Scientific illiteracy: Emerging tech isn't doing a good enough job 'explaining' itself

(Nanowerk News) Nanotechnology is revolutionizing everything from industry to medicine. We live in the most scientifically advanced age of all time, while simultaneously living in a profoundly scientifically-illiterate era, especially in the United States.
People used to believe the sun was driven around the Earth by some god in a chariot, but considering what genuine scientific knowledge they had at the time, the sun god and his chariot was a relatively reasonable argument.
What scientific knowledge we have now and what the average American understands about that knowledge is a widening gap that has already been the cause of restrictions leading to unnecessary suffering and inhibited progress.
There is a real danger that unless this gap is narrowed, the world will repeat what history has shown to be a trend: the fear of new advances leading to unfounded, unnecessary, and even sometimes violent backlashes.
DNA double helix
It wasn't that long ago that people began to understand the double helix concept of DNA and how it pertains to human evolution and genetics. That understanding has now arguably crossed a threshold, thanks in no small part to home DNA kit testing. Millions around the world have swabbed their cheeks and sent in their DNA for information on their ancestry, heredity (and also increasingly, for information on what genetic diseases they might be more predisposed towards.)
A list of 10 major DNA test kit providers shows the tech is cheaper, faster, and more specified than ever. For many folks, such heritage or health DNA tests has triggered curiosity and resulted in them digging deeper into DNA and coming away educated and edified.
But too many still simply don't understand even the most basic facts, and these are the people who – it’s a fair prediction – will soon begin hollering about scientists ‘playing God’ as emerging technologies mixing nanotechnology and DNA structures begin to accelerate.
It's time for scientists and lay scientists to consider how to better educate the public on emerging technologies – especially related to DNA –to avoid a predictable backlash from an undereducated populous led by leaders who sometimes seem to get their ideas from science fiction.
The 1997 film Gattaca shows a world where those found with certain genetic markers at birth are barred from jobs and assigned low-ranked positions. It's an excellent film and even visionary. But the situation envisioned by Gattaca is not the same as utilizing nanotechnology and DNA structures to build a pathway for a targeted cancer drug, for example. Will it be possible to tinker with genetics in profoundly unethical ways? The answer is almost certainly a future yes if it hasn't already been employed by the unscrupulous.
Is a world such as depicted in Gattaca possible? Yes, is again the answer, but those moral concerns can be addressed by legislation and convention. What we need to avoid is the unfortunate possibility of some ban on DNA research based on some legislators equating DNA nanotechnology with eugenics.
scientists working with DNA
Some might be chuckling, safe in the belief that this confusion could never occur. But the evidence suggests otherwise. Consider former bans in much of the United States on huge portions of research using stem cells. It's likely most with strong enough scientific literacy would support stem cell research as they understand the difference between a stem cell, a zygote, a fetus, and a baby. Who knows what sort of breakthroughs might have occurred over the past 20-odd years if the United States had not enacted such strict rules due to what many believe is a misunderstanding of basic scientific facts?
A Pew Research Center poll from 2019 raises other serious concerns. Only 63% of Americans were able to confirm that the tilt of the Earth's axis in relation to the sun determines the seasons. Consider for a moment that this can be explained and demonstrated with a small globe and a flashlight, and you may begin to see the problem.
When the science gets more complicated, such as understanding that the main component of antacids are bases, the number of those understanding plummets to 39%. The Pew Research Center poll found that about one-third of Americans (or 32%) could be classified as having medium scientific knowledge whereas 29% are in the low science literacy group. The good news is that 39% have a relatively high scientific knowledge… but 61% of Americans falling into the medium-to-low category of relatively basic science understanding should be of concern.
Interestingly, the Pew poll found that politics may not play as great a role as some may assume. The research indicates the problem can’t be blamed on ideology, but rather on insufficient education and the non-absorption of facts.
Frequently one will find themselves sympathizing with a world leader or leading scientist’s frustration over what appear to be serious misconceptions related to the Covid vaccine, for example, or climate change. Issues that shouldn't be controversial are deemed worthy of debate, mostly due to a lack of fundamental understanding.
Whose fault is this, however? Is it wrong to blame the average Jane and Joe for not comprehending terms such as three-dimensional crystal lattices, molecular machines, or DNA computers? For most, these terms sound unfamiliar; and for many, the unfamiliar is something to fear.
Scientists, science journalists, teachers, educators, and even Hollywood can and should ‘up their game’ and aid in demystifying the fancy language behind the incredible nanoworld we are entering into. By doing so, we may be able to head off the unfortunate tendency of fearful people pulling out their metaphorical torches and pitchforks when exposed to new “scary” ideas.
We need to find ways of explaining – as one example – how artificial nucleic acid structures are used as non-biological engineering materials to carry nanomaterials (rather than genetic information) in living cells. No, this won't be easy – but with the aid of graphs, animation, and storytelling we can find ways to break this information into something comprehensible.
The term ‘robot’ already conjures up images from science fiction of the planet being overrun and dominated by mechanical overlords. So why wouldn't hearing about DNA-based robotics scare people? However, it shouldn't and doesn't have to.
Emerging tech advances are moving at an exponential rate, but sadly and perhaps even dangerously, the understanding of such developments is not keeping pace.