Science!: Most of us may be dull when it comes to scientific literacy, but there's hope

Note: This piece ran as a sidebar to a news feature on the disconnect between scientists and many politicians, which ran in our Oct. 8 issue. Find that piece here.

Late last month, when NASA announced the discovery of possible flowing water on Mars, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh was outraged. He accused Hollywood and the federal government of being in cahoots on the announcement, which coincided with the release of the Matt Damon film, The Martian.

It’s a bit scary to think the general public has so little grasp of basic concepts, or that some would rather believe something is a hoax than accept reality. St. Pete College astronomy professor and planetarium director Craig Joseph said denial of the moon landing is strong enough that he sees fit to devote an entire lecture to it. And speaking of the moon, he says, plenty of students walk into his class not knowing why it has phases.

But there are also efforts across the board to help boost scientific understanding — and spark interest — across the population.

Take The Martian.

“This movie, apparently, is using really good science and making it accessible to a mass audience, and I think that’s great,” Joseph said. “A lot of movies that come out just totally trash the laws of physics. It’s nice to see a movie come
out that takes a serious approach, uses real science. I’m really happy about that.”

Engaging the public is part of the reason Joseph hosts an astronomy talk/telescope viewing at SPC’s planetarium every Friday, and why the college’s Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions brought University of Miami geology chair Hal Wanless, and many others, to its Seminole campus to talk about how to deal with sea-level rise.

“What we’re hoping to get out of it is by having direct engagement between those who might not be fully scientifically informed and the scientists and researchers in this area, and with that expertise, is that they can ask the basic questions and learn as part of this process,” said Sveta Charkraborty, associate director of the Institute on Science for Global Policy, which partnered with SPC on the conference.

In an effort to get ’em early, a collection of colleges, government agencies and nonprofits organize the St. Petersburg Science Festival each year, which offers kids a hands-on glimpse at everything from robotics to wildlife (it’s a worthy event for curious grownups, too). That event takes place Oct. 17 along the waterfront on the USF St. Petersburg campus from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

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