Message in a Bottle — the first real SOS post

Well, after fiddling with the site layout for what feels like a few months, I’m finally ready to start writing in earnest. I think I owe those who follow some idea of just what I’m trying to accomplish here.

Without repeating too much of the material in my “About SOS” page, it’s apparent to most people that science and technology are a huge part of modern life — but studies have repeatedly shown that the level of science literacy in much of the “western world” is dangerously low. You can see an odd sort of distribution of societal attitudes toward science, as well. In the U.S., science literacy is even lower than in many other “western” countries, but most people in the U.S. have a positive view of science and its potential contributions to societal well-being. Contrast this with Europe, where levels of science literacy are higher than in the U.S., but people have a much lower opinion of science (i.e., they think science has more potential risks than benefits). One thing is nearly universal, though — people seem to be confused about just what “science” means, and what does or doesn’t qualify as “scientific.”

Part of the problem might be a lingering memory of past (bad) experiences with science. Quite a few people that I’ve talked to in random conversations (on planes, at parties, and such) see science as being either dull, or else somehow “beyond” them. I have to think that at least some of this is a byproduct of our educational system. Educators have to deal with large amounts of material, and far too little time to present it in. In this sort of situation, there’s always the risk of boiling the material down a bit too far — so far that all the flavor is cooked out of the material.

The mass media hardly help matters either. Only a handful of daily papers still have a dedicated science section, and few journalists have any educational background in scientific or technical subjects. The science reporting that does manage to squeak through is then often “dumbed-down” and sensationalized in a misguided attempt to appeal to a broader audience. It should come as no surprise that mass media coverage of science is often disjointed, inaccurate, and self-contradictory.

So what’s to be done? A number of science blogs and podcasts are already available, some produced by very learned academics (see the right sidebar for some good links). I think something’s missing, though — a well-rounded presentation of science from the point of view of a generalist, written in conversational English, for a general audience. This is where I plan to fit in — I’ll leave the highly specialized discussions to those who have that expertise, and try to give laypersons a better grasp of what we know, how we learned it, and why it’s important.

It’s been said that learning is a journey; I hope you’ll come along with me on this trip.

Sam Wise

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