Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Scientific Illiteracy

And here's me with a comment that's too long.  (Man, how did we ever journal when we were limited to 2000 characters per entry?)

Scalzi has an entry here about the "scientific illiteracy" of our country.  And it isn't pretty.  In the comments, our pal monponsett left the following comment:

>>As long as you know not to jump in fire or play the radio in the tub, science is overrated.

Look at 99% of the jobs people have in the USA. How many truly involve the need to know the chemical symbol for silver? How many need to know what temp water boils at? Is there any future practical use for dissecting a frog?

Science was overemphasized in school because we feared that the Russians could hit us with missiles before our bombers could get to them. You can look it up.

Watch this....

"Hey, Stacey.... what's a molecule?"

"Who cares?"<<

I got all riled up about this and tried to leave a comment in reply, but I got overly wordy in my riled-ness, so I'm moving the comment to an entry over here.  It says: 

I hope you folks like monponsett are joking.  If there's one thing that's even scarier than the amount of US citizens who are ignorant about science, it's that some of them are CELEBRATING that ignorance rather than being secretly ashamed and doing something about it.

As the article quoted by Scalzi points out, the "inability to understand basic scientific concepts undermines [the] ability to take part in the democratic process."  In other words -- no, you might not need to know what a molecule is in order to perform your daily job, but you CERTAINLY need to know it to participate rationally in political debate and to cast an informed vote on critical issues. 

To take just one little (huge) example, I have a very hard time dealing with the religious folks who believe "intelligent design" (i.e. creationism) should be taught in schools as an "alternate theory" to evolution.  But if you don't even take the time to understand the science behind evolution, how do you expect to have an even borderline intelligent discussion about this?

Peoplewho don't have a clue as to DNA might have a hard time joining a discussion about cloning (or doing their civic duty on a jury); people who don't understand radiation might have a hard time joining a reasoned debate about nuclear power and weapons. 

Not to mention that we damn well BETTER raise a new generation of scientists -- not to "beat the Russians" in the Cold War -- but to, oh, I don't know, SAVE LIVES.  Compare the tsunami with hurricane Katrina.  Thousands and thousands of people got the heck out of Katrina's devastating path because:  (1) scientists were able to predict where the hurricane was going; (2) people were "hooked up" to enough technology (thanks, science!) to instantly communicate the message to evacuate; and (3) science provided the means (cars, busses, bridges, roads) for them to quickly move away.  Think of all the lives that could have been spared if we'd had a good tsunami-warning system set up, phones and radios to get the message out, and quick means to flee.

Ignorance is never a good thing.


monponsett said...

I honestly have nothing against science. I'm actually all for it. I just feel it should be like having a talent at a particular sport.... those who have it should occupy a sort of a very exclusive high priced niche. Our system will steer people into science who belong there, no matter how much Geology we force onto someone.

I taught science for a year. I wasted a lot of time teaching kids a Periodic Table Of Elements that they'll never again reference once they've left my class. That time would have been better spent teaching them current events, so they don't fall for our President's low-rent chicken man BS when he's lying to them on the television. THAT would accelerate the democratic process.

I did this because the Russians once got a Sputnik up before we did, leaving us vulnerable to an ICBM attack B4 we could respond with bombers. That dude walking on the moon was worthless....but the missile that put him there evened the Cold War. It wasn't a group effort made by 280 million Americans. The guys who put us on the Moon were high-paid specialists that our society had produced long before I was teaching Darwin to a bunch of hoodlums.

As far as informed discussion goes, can you honestly tell me that your high school science class- with the famed "mile wide, inch deep" curriculum- taught you more about Stem Cell Theory than the newspapers did? Short of the Scientifically Literate, 99% of general-citizen science discussions are half-fast.

The best answer I saw to either of our arguments was the guy in Scalzone's comments who wrote about taking his kid fishing..."Fish by the tides, learn astrology," etc... The kid will learn what science is practical to him...and he'll catch a lot more fish practicing than he will if he knows what the symbol for Adamantine is.

nzforme said...

Thanks for dropping by, m-.  And very well put.

Actually, I did not have a "generic" high school science class.  My only science in high school was an AP Physics class in which I learned a hell of a lot about kinematics, dynamics, waves & optics -- and while I admit none of this stuff has come up in my job, I've been known to throw around a little kinematics in my daily life.  (Like figuring out how long you would free-fall on the 80-meter bungee jump.)  But I'm just weird that way.

But I do disagree with you on the idea that science should just be studied by specialists.  I think it's important to have a general well-rounded education -- both for general knowledge and for opportunity.  Otherwise you risk someone educating himself specifically for a particular career or trade, and you miss out on discovering a hidden capacity, or interest that the student never knew he had.

There's also elements of "cross-training" in learning different fields.  Science, in particular teaches a model of inquiry which is damn useful elsewhere.  I mean, SURE, the kid might LEARN about double-blind controlled experiments playing with rats, but that stuff can be applied to ANYTHING.  What I wouldn't give for a general populace trained in skepticism and the ability to spot poorly substantiated BS.