Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Hot Zone: Why We Are in the Midst of a Critical Opportunity to Improve Scientific Literacy

Twenty years ago, author Richard Preston published The Hot Zone, a non-fiction thriller about the Ebola virus.  Even back then, before thousands of people had died from the virus and before its name was splashed across news headlines around the globe, the book sold like hotcakes.  It was rhetorically engaging, scientifically interesting, and downright terrifying.  In the context of the current Ebola outbreak, there has been an understandable spike in purchases of Preston's book.  According to the New York Times, today the book is ranked the 23rd most popular on Amazon and its publisher, Anchor Books, has released 150,000 new copies for sale in anticipation of renewed public interest and purchases.

Popular media coverage of the current Ebola outbreak has been widely criticized for its inaccuracies and inflammatory language that exacerbate challenges to epidemic control by encouraging and misdirecting public fears.  However, many of these criticisms fail to address the deeper underlying crisis:  a deplorable lack of public scientific literacy.  According to a report published by the National Science Foundation on February 14th of this year, one in four Americans do not know that the earth orbits the sun, only 39% think the universe began with a big explosion, and the majority struggle when asked to provide a rationale for the use of a control group or to explain what makes a fact scientific.

The Hot Zone offers a perfect gateway to this conversation because while it is marketed as a non-fiction book---in fact, its subheading reads "The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus"---it is somewhat outdated (having been published 20 years ago to elucidate a field that is evolving almost as fast as its subject matter) and includes inaccuracies of imaginative language and description.  Preston himself acknowledged in an interview with the New York Times published today, "In the original Hot Zone, I have a description of a nurse weeping tears of blood. That almost certainly didn’t happen. When a person has Ebola, the eyes can turn brilliant red from blood vessels leaking and blood oozing out of the eyelid. That’s horrifying, but it’s not someone with tears of blood running down their face."  With book purchases on the rise, a new host of readers are being misled.  Preston says he is, in a slightly inappropriate and surely unintentional double entendre, "dying to update the book."  But when his corrections and planned contextualizing preface will be incorporated remains unclear.

It would be unfair to criticize this author on his use of colorfully descriptive language, for not only does it make the book engaging but also imagination and creativity play an important role in scientific thought.  The generation of new ideas that revolutionize scientific paradigms is an inherently creative process and utilizing curiosity and imagination to encourage public interest in science can be quite effective.

Fortunately, while scientific literacy remains low scientific interest is high.  The same National Science Foundation report that published the aforementioned worrying statistics on public knowledge of science also released statistics on how many Americans reported having visited a zoo, aquarium, natural history museum, or museum of science and technology in the previous year:  the majority!  The Ebola outbreak has further garnered public interest in scientific phenomena and constitutes a critical opportunity for increasing scientific literacy.  If Preston can correct the inaccuracies of The Hot Zone, if the families who visit zoos and museums can come away with an understanding of how science happens and not just the knowledge it produces, and if we can channel the current public curiosity about Ebola into positive learnings rather than fear-mongering, perhaps we can capitalize on widespread public scientific interest to improve scientific literacy.

If public interest in science was high even before the Ebola outbreak why are we not generally more well-informed about scientific subject matter?  The problems lie in our approaches to science education and science communication.  One misconception, even among some educators, is that the content must be embellished to elicit excitement---that tears of blood would be interesting whereas explaining that a tiny questionably-living thing that contains only a few genes can cause leaky blood vessels and wreck a human population might not be enough to keep readers engaged.  We need a structured way to support our innate scientific inquisitiveness and channel it into an understanding of the scientific method and how it has been applied to reveal principles that describe natural phenomena.  One strategy would be to employ the scientific method earlier and more deeply in science education by empowering students to make discoveries themselves, in the context of a scaffolded learning environment.  Another element of the disconnect between our pubic scientific interest and scientific literacy could be a dehumanization of scientific discovery.  Though scientific experiments themselves are necessarily structured and employ carefully-crafted controls and manipulations, the overarching process of scientific discovery is often more disordered, more frustrating, more explorative and more exhilarating.  We tend to detach the facts from the people---apart from giving credit where it is due---and lose rich opportunities for scientific storytelling:  sharing the compelling narratives of the humans behind the scientific discoveries.  (As a relevant aside, if you haven't yet, read Microbe Hunters.)

This brings us back to The Hot Zone, an effective piece of scientific literature (despite a few outdated facts and mild hyperbole) because it couples the science with the human experience.  Scientific storytelling and young science students participating in the scientific process rather than simply memorizing facts would both be attempts at the same.  It is a beautiful thing that our minds run wild with imagination, propelled by a natural curiosity!  It is precisely that curiosity that must be harnessed productively through scientific education and science communication to improve scientific literacy.  With the word "Ebola" whispered and shouted by so many mouths these days, we are in the midst of a critical opportunity to channel public concern into meaningful learnings and bridge the gap between science and the populous.

(I apologize for the long post---this subject matter is close to my heart!)
--Laurie Rumker

P.S. You can read the full NSF report on scientific literacy here (
and the full interview with Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone here (

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