I have one or two more thoughts on this matter of scientific literacy that we were discussing last month (that is to say, yesterday), inspired by this article on the CSICOP website, which was in turn inspired by a pair of articles in the Guardian.

One thought, which I touched on but in a jokey not to say flippant manner, has to do with how manipulative and touchy-feely and sub-rational it all seems. The public feels this and feels that, and the public feels this or that because we do things to make them feel that way. We hold their hands, we flatter them, we plant moist kisses on their cheeks, we tell them we really value their opinions. Is this not a little creepy? A little like the way we talk to six year olds who need a nap? Or the way advertisers and ‘Public Relations’ experts and real estate agents and political operatives and indeed politicians themselves talk to us? There are books and expensive seminars on how to do that kind of thing, how to tickle people’s sensitivities and nudge their fears and activate their prejudices in order to get them to do what we want. Hitler was good at it and the nice people who sell everyone enormous SUVs are good at it, too, but are those really examples of how we want scientists to talk to us? We all become like poor stupid drugged Linda in Truffaut’s movie version of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ thinking the nice man in the giant TV screen is really talking to her. ‘And what do YOU think, Linda?’ ‘And what do YOU think, Public?’ ‘Montag, look, they’re talking to me, they want to know what I think!’

The other thought has to do with some unexamined assumptions. Or some sacred cows, would be another way of putting it. Especially the assumption that the public already knows enough about science to make decisions about it. All the public, apparently, all six billion plus of us, infants included. How did we get that knowledge? Were we born with it? Is it innate? Do we just kind of breathe it in, or get it by osmosis? Susan Greenfield puts the matter this way:

Or could the “it” be that I was implying, however covertly, a patronising attitude to an otherwise Renaissance general public, who are already, as Turney avows, clear minded and up to speed with the subtleties and problems facing the integration of science with society? This mindset is, of course, in the focus-group-anti-elitist spirit of our age.

Exactly. The public must be universally wise and reflective and knowlegeable enough, because that’s the only decent thing to think. If experience and evidence contradict that happy thought, well, experience and evidence must be elitist, so we’ll just pretend they don’t exist.

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