terça-feira, 24 de fevereiro de 2015

How Do We Know What We Know About Science? by Betty Kelly, special for Urania

In the modern world, a certain level of scientific literacy is important for understanding the latest discoveries in climate change, genetics, information technology, and other fields that have a direct bearing upon the lives of millions of people. However, there are many people within the United States who are effectively unable to grasp the concepts involved in scientific discovery. According to study published in the MIT Technology Review, only 28 percent of Americans are “scientifically literate.”

The ability to understand scientific concepts is important for the overall vitality and well-being of a civilization. The Islamic world was an early leader in science during the Golden Age of Arabic beginning around the year 800. After several hundred years of producing wondrous scientific achievements, such as charting the stars and inventing mechanical water clocks, a growing climate of religious intolerance towards the scientific enterprise doomed much of the Muslim world to becoming a technological backwater. Similarly, the fall of Rome caused many discoveries to be lost for nearly a thousand years and precipitated what is known today as the “Dark Ages” in Europe: a time of superstition and low standards of living.

Likely due, in part, to prevent a similar fate from befalling us, several public figures have come forth. These individuals attempt to make the often-dry and technical aspects of science accessible to the general public. Modern techniques used for communicating science to the masses include television programs, interviews, podcasts and popular social media channels.

Carl Sagan, perhaps the most charismatic astrophysicist who ever lived, was one of the early leaders in this type of science communication. Sagan was not only an effective communicator but also a top-rate scientist with more than 600 published scientific papers to his name. In 1980, his Cosmos television series was broadcast and captured the imagination of millions who were entranced by the broad and beautiful vistas of the natural universe as portrayed by Sagan. He wrote many scientific books for lay audiences, including Pale Blue Dot and the novel Contact, which was later turned into a major motion picture.

It can be said that the most notable present-day counterpart to Sagan is Neil deGrasse Tyson, astronomer and cosmologist. He is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and also works for the American Museum of Natural History. For anyone who saw last year’s reboot of the Cosmos program, it’s clear that Sagan’s influence on the starry-eyed Tyson went far beyond their one-time meeting on Cornell’s campus. Sagan’s personal beliefs in the cultural power of space and space travel were also reflected in Tyson’s speech as the Keynote presenter at the 2013 National Space Symposium. 

Commenting of the consequences of space exploration insofar as their effect on America’s intellectual health is concerned, he said:

So what are the current problems here in America? Not in other parts of the world. Our economy is in the toilet. Hardly anyone is interested in the STEM fields, meanwhile our best minds are going overseas. Politicians are pretty sure they have a solution to that, let’s get better science teachers, how about our jobs going overseas, how’s about moving some tariffs and contracts? People are not innovating so we put money in innovative initiatives. There things are all band aids people. They don't work. 

Proposing a doubling of NASA’s budget, he continued, saying:

Whatever the motives, be they geopolitical, military, economic, space becomes the frontier, and you know every week that some new innovation is going to be proposed, new patents are going to accepted. Space is exciting. These innovations make headlines, and these articles filter down the educational pipeline, everybody in school knows about it. You don't have to set up programs to convince people that being an engineer is cool, they will know it just by the cultural presence of those activities.

You do that it will jump start our dreams. And you know that innovation drives economies, especially true since the industrial revolution.

Convinced that we’ve stopped dreaming about tomorrow, Tyson argues that NASA is needed for more than just scientific progress. A national effort to become more involved in the exploration of the cosmos will, he claims, reinvigorate our collective culture as well as the economy.

Despite provoking controversy from certain religious groups, Tyson has also frequently appeared on popular shows like The Colbert Report to promote the funding of science and interest in scientific endeavors among the public at large. He has been a leader in using social media to engage with his fans, with more than 3 million followers on Twitter.

Bill Nye is another vocal advocate for science in mainstream culture. A former mechanical engineer at Boeing, Nye hosted a television show called, Bill Nye the Science Guy, throughout the '90s. He used humor and easy-to-replicate experiments to demonstrate to children how scientific concepts relate to everyday life. Since the conclusion of his show, Nye has frequently appeared in other shows and series with a scientific bent, including 100 Greatest Discoveries and The Eyes of Nye. In recent years, Nye has used his stature and popularity to advocate for the reality of global climate change, encouraging sustainable energy and the importance of scientific literacy.

While it seems impossible to construe better science education as a bad thing, the aforementioned champions of scientific rationality nevertheless face serious challenges. Because many of the issues that they care about most are politically charged, they often encounter opposition from people on the other side of the facts. This has led some of their adversaries not only to question the validity of certain views held on specific topics, but overall value of science and its capacity to illuminate the natural order of the universe. Additionally, in certain subsets of the population, science is perceived to be a dull business, only of interest only to “nerds” and other socially maladjusted individuals.

It's clear that understanding facts about the world around us will likely become even more important as scientific discoveries play an ever-increasing role in daily affairs. The strength of the United States as a society will hinge on the ability of the electorate and government officials to enact policies that promote a better understanding of science and the natural world. Science communicators therefore have an important role to play in educating the public on matters that affect every one of us.

Space as Culture by Neil DeGrasse Tyson (Keynote speech at the 28th National Space Symposium) 

Beth Kelly is a is a freelance writer from Chicago, IL. A lifelong fan of Carl Sagan, she has always nurtured a passion for both science and literature. In her free time, you can find her training for triathlons, shooting film photography or teaching her pet rabbit new tricks. You can find her on Twitter at @ bkelly_88

Carl Sagan Writes a Letter to 17-Year-Old Neil deGrasse Tyson (1975)

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