Lawrence Krauss is a best-selling author and one of America’s top spokespersons for the scientific outlook. He is Swasey Professor of Physics and professor of astronomy at Case Western Reserve University, where he also directs the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics. A science educator interested in helping define the proper limits of both science and religion, he recently discussed communicating science to various publics with D.J. Grothe, associate editor of Free Inquiry.—Eds.
Free Inquiry: First, how bad is the state of scientific literacy in America?
Lawrence Krauss: It is worse than you can imagine and can’t be underestimated. The National Science Foundation, along with many other organizations, does an annual survey of scientific literacy, and the fact that 50 percent of the American public doesn’t know the Earth orbits around the Sun in one calendar year should tell us something. And I don’t see many signs that scientific literacy is improving. In fact, I notice even more of a divorce of science and popular culture, of science and politics. But science is so central to resolving the major crises we will face in the twenty-first century; that’s why I have gotten so involved in educating the public about science.
FI: So where is the failure in the public understanding of science coming from? There are more ways a person can learn science today than ever before.
Krauss: First, we do a rotten job teaching science in the public schools. Almost 90 percent of middle-school science teachers have had no science education beyond high school. We have role models in our culture who joke about knowing no science. People seem to be proud to proclaim their scientific illiteracy almost as a badge of honor. The fact that people can still feel that they are cultured if they know nothing about and don’t appreciate science is a huge problem. Also, I’d point to the censorship of science in our society. With the profusion of twenty-four-hour news stations and the Internet, of course people have more access to information than ever before. But how do they get the right information? Successful public relations campaigns can be organized to obfuscate key scientific issues (global warming is an example). Important scientific information is just not getting to the public, and I would also blame journalists for this to some degree. Many of them are just not comfortable reporting on science, and if they do, they treat science like politics: as if there are two sides to every issue. Yet this is usually not so in science—often one side is just wrong. This results in much of the public’s confusion about some science issues like evolution and global warming.
FI: Would you agree that many social and policy issues—such as global warming, creationism versus evolution, stem-cell research, missile defense, even gay rights—can be framed as science versus antiscience? Science presents a view on these issues, and there are forces of unreason that hold opposite views.
Krauss: I do think that being an enemy of science is also being an enemy of reason. People have claimed that scientists are biased in favor of liberal progressive politics, but that isn’t universal. It is wrong to frame science as a liberal versus conservative issue, even if it is true that the current Republican administration has been hostile to the findings of science. Science is considered a target by some fundamentalist religious groups, and science, as a consequence, may come out against those groups. Yet it is not because of a basic antagonism against religion but because those religious groups lack a basic understanding of science and think erroneously that science is a threat if it doesn’t mention God explicitly.
FI: So when your science is confronting someone else’s religion, it isn’t due to your ideology but based on evidence.
Krauss: If it is ideology, it is not good science. As a scientist, I can have religious viewpoints (and I do), but when I express religious or metaphysical ideas, I am speaking as an individual, not as a scientist. Religion and science are compatible, at least in the sense that there are well-known scientists who are also religious. Of course, as worldviews, they are incompatible in many cases. Science has demonstrated there is no evidence of the supernatural, but negative evidence can’t ever really be definitive. Scientists should combat known nonsense, and there is a lot of known nonsense in fundamentalist religion. But using science to combat things for which there is no scientific evidence one way or the other demeans religion—there are more important battles for science to fight than against religion. If your priority is teaching people about science, attacking their religion at the beginning only closes their minds. At the same time, it is vitally important for people like Richard Dawkins to raise people’s consciousness about the fact that not believing in God is not an evil thing. But it is the science educator’s job to inform the public about the way the world works based on the results of experiment. We should follow truth wherever it leads—but we shouldn’t go out of our way to offend religious sensibilities unless they are wrong.
This is only a small part of the interview. To hear the rest of D.J. Grothe’s talk with Lawrence Krauss, go to www.pointofinquiry.org.