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Nov. 15, 2007

MSU prof: Lack of science knowledge hurting democratic process

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Politics and science are two words that don’t often make it into the same sentence.

But a Michigan State University professor says they should.

In a paper presented recently to the Royal Society of London, Jon Miller said that as scientific issues such as stem cell research and genetic engineering become more political, people are going to need more of what Miller calls “civic scientific literacy.”

“Scientific literacy is not separate from other citizenship skills,” he said, “but a part of the fabric of knowledge and understanding necessary to sustain democratic participation in the 21st century.”

Miller, the John A. Hannah Professor of Integrative Studies and director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy, said just within the past few years a number of science-related issues have appeared on ballots.

Earlier this month, voters in New Jersey rejected a proposal to fund stem cell research. In 2004, a similar proposal was approved by California voters. Within the past few years, several states have approved proposals banning human cloning.

A lack of civic scientific literacy on the part of the voting population “is a serious challenge to our long-standing commitment to participatory democratic governance,” Miller said. “Ideology is no substitute for informed democratic debate.”

So what exactly is the state of scientific literacy in the world?

“Most adults in Europe and the United States,” said Miller, “are currently unable to understand the substance of some of the most important issues facing modern societies on planet Earth.”

In the 2004 U.S. presidential election, the subject of stem cell research was debated by the two major party candidates in a nationally televised debate. In a survey published the following year, Miller found that only 4 percent of U.S. voters held a firm view on the stem cell issue, with a substantial majority reporting it was too difficult for them to understand.

Likewise, in Europe, according to a 2005 Eurobarometer, a semi-annual survey of adults in all 27 nations that compose the European Union, only 4 percent of European adults claimed to be “very familiar” with the stem cell issue.

“These results,” Miller said, “cannot be encouraging to the friends of democracy on either side of the Atlantic.”

In a survey released earlier this year, Miller and colleagues found that about 28 percent of American adults qualified as scientifically literate, which is an increase of about 10 percent from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

It also was slightly ahead of European adults, but still nothing to celebrate.

“A slightly higher proportion of American adults qualify as scientifically literate than European or Japanese adults, but the truth is that no major industrial nation in the world today has a sufficient number of scientifically literate adults,” Miller said at the time. “We should take no pride in a finding that 70 percent of Americans cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times.”

Miller’s recent findings were presented at a recent meeting of the Royal Society of London, which is the British model for the United States’ National Academy of Sciences. Founded in 1660, the Royal Society of London has been the center point for the discussion of science in Britain and internationally for more than three centuries.


Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 17 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.