By Ana Santos-Carvalho and Carolina Lebre, edited by Andrew S. Cale Excessive use of technical jargon can be a significant barrier to…
By Brad Parks
A few years back, while driving to my favorite daily writing haunt, the local radio station spit out one of those statistics that surely elicits a groan from readers of this blog:
“According to a recent poll, forty-three percent of Americans don’t know the sun is a star.”
Neither Google nor I could find the poll that generated this distressing statistic, though the pitiful state of science knowledge in this country is hardly breaking news. Every few years, the National Science Foundation quizzes Americans with general science questions.
The results are routinely grim enough to make teachers want to sell tires for a living. A quarter of all Americans are still stuck on that stubborn old chestnut that the sun goes around the Earth. Fifty-four percent think electrons are larger than atoms. Sixty-two percent don’t believe the universe began with a large explosion.
I used to laugh off this sort of thing. Their woeful ignorance didn’t impinge on my life in any meaningful way, right?
I stopped laughing in March.
We are now seeing the devastating costs of scientific illiteracy. As of this writing, in late July, we are fast approaching 150,000 COVID-19 deaths. At least a hundred thousand of those were, arguably, preventable—if we had just listened to our scientists and managed the pandemic as well as similarly resourced nations.
Beyond that tragedy are untold millions more, and they come in all sizes. Americans’ scientific ignorance is now wiping out the life savings of people who are out of work. It’s imperiling our children’s educations, as schools limp toward a limited reopening. It’s exacerbating already woeful racial inequalities. It’s preventing grandparents from seeing their grandchildren. It’s screwing up date night.
And on. And on.
I’ll leave to some other time the question of whether this is the fault of our leadership or our national ethos (some might say pathos) of not wanting to be told what to do.
This much, however, is indisputable: Our negligence on COVID-19 begins with a collective, longstanding, systemic failure of science communication.
When viewed through post-March eyes, the most chilling result of that NSF poll is that half of Americans—exactly fifty percent—believe antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
You can guess which half is currently not wearing masks in the grocery store.
How are we supposed to convince half of our population that, contrary to what they might hear on certain news outlets, this novel coronavirus really is much worse than the flu? That in places like New York City, where the virus raged uncontrolled, the death rate soared to six times the normal level? That while viruses are clever foes, viral transmission is actually not inevitable; but it does require all of us to buy in and, yes, allow ourselves to be told what to do?
Admittedly, our options moving forward from this dark moment are not great. Viruses are notoriously poor at taking pity on us because our public health spending has been dropping steadily since 2008.
But, even with fewer resources—and with science deniers more full-throated than ever—we can’t give up. This isn’t a time to abandon trying to tell the story of science. It’s a time to double down.
I firmly believe people are actually more receptive to science than we realize—especially when we approach it as the exciting, vibrant, captivating human drama that it is.
We can overcome both people’s ignorance and their fears about this subject. I’ve seen it firsthand when telling people about my latest novel, Interference. To be clear, this is a book rotten with quantum physics, with references to Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Bose-Einstein condensates, and all sorts of other nerd bait.
The reaction I get at first—A novel about quantum physics? I hated physics in high school!—is the predictable science-phobic nonsense you’ve all heard before.
But then I start talking. I tell them about quantum entanglement: That sometimes two particles can be born entangled; and, when that happens, you can separate them by any distance and they remain coordinated with each other—tickle one, and the other immediately feels it. Even if they’re now separated by galaxies.
I tell them that Einstein hated entanglement. He thought there could be no such coordination among particles that happens faster than light, which he believed was the universe’s ultimate speed limit. He dismissed entanglement as “spooky action at a distance” and insisted it was a sign our approach to quantum mechanics was fundamentally flawed.
And yet, I say, it turns out Einstein, the towering genius of 20th century physics, was wrong! Entanglement has now been demonstrated in laboratories many times. It’s even being used to encrypt digital transmissions to keep them safe from hackers.
Entanglement may sound goofy or spooky, for sure. And we still don’t understand the mechanism. But it’s real.
Then I present the hypothetical at the core of Interference: What if we could use quantum entanglement to find a missing person?
But, honestly, even before I hit them with that fictional twist, they’re ready to read the novel. Why? Because they’re actually curious about the science—or, let’s be clear, about the ideas of science and the stories behind them.
And that’s where any conversation about science communication needs to begin. With the story, presented in clear, plainspoken fashion. You eschew jargon. You avoid the hair-splitting squabbles that consume academics (yes, you physicists out there can spare me the email about whether “tickle” is really the right verb to describe measuring an electron’s spin).
You also have to humanize it. Lately I’ve been thinking about Jonas Salk, who became a national folk hero in 1955, when it was announced his team’s polio vaccine had succeeded in clinical trials.
Who are going to be the Joan and Jonas Salks of this coronavirus?
Those heroes are waiting to be discovered. And when they are, I hope we can celebrate their monumental achievements—and that it can lead to a renaissance for science interest in this country.
This is our challenge. To make science not only approachable and relevant, but fun and fascinating.
The imperative to overcome scientific illiteracy has never been more urgent.
And the stakes have never been greater.
International bestselling author Brad Parks is the only author to have won the Shamus, Nero, and Lefty Awards, three of crime fiction’s most prestigious prizes. For more, visit his website at www.bradparksbooks.com. (Photo credit: Sara Harris)