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Monday, June 04, 2012

Bruce Alberts Talks About Science Literacy

Bruce Alberts was president of the National Academy of Sciences (1993-2005), author of The Molecular Biology of the Cell, and winner of the Gairdner Award for his work on DNA replication. He was my Ph.D. supervisor. He is currently editor-in-chief of Science magazine. He has been interested in science education and science literacy for many decades so when he makes a comment about science education, it's worth listening to.

Here's a quote from a recent interview in PLoS Genetics [Scientist Citizen: An Interview with Bruce Alberts].
You look at the current political system in the US. It's incredibly depressing. These kinds of statements that “scientists only believe in climate change so that they can get a grant.” This kind of stuff couldn't be said if we actually had a population that understood what science is. We have a fantastic scientific community, and if we don't unleash them and give them credit for working on these things, then I don't think our country is going to prosper.

Every ten years the Academy publishes a booklet called “Science, Evolution and Creationism” [available online], and before the last one in 2008, the Academy hired one of the companies that put people behind a one-way mirror and interview them to see what they think about some new product. But this question was, “How do they think about science and creationism?”

And the staggering message from these college-educated adults is that they don't see any difference between science as a belief system and religion as a belief system. So basically, the preacher tells them what religious people believe, the scientists tell them what scientists believe, and [they think] “I can choose either one.” And the reason they can say that is that they don't understand what we call “science as a way of knowing”. That it is not a belief system, that it is an evidence-based community process.

This is just unbelievable, that our American public can determine our future without understanding the fundamental issues about scientific facts. If the population isn't prepared to deal with these kinds of issues, to think rationally and respect evidence, then I think the country is really in danger.
Like I say, science is a way of knowing that involves evidence and rationality. Now you know where I got that from.

The photo was taken at Bruce's 70th birthday party. It shows him with his first three graduate students: Keith Yamamoto (left), me (second from right), and Glenn Herrick (right).


  1. I was at an atheist meetup the other day, and the resilience of religious ideas came up in connversation. It seems to me that the nature of the relgion-adherent relationship is mostly emotional and irrational. Carpet bombing people with scientific facts isn't enough to change opinions.

  2. I wonder how much of these college students have bought into the Left's embrace of deconstructionist relativism, which asserts that scientific truth is no different than other forms of truth. My guess may be a large, staggering number, based on this new polling data.

    John Kwok

  3. (Is that the Oxytricha genomics Glenn Herrick or someone else?)

  4. Bruce Alberts is oversimplifying a much more complex and far more depressing situation in American politics. As ususal, in that excerpt, at least he's leaving out the force in American culture that's many, many times more influential than religion, the media. The closest thing to an explanation of why America has gone so bad is that it is perfectly legal to lie, to tell any lie and package it as attractive entertainment. Putting it plainly, in unfashionable terms, America has been corrupted with lies. And the perpetrators of that are the corporations, the economic elite and their kept presstitutes. They've corrupted religious discourse as well as politics in that way. Trying to turn it into a war on religion is one of the major mistakes of the weak, liberalish, liberetarianism that passes as liberalism these days.

    I don't see anything like a revival of liberalism in the war on religion crowd. They're part of the problem, not of the solution.

    1. ?

      What is the motivation of "the corporations, the economic elite and their kept presstitutes" for the intelligent design problem?

    2. Since the 1970s the Republicans have tapped into the large fundamentalist population, especially that concentrated in the South. They've used them to win control of the congress and the presidency. Look at how well the fundamentalist agenda has fared in contrast to the huge success of the corporate agenda in the United States for a hint at what the real agenda was. They'll throw only so many bones to the fundamentalists to keep them on board but they are not that important to them. I suspect that the racism found within the fundamentalists is more useful to Republicans than creationism is. I'm certain that anti-gay and anti-Latino bigotry is, those extend past the creationist part of their base.

      You want easier answers against a weaker opponent from narrow, ideological motives and you miss the mark entirely.

  5. Like I say, science is a way of knowing that involves evidence and rationality. Now you know where I got that from.

    This is where your definition of science comes from... interesting, not from any philosophical, historic, linguistic principles, nor from philosophers of science or contemporaries that have developed this definition.

    Your view of science is tied to atheism. Not many philosophers of science would agree with you here. Frankly Science goes FAR beyond rationality and evidence, and FURTHER beyond a way of knowing. This definition of science is incomplete and not broad enough.

    As for the thought criminal-Religion can be studied through science- and if one does use a scientific approach they will come to conclusions about religious entities-- However Science as an institution, and religion as institution are separate from each other. For many, but not all, philosophical reasons they are not exclusive (many atheists and religious people have trouble handling this statement).

    In no legitimate philosophical transaction would a philosopher of science argue that science is a vehicle for atheism. Science simply does not work that way. It cannot.

    As for the gentleman's claim that the population must learn to think rationally and understand science- I agree- but first scientists must understand the philosophies of science and not infuse dogma into it.

    If you really wanted to help the population- everyone should understand statistics, and gain the technical abilities to conduct research. This would be more helpful to understanding science than a false belief that one is a rational being.