Still Dreaming of the Day…

By cjohnson | August 30, 2005 9:45 pm

In my opening post, I spoke of a dream of mine:

I dream of a day when, basic scientifically educated conversation will be heard at any dinner table alongside conversations about politics, entertainment, music, literature and all of those other wonderful things.

I have this dream for several reasons, but one main practical concern about the prevailing (and seemingly growing) science-illiteracy of our culture is that fact that we live in a world which is dominated by things scientific. So many of the tools we use everyday, and -more importantly perhaps- the air we breathe, food we eat, water we drink, and several other inevitable aspects of our lives, are connected to science in some way – these things are all altered in some way by society’s actions, and controlled by its science and technology. But yet people are happy to leave to others those decisions about the science that dominates so much of our lives. In even the most “educated” circles, it is ok to giggle at the dinner party about the fact that we don’t know the first thing about F=ma, don’t have the faintest idea of how electricity works, or what DNA does, but everyone would be appalled at someone who at the same party admitted to not knowing who Michael Jackson was (I don’t mean the author of the excellent guide to Scottish Single Malts), or would be a bit embarrassed to admit that they had not read some novel from the standard canon.

Anyway, I could rant on at this at length, but you get the idea. I was rather pleased to have it reaffirmed that my views and concerns (which constitute the lion’s share of my motivation for taking part in this blogging endeavour) are shared by some, upon reading today’s Science Times article by Cornelia Dean. It was a profile of Jon Miller, a political scientist at Northwestern. I recommend that you have a read of it, as it is quite interesting.

It’s encouraging to read in the article that:

science literacy has doubled over the past two decades

(how is this measured though, and with what margin of error, I wonder…) although, we should not get too excited yet, since apparently:

only 20 to 25 percent of Americans are “scientifically savvy and alert”

Further, that point which is dear to my heart is mentioned:

people’s inability to understand basic scientific concepts undermines their ability to take part in the democratic process

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Here’s another extract:

…in the era of nuclear tests he asked people whether they knew about strontium 90, a component of fallout. Today, he asks about topics like the workings of DNA in the cell because, “if you don’t know what a cell is, you can’t make sense of stem cell research”

He’s also done some studies on on what socio-economic factors are correlated with adherence to creationism and rejection of Darwinian theories, the results of which would be interesting to see, I’d say.


  • Arun

    Kind of difficult to have conversations on science if it is always one is right and everyone else is wrong.

  • Clifford

    Sorry…. I don’t understand. What do you mean? We’ve had several excellent conversations on science here on this blog, for example…. I’m missing a point you’re making, perhaps? Help!



  • Gabe Isman

    I think Arun means that it is not much fun to discuss one *fact* or another because the discussion is one-sided. “2+2=4” “Yes, you are right.” That’s not much fun. However, a discussion of Euclid’s fifth axiom and absolute geometry yields much more interesting thoughts. I think Arun’s point is an over-simplification. Not all science is as black and white as mathematics and even most black and white things can make for very entertaining discussions. Debating the known is never fun. But it has been said that science is the border between the unknown and the known. Who doesn’t like to talk of potential and possibility?

    I think your dream is an excellent one, Clifford. Is it possible that science is too un-romantic for the average person? Most people like science fiction, it seems that people are more likely to subscribe to the unproven theory than the accepted one if they are not scientifically minded, and most people resent the fact that in their eyes, science is seeking to completely demystify the universe. Is it possible that humans just aren’t suited to absolute knowledge. Are romantic notions of possibility more important to us than truth? What if science were to lead us to the undeniable conclusion that our lives were meaningless? Surely at that point man would evolve into a species that did not seek the truth, but sought after hope alone.

    There I go again, unfounded speculation is never really useful, but it makes good dinner table chatter.

    “Science means simply the aggregate of all recipes that are always successful. All the rest is literature.” -Paul Valery

  • Clifford

    Gabe Isman: Thanks. I think that science can be as romantic as anything else. I do not think that it a perceived dryness that stops people from engaging in it more. Also, as I said elsewhere on this blog, I do not think that science is in the business of answering all questions. There is not a finite supply of questions, we answer them, and then there are fewer. No…..the more we learn, the more questions we learn to ask. I find that romantic right there, since it means that we are continually discovering more wonderful things about our universe. Also, it is not the role of science to give meaning to, or take meaning away from, our lives. That’s a different field, in my opinion.

    So if people knew that about science, perhaps they would fear it less and embrace it more….. or maybe not. I don’t know…



    Clifford, I’m confused. Your post and comments haven’t really given me any indication about what we should or shouldn’t be discussing at the dinner table. So you’re not talking about knowledge (episteme in the classic Platonic sense), but falsifiable theory? So history is kosher then? Where do the social sciences fit into your dream?

    What I’m most worried about is this notion that failure to understand basic scientific concepts lessens people’s capacity to take part in the democratic process. How much expertise would be acceptable?

  • g

    Where does the word “acceptable” come from, here? It sounds almost
    as if you’re taking Clifford to be wanting to forbid people to vote
    if they don’t know enough, which on my reading is miles away from
    his meaning.

    Isn’t the point just this? — that a lot of the issues about which
    politicians (and therefore, indirectly, voters) have to decide
    are scientific ones, or at least depend on scientific matters,
    and that therefore if you don’t have a clue about basic science
    you’re liable to make bad decisions where you could have made
    good ones.

    For instance, what should we do about global warming (if anything)?
    Well, that depends on what’s actually been happening to temperatures
    and why and how. Those are largely scientific questions.

    For instance, what should children be taught in school about the
    origins of the living things we see around us? That depends on what
    those origins actually are, and on a lot of the key issues there’s
    basically no scientific debate but there are a bunch of dishonest
    pseudoscientists trying rather successfully to fool politicians
    and voters into thinking that there is.

    For instance, should stem cell research be encouraged, permitted,
    restricted, forbidden? That depends partly on non-scientific issues
    (what is the moral status of a human foetus?, for instance) but
    also on some scientific ones (where else can we get stem cells
    from, and is there a difference?).

    None of these things depends *only* on science, of course. You
    can’t decide what to do about global warming without having some
    idea of (e.g.) the relative importance of present and future
    generations’ well-being or the value (if any) of preserving
    existing ecosystems, and those are ethical rather than scientific

    Having said all that, I’m in some doubt as to how helpful basic
    scientific literacy, as such, is for most of the science-based
    issues of the day. To make an informed decision on Kyoto or
    stem cells, you need a fair bit of specialist knowledge, not
    just a broad understanding of what climate science and biology
    are about. Of course you can’t have the one without the other…

  • Joh3n

    Given the tenor of some previous posts here, I find it interesting that you could take the word ‘science’ and replace it with ‘religion’ just about everywhere in your first paragraph, and it would still be true.

  • Arun

    Yes, this blog is an example of how there might be conversations on science, but then, the hosts of this blog are fairly exceptional. For instance, if one exposes one’s ignorance here, one is not automatically written off as an idiot or as having a negligible opinion. I guess where I’m headed is that maybe more than non-scientists having conversations on science, we need scientists who are masters of the art of conversation.

    Regarding scientific literacy, I think the average citizen should know enough to be able to determine for oneself whether a scientific argument is well-structured, what the limits on scientific knowledge are, what caveats go with any particular scientific study, and how to figure out what experts to consult. One should also know how to use a library. Thus for example, if said citizen becomes interested in knowing whether cell-phone emissions could damage brain tissue or whether there is a link between mercury compounds in vaccines and autism, they can come to an informed opinion.

    In this regard, one thing the non-scientist should be looking for, in my opinion, is masses of empirical evidence, even if they can’t really interpret that evidence for themselves. A citizenry that takes on faith what the experts say is a citizenry that can be misled. My position creates obvious problems for issues like global warming, where evidence may come too late. But I’m also thinking of superstring theory. I think it is appropriate for the non-science public to keep a healthy skepticism about this theory, even while the experts have strong intuitions and even solid indications that the theory will work. There can be no “trust us, we’re the good guys” really in this matter.

  • Plato

    But I’m also thinking of superstring theory. I think it is appropriate for the non-science public to keep a healthy skepticism about this theory, even while the experts have strong intuitions and even solid indications that the theory will work. There can be no “trust us, we’re the good guys” really in this matter.

    I think people will generally see past this Arun. If people are watching the discussions and learning as you suggest, the thread of, for and against, is still quickly polarized.

    If the general public sees string resistance by examples lead, then indeed by faith it adjusts? How far from their understanding, it does not matter?

    This has been my sense and posture. For if such perception holds for those who are leaders against, then there why is there no place for the publics view? Why? Maybe because the publics view holds no pertinent valuation, being ignorant to those on strings against?

    Why are branes such a farce?

    So now without a truer sense of position of why against, some might wait patiently for the truer depth of response, as to reasons why theoretical position would be held with such distain. Even these good scientists must explain, thinking the general public themselves, might see these reasons instead of being quickly wiped from the face of the earth.

    Would one underestimate the populace to think that those against by stance taken should lead as they themselves refuse to be lead?

    It is afar better attitude to provide the hope and insightfulness of wonder in the publics eye, then to say it cannot dream too. Provide us with why such leadership role is taken. Make it simple.

  • Adam

    Estimates of the fraction of the population that can reliably think in the ‘formal’ (in the Piagetian sense) way vary, but it’s not more than a quarter. There have been some attempts to use science education to accelerate progression into ‘formal’ thinking, such as the C.A.S.E (‘Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education) project, but I can’t see it reaching, say, half the population even if things were wildly successful. Add to that the fact that plenty of people just aren’t interested in science or, more importantly, in scientific thinking (by which I mean adopting some sort of rational and unemotional approach) and I don’t think that it’s hard to understand the lack of scientific awareness in the general population, regardless of how important the products of science are to their daily lives.

    In the UK, biology, chemistry and physics are compulsory at school from the ages of 5 to 16, with the option of taking another two years of any or all of them. I guess that it is true to say that people leave school, on average, with a little more scientific awareness there (particularly in physics, which seems to be little taught at highschools in the US, let alone to younger kids) but I still think that there’s a ceiling above which you won’t go, so far as interest and proficiency is concerned. If people are being denied the opportunity to learn all this stuff then that is a bad thing (such as the results of the ID craziness in Kansas would be, if only because time would be wasted teaching ID) but if people get ample opportunity but choose not to become interested, forget what they do learn, then that is their choice and fair enough. I also don’t buy a ‘if it was taught right then everyone would be interested and proficient’ line either, that just isn’t true, in my opinion.

    I think that the field that has the most problems is physics; even in the UK, where it’s compulsory at schools, there is a problem getting people who can teach it. But perhaps it’s always going to be something of a rarity to get physicists.

  • Plato

    Science categories are linked in most public science magazines and sites, by good physicists, as to the merit of current standings. These are adopted by the public. Articles and physicists, leading the public.

    Such polarization has then become something of quandry as to who is right, as one voice echo’s another’s position?

    Might we be better to get it right from the horses mouth?:)(I had a flash of Ed the talking Horse, but that ‘s not what I mean) Why to me, Quantum Dairies was indeed a success. Giddings, Ellis and on and on.:)

    How divergent this research now, from high energy, to see Pierre Auger has come to the forefront.

  • David


    Don’t despair: I have found that on many airplanes and airports, in random conversations with people, people are honestly interested in science. They are afraid of the mathematics, but at the same time they are very curious about it. They are also happy to ask random questions in vast amounts so long as you treat them with respect and say “I don’t know” on some occasions. I even was once in an art gallery at the Pier 39 in San Francisco were the owner was trying to understand and visualize extra dimensions and how we might be embedded in them. That was a lot of fun.

    Also, if you tell them something about being a scientist and how confused you get and how much you like to do vegetable gardening to cope with it all, they will enjoy the conversation very much.

  • Watcher

    Clifford, at the end of the NYT piece there is a signficant finding by Jon Miller, the political scientist Cornelia Dean was writing about

    Lately, people who advocate the teaching of evolution have been citing Dr. Miller’s ideas on what factors are correlated with adherence to creationism and rejection of Darwinian theories. In general, he says, these fundamentalist views are most common among people who are not well educated and who “work in jobs that are evaporating fast with competition around the world.”

    But not everyone is happy when he says things like that. Every time he goes on the radio to talk about his findings, he said, “I get people sending me cards saying they will pray for me a lot.”
    —end quote—

    I mention this because at the end of your blog about it you say

    —quote Clifford—
    He’s also done some studies on on what socio-economic factors are correlated with adherence to creationism and rejection of Darwinian theories, the results of which would be interesting to see, I’d say.
    —end quote—

    it may be helpful to understand the roots of red-state reaction ( belief in “end-of-days”, return to pre-science mentality), just as it was to understand the roots of the poliitical abberations of post WWI europe. It may be that globalization and commercial media culture have helped to produce change that is too rapid for a large segment of the population, and confronted them with an America they cannot recognize as the one they grew up in. culture shock and profound economic insecurity.
    (maybe too much of that is mentally unhealthy and simply as a practical matter we should try collectively to protect against it exceding some limit—-however what causes some people economic insecurity makes money for others, and what causes culture shock can be profit driven as well, so there are interests to consider, as well as Bill of Rights issues)

    the NYT article and your post make me think that a lot of present craziness is something that one cannot FIGHT effectively without first trying to understand it. Like if a person is acting crazy it doesnt always help just to contradict them and say no you are wrong, before you get some idea of what is making them crazy.

    a propos what you say “socio-economic factors correlated with” the upsurge of anti-science activism, it really interests me that it should correlate with the flight of industries. Like, “the world is going to end in the second coming anyway, and I’ve got a ticket on the rapture, so who cares if social programs got cut and all our jobs went to China?”

    mostly I just feel dispair and disgust and dont have a clue about what can be done about US politics and society, but did like the Cornelia Dean article. thanks

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  • Bob

    Yet, science is already present at every supper table..Science involves the activity of proptyping, testing out some hypothesis to find out whether something is workable or not in a controlled risk environment.

    Isn’t courtship a form of a testing ground where persons are testing the hypothesis of a possible friendship building or needing some modifications? Perhaps the “science-illiterate” are just refusing to see that they already use it whether it involves learning to play a musical instrument or to play baseball or find friendship?

    Leon Lederman has been on a campaign to change the order in which science is taught in the high schools here in Illinois. He wants physics taught first, before chemistry and the life sciences. Physics is the building block that is elementary to the more complex world of the life sciences. The life sciences is where our best science students should be entering..It is the highest risk science..However,it has been pumped into the public’s eye that physics is the most cerebral and that life sciences are an area for lesser minds.Look at all the malpractice suits against medicine and drop any search for a hidden reason.

    I agree with Lederman’s intentions and I would take this even further.

    I think that we should rename many of our elementary school courses to fit their proper description to show that people are already science- minded. All shop courses should be called a branch of Newtonian physics..Sports belongs in this category as well. Home economics should be seen as a part of biochemistry. Galileon relativity should be taught at the grade school level. It is too simple not to be taught at that level and need not require that much math..Motions are the first things that a child notices when entering the world and relativity is about motion..

    By the time children hit high school the words “physics” and “relativity” would no longer be intimidating to them. Once geometry exposes Pythagoras to youngsters, then special relativity can be introduced.

    Science made no sense to me until I studied relativity in a video format by Dr. Richard Wolfson from the Teaching Company and I have become a science addict since..I have given those tapes to ghetto children and have mailed them to someone in Kenya..They gobbled them right up and my cyber pal in Kenya is looking for more..just like I am always looking for more..

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