Sunday, January 03, 2010

Communicating Science

 
The primary goal of science writers and science journalists is to be effective communicators of science. However, they have had little impact on the general public over the past few decades since the level of science literacy has barely budged.

Most citizens have little idea of how science works and many reject outright the basic fundamentals of science.

Having failed to achieve their goal, and finding themselves irrelevant when it comes to making a profit (largely because of their own failure), they are now looking for someone to blame. Chris Mooney has decided to blame scientists for not being science journalists. See his latest contribution at On issues like global warming and evolution, scientists need to speak up. He doesn't really mean "speak up" as scientists, of course. What he means is that scientists should learn how to "frame" and fudge their position in order to please the general public. Making friends with theists and promoting religious scientists is supposed to help.

What's interesting about this debate is that science writers like Chris Mooney are convinced they know how to teach the general public in spite of the fact that science writers—as a profession—have not been successful in the past.

Why should scientist listen to them?


27 comments :

  1. I am not satisfied that there is evidence to indicate that scientists are not good communicators. I think that until Chris Mooney can demonstrate that, rather than asserting it, then he can blow it out his pipette.

    I have this odd concept for people who claim that science is not being communicated well. There are ways that scientists can actually use the, you know, scientific method to research:

    1. If there is a problem in the way that scientists communicate as a group.

    2. What are some testable alternatives other than blaming atheism?

    3. Is there a way to make education more valuable in society so that people will be able, without filtering, to discern the facts properly and skeptically?

    4. Are their other factors in society (such as a cult of celebrity that makes the divorce of Jon and Kate important) that are more distracting and suppress the attention span?

    5. What are the faults of the current crops of blogggers, Discovery and NOVA channel guests, science journalists and the ways that they spread either deliberately false or poorly understood concepts?

    6. Does athesim have fuck all to do with it?

    It's ironic that when it comes to science communication, few are applying science to the issue.

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  2. Well, I read the first part of his article, and I was starting to think that the Orac computer might need to be silenced until I finished the article.

    However, I got to page 2 of the Washington Post, and before I made it halfway I was cheering you, Larry. Well done, you summed it up well.

    My particular gripe with the article was that the author was skilled enough to hook me into reading, only to make a sharp left turn into mush. You would think that after they teach you to write a good hook 'em headline at journalism school, they might ask for a little substance in the body of the article.

    Well done, Orac. My faith in your judgment is restored.

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  3. Odd reactions - basically he's calling on scientists to do what you're doing, Larry. OK his preferred strategy for communicating evolution differs from yours. But at heart what he's asking for is exactly what you're doing, which is to take the debate out of the dry academic context and frame it in terms of wider social significance (whilst maintaining scientific credibility and accuracy).

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  4. Even if science journalists were doing a great job at communicating science to the public (which they aren't most of the time), and even if scientists were also doing a good job at that (and I happen to think that the best way to communicate science to the public is by doing exactly that - talking about science the way scientists do it, for which you don't need any middle men, but let's, for the sake of the argument, we assume we;re talking about "framing it" the right way), the reality is that this isn't going to make "the public" value and understand science. Because to begin with, few people are even listening and reading what scientists and science journalists have to say and you can't communicate anything to people who aren't even aware of your existence and that you have something to say.

    It is a huge misconception that these are problems that the scientists and science journalists have to solve - the only way to at least have the necessary number of people exposed to science and the scientific way of thinking is to have them hear it in school and what's very important, very early in school. And of course, this can't happen in a system where scientists have very little to say about what's taught in school because it's all decided on the local level by the same ignorant people that know nothing about science and that we're somehow supposed to reach.

    To think that it's even possible to somehow turn people from what they are now into rational and well informed individuals long after they have with great relief stopped having to even read about the facts of science at the elementary level they are taught in school (and even that level most of them never reached, but were nevertheless given a pass), is crazy.

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  5. There are scientists who communicate very well with he public. Examples include astronomer Phil Plait, biologist Ken Miller, and astrophysicist Neil Tyson. Of course, Prof. Moran doesn't like Miller and Tyson.

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  6. To blame poor science literacy on science journalists is like blaming political reporters for the sorry state of U.S. politics. You are so out of touch with reality, it is frightening. Just like an academic ...

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  7. Anonymous:

    "To blame poor science literacy on science journalists is like blaming political reporters for the sorry state of U.S. politics. You are so out of touch with reality, it is frightening. Just like an academic ..."

    It seems obvious to me that:
    A) Reporting on the current state of politics directly affects future political events. Reporting on Palin's campaign hijinks is what allowed people to decide whether or not they would like her as vice president. Let's suppose that the press had multilaterally taken a hands-off approach with Palin. Then presumably, some people who voted either way might have voted the opposite way, leading to a different outcome. So obviously, political reporters are at least partially "to blame" for the current state of politics: without political reporting, politics would look very different. Please explain why you think otherwise.
    B) If there is a class of people whose job it is to inform the lay public about science and scientific research, and if the lay public is notoriously under- and misinformed about science and scientific research, the obvious conclusion to me is that the first class somehow dropped the ball. Please explain why that is not a logical conclusion.

    -Dan L.

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  8. B) If there is a class of people whose job it is to inform the lay public about science and scientific research, and if the lay public is notoriously under- and misinformed about science and scientific research, the obvious conclusion to me is that the first class somehow dropped the ball. Please explain why that is not a logical conclusion.

    It isn't a logical conclusion, because as I explained in my earlier post, that group of people isn't being listened to, and it's hard to explain anything to someone if he never hears your message.

    The only way for science to be heard these days without any major reform of the educational (and not only) system, and it has to be a reform that will force people to hear and learn science, because too many of them simply don't like it and are never going to do that on their own, is to somehow insert it in mass media. This will only happen if it is either A) very profitable or B) the people who control mass media buy the idea. However, it isn't profitable and the people who control the media come from business and management background, and evolution or global warming happen to be not on the top of their priority list

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  9. Here's an even better one: Blaming science reporters for the sorry state of science literacy is like blaming entertainment reporters for all the crap on TV, in the theaters, etc!!

    Wow, the power you attach to science journalism is amazing!! If educating people were only that easy!

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  10. "It isn't a logical conclusion, because as I explained in my earlier post, that group of people isn't being listened to, and it's hard to explain anything to someone if he never hears your message."

    I'm not saying that science journalists are solely to blame, just as I am not saying that political journalists are solely to blame for the current state of politics. But to assume that they have NOTHING to do with their putative spheres of influence seems really silly to me. If political journalists don't affect public understanding of politics, why do we have political journalists? If science journalists don't affect public understanding of science, why do we have science journalists?

    Anyway, I disagree with your argument. No one becomes a science journalist with the expectation that one's work won't be read. If people aren't reading science journalism, it's because science journalists aren't creating compelling narratives to which the public can relate (and doing so does not preclude factual correctness).

    For example, I find most sports excruciatingly boring. Straight reporting on the when/who/what/how of sports bores me as well, because it's part of the same narrative. But when a layer of analysis is added, when the game is framed as a series of strategic and tactical moves instead of as a bunch of grown men throwing a ball around, it becomes interesting to me. Presumably, people find science boring because it's often...well...boring. But I don't think it's fair to conclude that people will refuse to read interesting stories just because the subjects of the stories are boring when presented in other contexts.

    -Dan L.

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  11. Just to follow up on my last post, I think the analogy of me reading sports journalism to Joe Schmoe reading science journalism is actually very apt.

    A typical sports fan could probably read straight reportage of the facts of a game and at least partially reconstruct the tactical and strategic narratives underlain by those facts. Without such a ready understanding of the principles of most sports, I am unable to do so. For me, the service performed by sports journalists is not to report the straight facts, which I don't find interesting anyway, but to partially interpret the game so that I can understand what's happening at a higher level.

    Similarly, when a science journalists takes the 5 Ws journalistic approach to science, I have the background and interest to interpret at least partially those facts within the larger context of science as a cultural phenomenon. Joe Schmoe presumably doesn't. In this case, reporting the facts is fine for me, but for Joe, we need someone to interpret those facts within a higher-level and more narrative framework -- simply because Joe lacks the particular education that would allow him to do that himself.

    -Dan L.

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  12. Anyway, I disagree with your argument. No one becomes a science journalist with the expectation that one's work won't be read. If people aren't reading science journalism, it's because science journalists aren't creating compelling narratives to which the public can relate (and doing so does not preclude factual correctness).

    Once again, I don't think you get it. People aren't reading science journalism not because it fails to engage them or because it's bad (and it isn't good, I don't disagree with that), it's because any piece of science journalism will by definition have to contain a lot of information about science, and that's what the majority of the population isn't very interested in hearing. What's worse, any good piece of science journalism will also have to be promoting the scientific way of thinking, and that's what the majority of people are not just not interested in hearing, but often actively opposed to. Anti-intellectualism runs very deep in our society and you ignoring that fact isn't going to help you solve the problem, but because it's such an inconvenient fact and it's much nicer to pretend that if we just frame things the right way, people will "get it" (because we think people are inherently curious and open to new ideas), it's often left out of the discussion. But unless you face that problem and solve it, you aren't going anywhere.

    Similarly, when a science journalists takes the 5 Ws journalistic approach to science, I have the background and interest to interpret at least partially those facts within the larger context of science as a cultural phenomenon. Joe Schmoe presumably doesn't. In this case, reporting the facts is fine for me, but for Joe, we need someone to interpret those facts within a higher-level and more narrative framework -- simply because Joe lacks the particular education that would allow him to do that himself.

    Why does Joe lack the education and isn't this the root of the problem? Remember, when I talk about these things, I am not talking about the 5-10% of the population who are actively interested in science and who need good science journalism to keep them well informed, I am not talking about the next 20-25% who would be interested in science if they were given more of it in the media, I am talking about the 2/3 of it that simply won't listen and which are for all purposes lost. They are lost, but their kids aren't, at least until they get indoctrinated in the same way of thinking, and that's what the target should be. This doesn't happen with better science journalism, because 10-year olds don't read the newspapers and magazines that science journalists write for, it happens with good education.

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  13. Re anonymous

    For example, I find most sports excruciatingly boring. Straight reporting on the when/who/what/how of sports bores me as well, because it's part of the same narrative. But when a layer of analysis is added, when the game is framed as a series of strategic and tactical moves instead of as a bunch of grown men throwing a ball around, it becomes interesting to me

    The problem is that most sports writers aren't really very cognizant of the sports they cover. In many cases, their analysis consists of Monday morning quarterbacking in which they engage in second guessing of the coach/manager.

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  14. "it's because any piece of science journalism will by definition have to contain a lot of information about science, and that's what the majority of the population isn't very interested in hearing."

    I do "get" what you're saying -- I just think it's incorrect. Most people think of accounting as a boring occupation. I don't go out of my way to read journalism about accounting; if anything, I go out of my way to avoid it. But during the recent financial crisis, I read probably a half dozen articles just on accounting, let alone financial derivatives, the money market breaking the buck, and all the other elements of the financial system that went wrong. Talking about JUST accounting is boring, but telling a story to which accounting is essential may not be. What's really important is to make the narrative relevant to the reader.

    And science and technology are relevant to everyone's lives. If you're fairly certain that a reader will not be interested in the science itself, you have to make the science a relevant part of a bigger story that WILL interest the reader.

    This goes for your "hopeless" 2/3rds of the population as well. When I'm spending time with friends who are presumably part of this 2/3rds -- people who "hated" science and math in school, who find it "boring" -- I don't necessarily start conversations about topics in science or mathematics. Such people are clearly not interested in talking about science for the sake of talking about science. However, once a conversation is already going, such people are, in my experience, readily interested by mathematical or scientific perspectives AS THEY RELATE TO the topic being discussed. That is, they're fine with learning about science as long as someone points out how it is relevant to something that doesn't bore them.

    "What's worse, any good piece of science journalism will also have to be promoting the scientific way of thinking, and that's what the majority of people are not just not interested in hearing, but often actively opposed to. Anti-intellectualism runs very deep in our society and you ignoring that fact isn't going to help you solve the problem"

    Again, I understand what you're saying, I just disagree. I don't think, for example, that there is such a thing as "THE scientific way of thinking." In fact, I don't think there's really even a delimiter between scientific ways of thinking and every-day ways of thinking. The same principles of multiple independent sources of evidence, logical inferences from a starting set of premises, hypothesis generation, hypothesis testing -- all of these happen in regular life as well as science. It's just that the problems that these problem-solving principles are applied to are different in university science departments than they are in the private sphere.

    I also think anti-intellectualism is a relatively vapid phrase. It is used to represent an incredibly diverse range of perspectives and opinions that have simply been thrown into a bucket arbitrarily (the contents of the bucket will vary greatly depending on who is using the term "anti-intellectual"). Anti-intellectualism isn't some monolithic problem that must be faced and overcome, as you seem to be claiming it is. Certain forms -- say, a person who distrusts all the fruits of academia -- cannot be fought at all. Others -- perhaps someone who disdains obscure or technical language, but readily acknowledges expertise when it is expressed in simple, clear language -- should be the standard audience for which science journalists write.

    -Dan L.

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  15. @SLC:

    "The problem is that most sports writers aren't really very cognizant of the sports they cover. In many cases, their analysis consists of Monday morning quarterbacking in which they engage in second guessing of the coach/manager."

    Not really relevant to what I'm saying. My point is that I can't put together my own narrative of what's happening on the field from the pieces: I lack the cognitive tools sports fans build up over a life of fandom to put the pieces together into a coherent whole. Likewise, I suspect that many "anti-intellectual" people see science as a sea of dull facts because they likewise lack the cognitive tools I've built up over the course of a life of interest in science and math.

    For me to be interested in sports, someone needs to connect the dots for me. I bet the situation is simply reversed for a lot of "anti-intellectual" types. I'm not saying that sports journalists are better than science journalists or anything.

    -Dan L. (see, I do put my name...)

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  16. Most people think of accounting as a boring occupation. I don't go out of my way to read journalism about accounting; if anything, I go out of my way to avoid it. But during the recent financial crisis, I read probably a half dozen articles just on accounting, let alone financial derivatives, the money market breaking the buck, and all the other elements of the financial system that went wrong.

    The more relevant question to the discussion is not whether you went and educated yourself about accounting because of the financial crisis (and I happen to think that's not even remotely close to being sufficient for understanding the causes of the crisis, it's much deeper than that), but how many other people actually went and did the same, and I am afraid that you did it because your mental habits are such that they allowed you to do so, but the mental habits of most people aren't and instead of spending some time and effort to investigate for themselves, most of them are simply blaming it on the government, the bankers, some conspiracy that's out to get them, or whatever bogeyman they happen to fancy at the moment.

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  17. And science and technology are relevant to everyone's lives. If you're fairly certain that a reader will not be interested in the science itself, you have to make the science a relevant part of a bigger story that WILL interest the reader.


    Science and technology are relevant to everyone's lives, but my suspicion is that this relevance comes to most people a lot more from the technology side (i.e. the next cool gadget you can buy) than from the science side (i.e. understanding the world around you). I don't think that when we're talking about communicating science to the public, we're talking about the former, we are talking about getting people to understand such things as the fact that they evolved from animals, are animals, and therefore nothing special, that people are part of the ecosystem of the planet and by overwhelming it's waste sinks, they're wrecking their life support system, and so on.

    That's of course very relevant to their lives, in fact much more relevant than the cool technology stuff, but those are unpleasant truths for most of them so I want to see the person who will successfully "frame" it, or make them "relate" to it when what you're trying to tell them is that they have to stop using their cool gadgets or their kids will die from war and starvation at some unknown time in the future and that's "highly likely but not certain".


    Again, I understand what you're saying, I just disagree. I don't think, for example, that there is such a thing as "THE scientific way of thinking." In fact, I don't think there's really even a delimiter between scientific ways of thinking and every-day ways of thinking. The same principles of multiple independent sources of evidence, logical inferences from a starting set of premises, hypothesis generation, hypothesis testing -- all of these happen in regular life as well as science. It's just that the problems that these problem-solving principles are applied to are different in university science departments than they are in the private sphere.

    I don't think there is such a thing either, I use it as a metaphor, but if you open that can of worms, things get even worse, because if the public isn't aware of how science works in principle, it's much less aware of how it works in practice and the various mechanisms that in the end make the scientific enterprise seem to work as if it follows those principles all the time. Climategate illustrated that very nicely.

    That said, you absolutely need to have people being extensively taught and understanding the basic epistemological rules that science follows, and I come at this from purely practical point of view, as this very much affects the life of everyone, because decision making is too often based on very poor epistemology, with disastrous results

    I also think anti-intellectualism is a relatively vapid phrase.

    It may be an often-misused term, but we have to call that set of attitudes something, and that's the word. If you ask me how I define it, it's everything from the distrust of academia and the disdain of technical language to a lot of the practices in academia itself such as the concept on which a lot of programs are based that universities are there primarily to prepare people for their jobs. And all of that has to stop.

    Anyway,

    1) I don't see you attacking my main thesis - that we need to tackle the foundation of the problem, and its foundation is poor education, starting from even before kids enter school, and the excessive freedom that parents are given to shape their kids' brains into the same state of irreparable ignorance that theirs are in. Does this mean you agree with that?

    and

    2) Any meaningful change of that sort isn't going to happen with well-framed articles by science journalists

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  18. "1) I don't see you attacking my main thesis - that we need to tackle the foundation of the problem, and its foundation is poor education, starting from even before kids enter school, and the excessive freedom that parents are given to shape their kids' brains into the same state of irreparable ignorance that theirs are in. Does this mean you agree with that?"

    Let's see: you seem to be saying that someone needs to restrict parents' freedom to indoctrinate their children as they think is appropriate. While I occasionally have the same thought, it's a terribly thorny ethical problem. So no, I don't agree that the state or the community should dictate to parents how they should raise their children.

    I do agree that education is the bigger part of the problem, though. The really sad part is that I think our current American school system is what is teaching people to regard math and science as boring or inscrutable or somehow otherwise apart from their lives.

    So no, I don't disagree with your main thesis entirely.

    "2) Any meaningful change of that sort isn't going to happen with well-framed articles by science journalists"

    I'm only claiming that science journalism has SOME effect on public scientific literacy. I think good science writing can make even people who are suspicious in science get a glimpse of its relevance in their lives and get them thinking in spite of themselves. I don't think it's going to be the deciding factor, but I'm pretty sure it's a factor. If it's not, why are there even science journalists?

    -Dan L.

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  19. Let's see: you seem to be saying that someone needs to restrict parents' freedom to indoctrinate their children as they think is appropriate. While I occasionally have the same thought, it's a terribly thorny ethical problem. So no, I don't agree that the state or the community should dictate to parents how they should raise their children.

    When I say that parents have the freedom to indoctrinate children into ignorance, I refer to such things as homeschooling and local school boards. Banning the former and creating a centralized educational standards that are actually enforced aren't thorny ethical issues, they maybe politically incorrect in the US, but that doesn't mean that's not what the system is in many other countries. Of course, those countries while definitely doing better than the US still fail to solve the problem, but that's because the standards aren't high enough, they aren't being met by a large portion of the students, and they invariably don't include that so crucial proper epistemology part that I am advocating. If such ideas seem too politically correct, the problem is in political correctness, not in the ideas

    I do agree that education is the bigger part of the problem, though. The really sad part is that I think our current American school system is what is teaching people to regard math and science as boring or inscrutable or somehow otherwise apart from their lives.

    I don't think it's teaching them that, it's more a problem of the educational system failing to prevent people from regarding science as boring in the presence of so many other stimuli that offer much more immediate gratification. Truth is that the foundation of the problem has to be attacked, and that foundation is in too many areas of social life for this to ever happen. So we're basically just speculating here, we both know nothing will ever get done. But I am glad we can achieve at least partial agreement:

    So no, I don't disagree with your main thesis entirely.

    ----

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  20. "2) Any meaningful change of that sort isn't going to happen with well-framed articles by science journalists"

    I'm only claiming that science journalism has SOME effect on public scientific literacy. I think good science writing can make even people who are suspicious in science get a glimpse of its relevance in their lives and get them thinking in spite of themselves. I don't think it's going to be the deciding factor, but I'm pretty sure it's a factor. If it's not, why are there even science journalists?


    It could and should help, but in an ideal world we shouldn't need it and in the real world it's almost irrelevant.

    I would much rather have the regular journalists not be so science-illiterate so that they at least stop confusing the public, than have some very good science journalists preach to the converted

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  21. it's because any piece of science journalism will by definition have to contain a lot of information about science, and that's what the majority of the population isn't very interested in hearing.

    I don't think that is actually the case - consider the success of shows like Mythbusters.

    The main issue seems to me to be that the "Framers" have it precisely backwards in what actually works - they want a quieter, drier science whereas the drama of science is what actually sells it.

    Conflict draws our attention and gives us something to think about - non-conflict doesn't.

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  22. Most people don't give a rat's ass about science, and no amount of "good" science journalism is going to change that. People who are surrounded by people who are interested in science tend to be very unaware of how most of the world couldn't care less about the stuff that scientists find so filled with "drama."

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  23. The primary goal of science writers and science journalists is to be effective communicators of science

    Start with a false assumption, come to a false answer.

    The primary goal of a science writer/journalist is to earn money for their publisher. No more effort, aside from that needed to produce the material needed to attract advertising dollars, will ever be made.

    The very fact that the public at large ignorant of science will only act to ensure the status-quo continues, as there is no desire from the public (and hence no attraction to advertisers) for improved/increased science reporting.

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  24. Ignorance is the result of ineffective education not poor journalisim or some inbuilt antipathy towards education and science in particular held by the majority of the population.

    That looks like myth making.

    The responsability and solution for this issue lies with educators I think.

    To suggest that the problem is with the media being unable to interest and educate adults who have been already failed by the education system in this regard stikes me as a deeply ignorant response to this very serious issue.

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  25. Jeb says,

    Ignorance is the result of ineffective education not poor journalisim or some inbuilt antipathy towards education and science in particular held by the majority of the population.

    I don't disagree.

    My point is that Chris can't have it both ways. If he puts the blame on scientists writing for the general public then he must accept a greater amount of blame on behalf of science writers.
     

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  26. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  27. Jeb said...
    Ignorance is the result of ineffective education not poor journalisim or some inbuilt antipathy towards education and science in particular held by the majority of the population.


    Why is education ineffective? I find the argument that it is ineffective precisely because of that inbuilt antipathy towards education and science in particular held by the majority of the population, combined with the system not having enough checks built-in to prevent that antipathy from ruining education quite convincing. You can't have things like homeschooling and claim that there is no such thing as people who are hostile to science. And it's really much bigger than homeschooling and Christian insanity, as I like to say, people go to school so that they can go to college, then they go to college so that they can either get a job or go to med/law/grad school, and then, with the possible exception of science PhDs, they go there so that they can get a better paid job. At no point in the process do the majority of people do it in order to learn something for the sake of learning it and understanding the world around them. That's not a science-friendly attitude, and it isn't formally built in the system, it's the people who shape it into the massive failure it is.

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