"The CDC is well aware that vaccines cause autism," the young woman told me. "They cover it up because of the money."
It's a lament as perennial as the grass: The level of science literacy of the American public is subterranean. People believe strange and irrational things. But the puzzling thing is, this seems to be an immutable fact -- one that resists every effort at change. The strength of the beliefs is more worrisome than the beliefs themselves.
Whether the issue is climate, the safety of vaccines, or biological evolution, significant numbers of people routinely consider the word of science neither wise nor right. There are deeper truths, these people aver, that are repressed by government or the science practitioners because of greed, social control, or simple malevolence. The government, according to the disbelievers, is fully capable of doing more than merely hiding the specs of military aircraft or the names of operatives in sand-blown countries. They are concealing important facts germane to everyone.
A common, mostly innocuous example is the supposed fact that Earth hosts visitors from other worlds. The suggestion is that, among the myriad UFO sightings reported each year, some are alien spacecraft. This would be important, if true.
I seriously doubt it's true. By the standards of science, the evidence is unconvincing. But one-third of the population feels otherwise. Dismaying perhaps, but hardly cause for deep concern. The supposed aliens are neither a threat nor a help. They're like albino squirrels: intriguing but of small consequence. And the same is true of many other odd beliefs, such as the idea that hirsute hominids with big feet are shambling through the forests of the Pacific northwest.
Unfortunately, not all anti-science weirdness is innocuous. The few percent of the population that thinks vaccines cause autism threatens the health of not just their kids, but every kid. Those who refuse to give credit to our species for causing major climate change do the same.
One could cite other examples. But the truly remarkable thing about science illiteracy is not its existence or even its import. Rather, it's the fact that it seems as fixed in place as Jabba the Hutt. Despite the best efforts of science popularizers and educators -- despite the easy access to information on the Internet -- the level of science illiteracy doesn't seem to ever decrease. According to a 2001 poll, 6 percent of Americans bought into the idea that vaccines are more dangerous than the diseases they prevent. Today, that percentage is 9 percent. This despite teachers, textbooks, and TV science superstars.
How to understand this? On the one hand, it's possible that the plaints of popularizers and the statements from researchers -- while widely disseminated -- play only to the choir. They are falling not on deaf ears, but on those that already like the music.
Another possibility is that those who try to improve science literacy are fighting our natures. The idea of secret knowledge -- of conspiracies to hide the truth -- can be both comforting and gratifying. They give our anxious selves simple, immediately comprehensible explanations for the threats we all confront. We're likely to be wired to like this approach because early Homo sapiens, ignorant of Nature's laws, found mystical constructs helpful in navigating the perilous conditions of their existence.
But if our Pleistocene brains are wired to favor magical, or at least illogical arguments -- if schools, science communicators, and Nova are only marginally effective -- what can we do to nudge the needle of science literacy? Must we wait for chip implants or genetic rewiring?
Alas, the answer may be that there is no near-term answer. Despite its obvious vulnerability to charges of elitism, perhaps the best we can hope for is to accept the misconceptions and minimize the damage.
We should require that those who wield governmental power -- from legislators to judges -- be conversant with science. Imagine if the trial in Dover, Pennsylvania to legitimize the teaching of evolution in public schools had gone the other way? That would have seriously dinged our society's future. Or, from a different perspective, suppose Thabo Mbeki of South Africa had accepted that HIV infection leads to AIDS? It's estimated that would have saved 300,000 lives.
The implication here is that the electorate in any democratic society needs to care whether the elected know any science or not. They cannot simply dismiss casual talk by politicians that autism is a consequence of vaccinating babies, or preface uninformed comments on climate change with seemingly modest disclaimers such as "Well, I'm not a scientist but ..."
Whether it's public health, our future environment, or even deciding how to protect our kids, we have an obligation to make sure that those with power are as literate as our natures will allow.