"Confusion...has increased considerably."

PLoS Biology is running an essay by Liza Gross titled, "Scientific illiteracy and the partisan takeover of biology" (by way of GNXP).

One of the first few paragraphs captures my feelings well:

Though some see the growing influence of ideology over scientific issues as a threat to America's standing as global science leader, a leading analyst of public attitudes toward science sees it as an opportunity for increasing scientific literacy. "Even though the scientific community can feel besieged by this anti-science sentiment," says Jon D. Miller, who directs the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University Medical School, "most people really haven't made up their mind about this issue and, in fact, really haven't even thought about it." Rather than fretting about the cultural divide -- or worse, doing nothing -- Miller urges scientists to do their part to bridge the gap.

The article is focused around stem cells as an example; I happen to be lecturing on these bioethics issues in one of my classes right now, so it's very relevant:

Most people don't have a cognitive framework for understanding stem cells, Miller explains. "Science happens so fast now that most adults couldn't possibly have learned about stem cells when they were in school." And without this underlying schema, most people aren't going to pay attention to stem cells or any other unfamiliar scientific term. "People tune out things that they think are scientific or complicated," he says. "If you are science averse and think you couldn't possibly know any science, the minute you hear 'cell,' 'stem cell,' 'nanotechnology,' 'atomic,' 'nuclear,' you turn the off switch."

This of course is why it matters so much who is delivering the message and how they deliver it. Only a few people will be willing to understand an issue like this; the rest will decide how they feel based on how others feel. It is, after all, why ad hominem arguments work so well.

And to my mind, the worst are scientists who raise people's hopes beyond any real evidence. It is especially hard for skeptics to make their case heard in the face of this kind of argument -- after all, who could be against curing the sick? I think that the probability of understanding two coherent scientific arguments must be like the square of understanding only a single one.

I think this is an especially important point to understand:

The limiting step in enhancing scientific literacy is not people's capacity for learning, Miller says, as much as it is interest. When Americans are diagnosed with cancer or some other life-threatening disease, "the vast number of these people go online and learn more science in the next 12 months than a typical undergraduate will ever learn. It is impressive how much people can learn with the proper motivation. We need to get people to be savvy about how to find the information and make sense of it."

Science is difficult and it is costly for people to invest in it. We can help by making it less difficult, and making it clearer why the investment is worthwhile.

I am skeptical about this:

Given the partisan attack on evolution and stem-cell research, he thinks scientists need to learn more about how the political process works. They need to be willing to run for the school board, write $500 or even $5,000 checks to support moderate candidates, and defeat Christian right-wing candidates. "Scientists need to become involved in partisan politics and to oppose candidates who reject evolution or attack scientific research," he says. "It takes time, money, and paying attention to the issues."

I think it does not serve the purposes of science to become partisan. Just as few people take time to understand science, few scientists take time to understand ethics. And becoming partisan is a two-way street -- the more science injects itself into politics, the more politics will inject itself into science. There is already enough money flowing into science to promote research toward proprietary commercial or political ends. We should be reversing that flow, but making science a political tool will certainly increase it. Right now we have bad politics and good science.

Making science more political will not make good politics, but it will make for bad science.

The answer has to be clear and nonpartisan communication of science.