Assigning Blame for Public Science Skepticism

I’ve been thinking a lot about public skepticism for science, perhaps a result of the present tense political climate. The depth of public skepticism is reflected in observations ranging from US presidential doubts about climate change to celebrity doubts that the Earth is in fact a sphere (NBA star Kyrie Irving’s claim back in February 2017). I am left to wonder, how can anyone think that the world is flat or that climate isn’t changing? Who’s to blame for such a failure of the public education system?

Teachers of course.

I coauthored an article in the Spring 2017 newsletter of the Minnesota Science Teachers’ Association accepting a type of blame on us teachers. The blame, though, rests not so much with failure to expose students to ‘true’ science as with failure to teach science in a way that compels trust in the results. We tend to teach our students to know and explain the theories rather than to understand the observational and investigative underpinnings of them, a problem that my coauthor and I examine in our recently published book, Learning to Read the Earth and Sky. If we teachers give our students the theories, but don’t engage them in the practices of science that allow them to test those theories, why shouldn’t we expect public skepticism?

If skepticism originates in the divorcement of science theory from observation and reason, then it occurs to me that science fiction writers can take part of the blame as well. Modern science fiction has very little science in it, that is, it contains a lot of ‘magical’ technology, weird jargon, and mystical properties of the universe rather than investigation based on observation and reasoning. Of course, science fiction is fiction after all. What should we expect? But when there is little effort to connect the ‘in theory’ statements in science fiction to observation and reasoning within the story, it leaves the subtle impression that science is just a different form of magic to be accepted on faith. Or not.

Something to think about.

Dr C.

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The Mars One Initiative–Is it Real?

I’m sure you all heard about the call for volunteers last August (2013) for a one-way trip to Mars.  The call received over 200,000 applicants.  In December, the applicants were weeded down to just 0.5% of that number, a little over 1000 (one of my students made the initial application but sadly didn’t survive the first cut).

Is this exciting mission likely to really happen?  Are the organizer’s even serious?

I tend to think not.  If the organizers were serious, why not start with a colony on the Moon, where the logistics and health challenges of travel are much less, where the upfront cost is lower, and where the proximity to Earth greatly decreases the risks to life and success?  Most of the benefits of a Mars Colony would still be present on the Moon, such as the opportunity to learn how to live in space and the chance to invite tourists to come walk on another world.

You don’t have to travel half a year to get to the Moon, and, in an emergency, you might actually have some viable options.  It’s true that Mars has a very faint atmosphere, which provides a type of weather that you wouldn’t see on the Moon.  But the Moon has the compensating advantage of a living world always hanging in its sky–Earth.  The opportunity to see our world from a distance as the “fragile blue marble” might change us more as a species that a colonization of distant Mars.

Serious or not, the Mars One initiative is certainly exciting.  Does it mean a revival of human hunger for adventure?  It’s been 40+ years since humans traveled to another world–apparently we have “too many problems on Earth” to invest in such matters.  Interestingly, in that time, adventure stories haven taken a back seat to action and thrillers.  Likewise, during this time, adventure computer games never really took off after the initial boost from Myst–outcompeted by a variety of action and combat games.  More than action or thrillers, adventure stories are about discovery, exploration, and simple wonder.   Without a vision for human exploration of our solar system, our hunger for discovery, exploration, and wonder in our fiction appears to have waned.

So what is the destiny of Adventure?  Does the Mars One initiative signal a renewed hunger for discovery and exploration?  Or does its setting on far-off Mars only signal that we like to think we still love adventure, but in reality we choose grand goals which we can, in the end, decline with dignity, even while we leave the reachable Moon hanging in our sky uncolonized?

What’s your thought?

—Dr. C.

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About Writer’s Corner

Writer’s Corner is a place to consider Earth and Space Science topics of particular interest to writers, like what real Earth Science looks like in a story, what’s in the news, how movies and books get it wrong (that’s always fun),or what distinguishes science fiction from fantasy (always a favorite debate).  Feel free to participate in the discussion!

Your friendly Chief Blogger is Russ Colson (Dr. C).  Russ has taught college geology, planetary science and meteorology for over 20 years.  He has been a science fiction fan since his introduction to Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, and Edgar Rice Burroughs as a teenager, and even dables in writing some of his own stories.  He’s author of over nineteen published science fiction stories and articles including an article in Clarkesworld Magazine that addresses the tragic misuse of Earth Science in science fiction.

Guest Blogger is Mary Colson.  Mary has taught 8th grade Earth Science for over twenty years in Tennessee, Texas, and Minnesota.  Mary reads a lot of non-fiction science for middle schoolers and also plenty of science fiction, mystery, and thrillers.  She was a member of the writing team for the current Next Generation Science Standards.

The artwork at the top of the blog is by artist Steven Stalboerger–a portion of his work “Expedition on Enceladus.”

This blog is hosted on http//, a resource for writers and teachers interested in discussing Earth Science issues.



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