lies behind many of the scare headlines about health and environmental dangers. “It’s not really the individual’s fault,” Butler says. “It’s a societal fault. We’ve never really valued science literacy and numeracy.”
And despite his concerns about the often perverse influence of parents, Butler devotes some of his time to duties as a director of Youth Science Canada, which is trying to revitalize the teaching of science in schools. “Kids represent some hope for the future,” he says.
Kevin von Appen enthusiastically agrees. Von Appen, BJ/90, is director of science communications for the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto. The OSC expects to play host to about 200,000 students this year in tours organized by elementary and secondary schools, plus thousands more visiting with their parents. For both adults and kids, the goal is the same, says von Appen. “We’re getting at science literacy at the level of sparking a spirit of inquiry and skepticism. We’re trying to change fundamental attitudes. We use science as a way to get people excited about the world they find themselves in and about the lives they are living.”
As an example, von Appen talks about the centre’s approach to the world population as it closes in on the seven billion mark. While much public discussion focused on Malthusian implications, the centre instead asked people to consider the wealth of intellectual and creative power represented by seven billion.
To bring that number home, an OSC podcast pointed out that if each person occupied one square metre, then seven billion would fit within the boundaries of the greater Toronto area. There was no attempt to get people to remember any particular set of population facts. Von Appen quotes his 14-year-old daughter saying she doesn’t have to remember things because “there’s an app for that.”
“The centre is in the experience business and the attitude business more than in the give-you-the-facts business,” he says. Except maybe where it comes to numbers. Like many others, von Appen says the public math deficit presents a huge hurdle to improving science literacy and greatly complicates the efforts of the OSC to deal with topics such as risk. He sighs. “The combined problem of numeracy and science literacy is a job that’s too big for any one institution or cluster of institutions to tackle.”
That sounds like something that requires a national strategy and a national effort. Indeed, nurturing a population more attuned to science and technology has been part of the mantra of both Liberal and Conservative federal governments as a key to transforming Canada into an innovative country. A logical—nay, even scientific—first step would be to get an informed assessment of the state of science culture among Canadians.
If the problem is, as Malcolm Butler believes, that our society simply doesn’t value science enough, then tackling that would be an essential first step in raising the level of science literacy.
The Canada Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa last year quietly circulated a proposal among federal departments to have the Council of Canadian Academies undertake a two-year investigation of the state of the nation’s science culture.
“Future prosperity will exist in countries that have successfully established a strong science culture that informs everyday decisions made by citizens and that supports public policy-making,” the museum said in its pitch. But the idea met a cold reception among senior bureaucrats and has been shelved. Without any concrete proof, some observers blame what is seen as an anti-science attitude of the Harper government.
So for the time being, one response to poor science literacy might be to follow the lead of professor Kathryn O’Hara, who for 10 years has taught a course in science journalism. She distributes to students sheets with a selection of peel-off critical labels to stick on examples of shoddy science reporting in newspapers for sale.
“Most of my students aren’t going to go into science journalism or even anything directly connected to science. But they should have a better sense of the questions to ask to determine whether there is a valid reason for believing what’s being said.” And maybe that’s a good enough working definition of science literacy.
Carleton’s science faculty hosts a discussion on alternate Wednesdays during the fall and winter terms at the Wild Oat Café in the Glebe. The evening starts at 6:30 with a 20-minute talk by a Carleton professor, followed by a 40-minute Q&A session.
Past topics have covered computational geometry (“How to Guard an Art Gallery” by Vida Dujmovi), neurodegeneration (“The Crosby Crush and Concussions” by Matthew Holahan), Big Pharma (“Pharmaceuticals: An Overview of How Drugs Are Discovered and Developed” by Jeff Manthorpe) and metabolism (“The Fat, the Gut, and the Chunky” by Alfonso Abizaid).
The cafés promote scientific literacy by presenting research in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics and neuroscience in a palatable format replete with the occasional dorky science pun. “Mass Spectrometers: Keeping an ‘Ion’ Your Safety and Health,” given by Jeff Smith last February, talked about societal applications of spectrometers, which are increasingly being used in security, forensic and health fields worldwide
The most popular topics concern food (“The Chemistry of Wine and Chocolate” by Maureen McKeague and Eric McConnell), and the curious show up for discussions on turtle sex and moose mating. The crowd is diverse and lively. Often experts from other fields show up to play devil’s advocate or round out the knowledge being presented. For example, a number of neurologists came to the concussion discusssion.
Find the full café schedule at Carleton.ca/science.