A Scientific Litmus Teset

UNL Professor challenges scientific illiteracy


Power comes with responsibility, believes Dr. John Janovy, Jr., Professor Emeritus, Biological Sciences at University of Nebraska Lincoln.

“An ability to clearly articulate an understanding of basic evolutionary biology equivalent to that given in a freshman course,” he says, “should be a litmus test for scientific literacy among people in positions of power.”

On the 203rd anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday, Thursday, February 9,  Janovy is giving the free 13th Annual Darwin Day lecture at the Durham Research Center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Sponsored by Rationalists, Empiricists and Skeptics of Nebraska (R.E.A.S.O.N.), the group aims to promote critical thinking and “the use of scientific methods, evidence, logic, and reason to gain insight and understanding,” according to their website, www.reason.ws. According to Janovy, not doing so is dangerous.

“The main result of scientific illiteracy is a disregard for evidence based on observations of the natural world,” says the author of many books and one of UNL’s most distinguished faculty members. “In a society heavily depending on technology, and facing considerable environmental challenges, such illiteracy is a hazard to the public well-being.

“I have concerns about how we will sustain our quality of life, particularly when we remain dependent upon petroleum. The demands upon the existing fossil fuels are growing as countries such as India and China continue to expand. Fossil fuels are a fixed resource.”

Janovy goes on to explain, “There needs to be an informed discourse as we make political decisions about our energy sources and uses. For example, right now we have fears about nuclear power when it can offer us many opportunities as a viable replacement for fossil fuels. There seems to be an unwillingness to struggle nationally with an energy policy that makes sense for the long term. In the meantime, we are impacted by climate changes and the limits of fossil fuels.”

His interest in natural sciences and science literacy dates back to his childhood. “I grew up in Oklahoma. My dad was a geologist and I spent my child hood outdoors – hunting, fishing and enjoying nature first hand. I went on to study it and made a career of teaching graduate and medical students.”

When asked what concerns him the most, Janovy replied “Hands down it is the rate of destruction on the fundamental features of the earth – overpopulation, loss of habitat, destruction of the rain forest, over-fishing the oceans. I am very concerned about what problems are being created for future generations.”

Janovy’s background is in study of parasites and he reflected briefly on the effects to the world supply that events such as devastation of bee colonies and epidemics such as bat killing white nose syndrome. “I don’t think we’re looking to see an ecological Armageddon from these. In fact, the real global health problems are more from long term conditions and chronic infections such as malaria,” he advises.

“These have a greater drain on the human population over time. It’s respiratory illnesses and diarrhea that affect children the more so than sensationalized outbreaks. Children who grow up ‘sickly’ have lifetime consequences from these conditions.”

Janovy employs unique teaching experiences when teaching students, such as using the ingredients listed on junk food wrappers to teach metabolism. He’s also a hands-on instructor who takes advantage of campus vegetation, museums and the outdoors to teach in a living lab.

Evolution is a central unifying theme in biology. “The underlying premise of evolution has been proven again and again,” says Janovy. Molecular biology has provided powerful tools for testing evolutionary predictions.”

Also on his radar are globalization and information technology. “I am currently reading several books, including one titled That Used To Be Us, by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum. The American dream was meant to be passed along to future generations. For that to happen…well, we need to stop scientific illiteracy.”

REASON’s 13th Annual Darwin Day Lecture with Dr. John Janovy, Main Auditorium, Room 1002 at the Durham Research Center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center located on 45th street between Dewey and Emile,  Thursday, February 9. The 7:30 p.m. event is free, refreshments will be available. For more information go to www.reason.ws.


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