Can a day make a difference?

Despite mounting scientific evidence, a 2018 Gallup poll reveals that Americans are almost uniformly divided on whether global warming is happening. Can improved science-fluency change the opinions of the naysayers?

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This week India will celebrate National Science Day. It will be the 32nd year of this event. In an effort to popularize science and celebrate scientific achievement, in 1987 the government of India chose February 28 as National Science Day. The date also marks Indian scientist Sir C.V. Raman’s 1928 discovery of the Raman effect. Raman showed that when light of a particular wavelength falls on a molecule, the light deflected by that molecule now has a different wavelength. This property is exploited globally in applications as diverse as identifying counterfeit drugs, to detecting explosives.

In the last couple of years, the world has seen enormous leaps in scientific achievement that include treating old diseases with new drugs and even nanoscale robots, while sending a car towards Mars. All this while collecting massive amounts of all conceivable data that can be used to all matter of ends. In fact, by some estimates 90% of the data we have today was generated in the last two years. To fully benefit from the scientific achievements, and understand and apply all the data we’ve generated, fluency in science is going to be an asset.

Would earmarking an annual National Science Day in the U.S. improve our lives by raising a broad fluency in STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics?

So far in 2019, the CDC reports multiple outbreaks of measles with more than 130 cases across at least 10 states; more than 80% of these were confirmed unvaccinated individuals, and an additional 5–10% either had incomplete vaccinations, or did not recall whether or not they had been vaccinated.

Measles is a highly contagious disease that can lead to severe complications including pneumonia and encephalitis, and yet the number of people refusing the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine is increasing. In fact, the recent outbreaks are primarily in states that permit vaccine exemptions not only on religious grounds, but also “philosophical” grounds — together these are termed non-medical exemptions (NME).

The 1998 study touted by antivaxers (those against vaccinations) has been discredited and shown to be rife with falsified data. Six years later, in 2004, 10 of the 12 authors to that study published a retraction stating, “no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient.” Despite this, immeasurable time and effort continues to be spent by scientists to present data in support of the efficacy of vaccines, and to draw attention, in language devoid of jargon, to the flawed arguments presented by antivaxers.

Science-fluency would equip individuals with skills to interpret findings correlating NME-permitting states with increased risks of outbreaks of diseases that were until the 1990s, all but eradicated.

A 2016 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicates 262 children between the ages of 8 to 12 years were killed in car crashes, and nearly half of those children were not wearing seat belts.

These statistics are as alarming as those on outbreaks of diseases that can be easily avoided with vaccines. In both instances, adults have the ability to make choices that benefit the children in their care. And yet, they don’t. This lapse in judgement might be a consequence of a limited understanding of science that provides evidence-based conclusions, a situation that can be changed by improving science-fluency.

Marking a single day to increase science awareness is not a magic potion, but it will be a step in the right direction. In the rapid news cycles that we live in, there is little time for reflection and taking stock of things. Perhaps setting a National Science Day will be an opportunity to pause, and appreciate all that science and scientists have achieved, and shine a light on the future of science and society. I’m betting that this will move us closer to science-fluency. A quote attributed to Louis Pasteur probably says it best, “Science is the highest personification of the nation because that nation will remain the first which carries the furthest the works of thought and intelligence.”

Deepti is a scientist & now, a research analyst at Yale University. She runs Tilde Cafe, a forum to demystify science & make it accessible (www.tildecafe.org)

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