Educating the public about science is an uphill battle

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Sharon Begley, science editor of Newsweek, despairs of the challenge of educating the American public about science. Such issues as evolution, she said, have be-come so politically charged that a rational discussion seems impossible. “No amount of excellent journalism on evolution is likely to make a difference,” she said. “We can write it, but that doesn’t mean that people will believe it.”

In a talk sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in November, Begley said that there is a large disconnect between factual knowledge and belief. “Human-kind has practiced magical thinking and has relied on instinctual thinking and superstition much longer than it has relied on critical thinking,” she said.

While people accept scientific findings on noncontroversial topics—most, for example, believe correctly that the center of the planet is extremely hot—the reverse is true for evolution. About half the population, she said, believes that humans and dinosaurs coexisted. And only 21 percent know that DNA is the molecule of heredity.

“Knowledge is not enough to support rational scientific thinking,” she said. “You have to want to think rationally.”