Dear Mr. President:
We live in the age of science. The geometric growth in computing power and internet communications is emblematic of the impact science has had in all human endeavors. Science has made the world of today as different from 1950, as 1950 was from 1500. Given that fact it is jarring to encounter the results of the National Science Foundation's biennial report on the state of science understanding, published last April:
• 30% of Americans believe that UFOs are space vehicles from other civilizations
• 60% believe in ESP
• 40% think that astrology is scientific
• 32% believe in lucky numbers
• 70% accept magnetic therapy as scientific
• 88% agree that alternative medicine is a viable means of treating illness
Education by itself is not a panacea. Although belief in ESP decreased from 65% among high school graduates to 60% among college graduates, and belief in magnetic therapy dropped from 71% among high school graduates to 55% among college graduates, that still leaves over half fully endorsing such claims! And for embracing alternative medicine, the percentages actually increase, from 89% for high school grads to 92% for college grads.
Why do so many people, even smart people, believe so many weird things? The problem is usually blamed on education, especially science education. That is only part of the problem. People believe weird things because they are taught what to think, not how to think. Consider these additional statistics from the NSF report: 70% of Americans still do not understand the scientific process, defined in the study as grasping probability, the experimental method, and hypothesis testing. One solution is more and better science education, as indicated by the fact that 53% of Americans with a high level of science education (nine or more high school and college science/math courses) understand the scientific process, compared to 38% with a middle level (six to eight such courses) science education, and 17% with a low level (less than five such courses).
To address this serious problem we need to teach people that science is not simply a database of unconnected factoids, but a set of methods aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation. Science is a way of thinking that recognizes the need to test hypotheses so that the process is not reduced to mere opinion mongering, that the findings of such tests are provisional and probabilistic, and that natural explanations are always sought for natural phenomena.
Lacking a fundamental comprehension of how science works, the siren song of pseudoscience becomes too alluring to resist, no matter how smart you are. So my recommendation, Mr. Bush, is that since your father was the "education President" you become the "science education President." Not just any science education, but science education that teaches students how to think; and not just how to think about weird things, but how to think about, challenge, and be skeptical of all things, including and especially political, economic, and social issues.
Science is the greatest tool ever devised to understand the cause of things. It is, therefore, our greatest hope for a viable future. Ad astra!
Editor-in-Chief, Skeptic magazine
Monthly Columnist, Scientific American
Author of In Darwin's Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Biographical Study on the Psychology of History.