Bloggingheads: Robot Superbowls, Oversized Electrons, and Other Thoughts With Chris Mooney

By Carl Zimmer | July 11, 2009 10:33 am

On today’s episode of Bloggingheads, fellow Discover blogger Chris Mooney and I talk about Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, the new book he has co-authored with his co-blogger Sheril Kirshenbaum. We definitely have our differences, or different emphases, but I hope our argument ended up being enlightening, rather than demolishing.

One big difference was over high school science education. I just can’t see any long-term solution that is superior to doing a better job of teaching high school kids about science and getting them to feel that it’s part of their lives. Part of this involves getting really good teachers out into all schools, not just the ones surrounded by McMansions. Part of this involves a program like the one I mentioned in the bloggingheads talk, called FIRST, which was developed by Dean Kamen as a kind of robot-building Superbowl. And guess what? Kamen actually fills football stadiums with kids, and those kids are more likely to do better in school, get into science and engineering, etc.

Frankly, I don’t buy the counter-argument that there are lots of people with advanced degrees who don’t believe in vaccines, etc., and so “just more science education” won’t matter much. Let’s really unpack what we mean by “advanced degrees,” really. I know plenty of people who went to top colleges, and then on to top law schools or got higher degrees in literature or such–and the last time they took a real science class was in high school. It’s not as if the science seeped through the walls of the chemistry or biology departments and infused them while they were listening to lectures about Derrida or modern politics.

Now–if I could just find that $50 billion I had set aside for improving high school science education…I know it’s around here somewhere…

Chris will be coming to my neck of the woods (New Haven) on Tuesday, July 21, to give a talk. I’ll be introducing him. Details here.


Comments (32)

  1. Oded

    I don’t actually live in US so I don’t know much about its school system, but I have heard a statistic that says that the US spends more money per child in education than any other country in the world… If that’s true, then I’d say it isn’t working, and even your $50 billion won’t help without reform…

  2. johnk

    Very interesting conversation. I found myself mostly agreeing with you, Carl.

    K-12 science needs lots of work. One of the problems is that it is divorced from science. The K-12 educational system is remarkably separate from the college and university system, where scientists are trained and where a great many work. On step is to bring graduate students, post-docs and faculty into the K-12 system, to begin the break the barrier. A good type of program (which exists in very small numbers) would be to pay grad students and post-docs for K-12 teaching.

    About Carl Sagan. I think its very important to establish real scientists as role models. Carl Sagan was only one. In the generation before that we had Einstein and a host of others. The current model of science documentary is to have a media celebrity, like Alan Alda, act as narrator/host. I’d like to see a return to the days of promoting scientists as significant cultural figures.

    Finally, a comment on which is larger: an electron or an atom. I know that an atom is larger, but I know this as a fact I memorized, not by scientific discovery. I got this fact from a scientific authority, a text book or a teacher. I have never made an observation that tells me this fact, and wouldn’t know how to make one. It is not derived from science or everyday experience. Most of the science we have in our heads is not from scientific inquiry or deduction or discovery, but from authority. Carl and Chris think that a scientifically literate individual could cull the science and come up with an independent, informed opinion about a topic as complex as global warming. I don’t think so. In a topic as complex as this, as with most scientific topics, I rely on the opinion of professionals I respect. I do form my own judgements, but not without help and a large dose of faith in scientific professionals.

  3. Dave C

    OT: Hey Carl, I just finally got around to reading your NY Times piece on fireflies. It was, of course, nothing short of delightful. I’m very glad that we have you around to write these fantastic stories about fireflies and parasites and other wonderful but overlooked creatures–if you didn’t write them, I’m not sure who would!

  4. homer

    I’ve taught Human Physiology for years to hopeful pre-allied health students (pre-nursing, pre-PA, pre-PT, etc), and your assumption that 0.5 day of instruction can get students to understand when science reporting is trash and when not is vastly optimistic. One exercise I have the students do is to go to the web and find a health related product (weight loss, hair loss, libido, etc) and explain the physiology underlying it – with the hope that they will see that the product is complete BS. I do this late in the semester, so that we’ve already gone over the various individual systems. The students suck at this task. I am routinely devastated that my brilliant pedagogical skills can’t overcome “common knowledge” and enthusiastic salesmen. They consistently feel that “all-natural” is somehow always good, despite my lament that leukemia, urine and sand are also all natural. I don’t know how to solve science illiteracy, but I think it must start with Abbey Hoffman’s command to “Question Authority”. The students and consumers today seem to desparately cling to authority, regardless of where what the credentials of the authority are and they are led.

    Carl: Arg.

  5. Robert Rushing

    First off, love the blog, love the writing.

    As a literature professor and science fan, I’m the first to say that the humanities need to be more engaged with, and knowledgeable about, science (although that road runs both ways). But for the record, I don’t know any of my colleagues or grad students who don’t believe in vaccination—in fact, the only person I can name who “doesn’t believe in vaccines” is Jenny McCarthy. Moreover, I’m a bit troubled by the suggestion (accompanied by the usual boogieman of Jacques Derrida) that an advanced degree in literature, politics or history (but especially literature) doesn’t really count as “an advanced degree.” Perhaps I’m just reading into it (which is what we lit professors are always accused of doing anyway), but is there the suggestion that some advanced degrees are less advanced than others? If the point is simply that PhD students in the humanities don’t study biology or epidemiology as part of their doctorates, I’d note that grad students in physics, astronomy and engineering don’t either. Finally, is there any reason to think that the assertion that “lots of people with advanced degrees don’t believe in vaccines” is even true to begin with? Or is it merely an anecdote?

  6. Christina Viering

    Probably an anecdote.

  7. Carl
    I thought TV was supposed to make people look older, you look younger!

    I’ve been reading Eric Mazur, Professor of Physics, Harvard University over the years. He has found that among his students (the top undergrads in the US?) the level of actual understanding of physics is very low, yet they can solve equations, be successful in exams.

    He has a list of publications at related to education.
    He found simple tests such as: You are on the ground watching an airplane go overhead, something falls from it. There are several answers. 1) It falls straight down, 2/3) At an angle forward/backward or 4) A forward parabola. While they could do the math, they couldn’t pick the correct answer.

    He mentions more in a recent article: “Farewell, Lecture?”, Science, 323, 50-51 (2009).
    Quote: “The traditional approach to teaching reduces education to a transfer of information.”
    If we cannot do it at Uni what chance in K-12? Eric has ideas for Uni, would they work in K-12?

    It is not a new problem either. I used this quote in my lectures from my laptop to their laptops:
    “A lecture is a process whereby information is passed from the notebook of the lecturer to the notebook of the student without having passed through the minds of either.”
    Thomas Huxley (Darwin’s Bulldog) 1825-1895

  8. Heraclides

    I’ve commented over at The Intersection on the part of the interview that I listened to (while trying to repair key ring halogen light, of all things).

    I hope I heard right (my hearing isn’t the best), but did Carl say that many high school science teachers in the USA don’t have science backgrounds and by implication that it’s not a requirement for high school science teachers to hold undergraduate science degrees in the USA?

    If that’s so, that may be a key missing element. I’m pretty sure that in my country high school science teachers have to have at least basic undergraduate science degrees. I’m not sure if they need a basic degree in the relevant science—e.g. a biology degree for biology teachers—but I’d like to think so.

    I agree with Carl’s point that what the degree is matters when considering the statistics. (I mentioned this in more detail in my comment at The Intersection; I’ll spare repeating it here.)

    @2 by johnk: About respect for scientists in the culture in general (as opposed to a few authoritative “leaders”), you want to try travelling in former Russia and the ‘stans, or at least when I did about ten years ago. Scientists seem very well-regarded there, at least from my personal experience.

  9. Greg. Tingey

    IF (please note the “IF”) this is the same Chris Mooney, he’s a nasty piece of work, and a betrayer of the ideals and philosophy of science.
    He is a revolting acommodationist to the christian (and muslim) “believers”, and won’t properly accept even methodoloical, never mind metaphysical naturalism, without going into paroxysams of ranting about the evil “New Atheists” – people like Dawkins and P.Z. Myers.
    See also:
    Where there are several entries on Mooney’s intellectual dishonesty.

    Assuming that it is the same Mooney, of course.

  10. Peter Beattie

    I said this before at Chris’s blog, but he hasn’t been very forthcoming lately in terms of an engagement with criticisms.

    I think it would benefit the debate if we could actually try and define what we mean by ’scientific (il)literacy’. Judging from the conversation, what I understand Chris’s position to be is that mainly there is a lack of factual knowledge, which is a thing easily ascertained in a poll. Then there’s the question of “how aware are they of the relevance of science to policy-making … to their own lives [and] is there a healthy relationship between science and society”. That’s it; just a bit of waffle, no specifics whatsoever. A little later in the conversation (around 7:30), Chris says that when it comes to isses like climate change and evolution we can ‘in no way’ blame what’s going on there on a lack of factual knowledge or even a lack of education. There again he seems, at least to some extent, to equate education with a knowledge of facts.

    The first thing that strikes me in the climate change and evolution debates is that generally people don’t even know what the word ‘fact’ means. That’s surely a pretty important idea to bear in mind in science. The second point is that science is not even primarily a body of knowledge. Just as much as literacy doesn’t mean to be able to tell different letters apart but how to connect them and how to make sense of them, by scientific literacy we should mean the ability to connect facts about the world and make sense of them. The third point is that there is one intellectual stance that is absolutely central to anything to do with science: the willingness to specify conditions that would lead one to change one’s mind.

    It is, as far as I can see, this third point that in the George Will affair as well as in the evolution debates is the elephant in the room. Scientists are willing to say, ‘Convince me that there are rabbit fossils in a pre-Cambrian stratum, and I’ll happily renounce Darwnism.’ We have yet to see creationists do anything that even comes close. Couched in the words of Richard Feynman, “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” If there is a single principle at the core of science, I would submit, it is exactly this; pretty much everything else follows from there. And it is this principle that should be at the heart of science education, of scientific literacy, and may I suggest discussions about scienctific literacy as well.

  11. John Kwok


    Heard the podcast last night and thought your dialogue with Chris Mooney went especially well. However, I’m more inclined to support your perspective with regards to the importance of high school science education (though I might add that it really should start earlier, in middle school, with an emphasis on the importance of experimental science), especially, as you noted correctly, that’s the best time to have rigorous introductions to basic sciences. By the time one enters college, most students not interested in science won’t – unless required to fulfill distribution requirements – take even a science course aimed at non-majors.

    I’m also a bit perplexed with Chris’s emphasis on Carl Sagan. There were others who were eloquent writers and “scientific ambassadors” like, for example, anthropologist Loren Eiseley, evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, physician Lewis Thomas, and especially, invertebrate paleobiologist Stephen Jay Gould. Today we can count among our most gifted “science ambassadors” the likes of evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson, physiologist and ecologist Jared Diamond (who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences), physician Oliver Sacks, physicists Brian Greene, Lawrence Krauss and Lisa Randall, invertebrate paleobiologist Peter Ward, vertebrate paleobiologists Mark Norell and Michael Novacek, and last, but not least, Norell and Novacek’s American Museum of Natural History colleague, astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson (And I know I have ignored important contributions too from the likes of evolutionary developmental biologist Sean B. Carroll, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson and planetary scientist David Grinspoon, among others). So, to put it simply, I don’t think that the absence of a “Carl Sagan” is as dire as Chris would like us to believe.

  12. johnk

    John Kwok has made a great list of scientists who have a degree of celebrity.

    A few reservations:
    1. None have been endorsed by the popular media. None have done projects with the impact of Sagan’s “Cosmos” or Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”.
    2. My field of Neuroscience has a big presence in the media, but is poorly represented by well-known scientists. I think of Eric Kandel, Oliver Sacks (neurology more than neuroscience) and then a big gap (in the US).
    3. Most of the list is represented in books. TV hasn’t done its share.

  13. Gaythia

    I agree with Carl Zimmer that FIRST is an excellent program. It is one, however, that involves funding, and mentoring, which can be daunting for the average high school. Volunteering is an excellent way to support high schools in the teaching of science, running an after school FIRST robotics program, and in other worthwhile efforts. And while Carl searches for his missing $50 billion in high school science funding, donations to key programs and equipment purchases can be very helpful also.

  14. johnk

    Comment about FIRST.

    One thing that Carl glosses over is the distinction between science and technology. Thinking back on my experiences in K-12 projects, the ones that worked and seemed fun were technology projects: getting things to work. I can’t remember a “science” project that was great fun or particularly informative.

    Just as I know a number of physicians, some really good ones, who don’t believe in evolution, doing a good robotics project probably doesn’t teach much science. Or even the much lauded ‘scientific method’ (whatever that really is).

    What I think I’m trying to say is that its not really clear what science literacy is or where it comes from. The broad goal of improving science literacy will be hard to achieve without an understanding of what it is.

    Unrelated comment. Although science literacy in the general population seems poor, the US produces great science from great scientists. We must be doing something right. My guess: college and university education.

  15. Gaythia

    The attributes that make the technology work effectively involve science.

    Direct observations and hands on work are very important. I believe that a lot of the difficulties for students in science these days are created by their lack of personal experience. Suburban lawns or urban streets lack the natural wildlife of fields or woods. Hardly anyone witnesses the birth of a pet or farm animal. Streetlights blot out the stars. Play structures have been lawsuit homogenized and no longer incorporate teeter totters (leverage) or merry-go-rounds (centrifugal force). Gravity is more obvious when jumping off a swing or falling out of a tree. Cooking involves microwaves and prepackaged goods and much less measuring and mixing let alone yeast starters.

    Science becomes something you read about out of a book while at school. This makes it easier to think of evolution, global warming or other topics as things that you “believe” or “don’t believe” rather than things that involve scientific observations and evidence.

  16. johnk


    I largely agree. Science and technology are very closely linked, but far from the same.

    Four strong relations:
    1. One of the jobs of science education is to understand the world we live in, and much of the world we have created thru technology. So, understanding technology is part of understanding our environment.
    2. Understanding science can lead to breakthroughs in technology.
    3. The problem solving involved in technological advancement is a wonderful skill similar (but far from identical) to the deductive reasoning in science.
    4. You can teach science by using examples from everyday life and technology. But the reasoning doesn’t go the other direction. A great athlete doesn’t have to know learn biomechanics before learning a sport. Nor a great cook chemistry.

  17. Heraclides


    I’d quibble that your point 4 isn’t quite right and the examples are poor, or at least unlucky. Top athletes do learn the biomechanics of their sport and understand them well (there are exceptions of course) and top cooks do understand the “chemistry” of food, albeit not at a level of organic chemistry. My own experience is that all but a few “experts” in any thing understand the “parts” that make up their craft/job very well, far beyond the average person and it’s a large part of what distinguishes them. (How many writers have a better knowledge than most of language?!)

    I’m not sure point 3 is quite right either. (Also, isn’t it conflicting with point 2?) BTW, deduction isn’t the only reasoning used in science.

  18. Jdhuey

    Speaking of science popularizers of old let’s not forget Issac Asimov. In my youth, I devoured every word he wrote and given that he wrote over 100 books and a nearly infinite number of articles that in it self was an accomplishment.

    What I remember from my High School Science classes is that they were dry, tedious, fact filled and devoid of any sense of awe, mystery or excitement with respect to the process of discovery. When I went to college the introductory science classes seem to be geared to winnow out all but the most dedicated of students. (On the other hand the ‘Science for poets’ classes – I was told – were very inspiring.)

  19. Jumblepudding

    You can try to improve public education all you want, if a kid’s family doesn’t place value or emphasis on education, or teaches disdain for empirical methods(ideally science) then they will remain scientifically illiterate.

  20. johnk


    Do you have scientific data to back your assertion?

  21. John Kwok

    @ Jdhuey –

    Your point about Isaac Asimov is especially well taken. However, I am referring to scientists who have been excellent communicators of science to the general public. While johnk is correct in noting that none of the scientists I have cited have had the impact that Sagan did with “Cosmos”, I think he may be wrong in asserting – as Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum have done in their book “Unscientific America” (This is based solely on second hand information, most notably from Carl Zimmer’s recent dialogue with Chris Mooney) – that Carl Sagan was truly unique. I would contend however, that as public intellectuals, both Stephen Jay Gould and E. O. Wilson have been far more important. In Gould’s case it is for two reasons; first as the most prominent critic pointing out how science has been – and may still be – misappropriated in reaffirming racial and ethnic discrimination (e. g. the controversy over the book “The Bell Curve” comes to mind), and second, as an early prominent critic of both E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology and of evolutionary psychology, its “descendant”. Wilson of course may be better known now for his ongoing crusade on behalf of conservation biology and promoting public awareness in ensuring the preservation of as much of Earth’s biodiversity as possible.

  22. John Kwok

    @ johnk –

    All the scientists I have cited have become known for their “public relations” activities as authors of science books aimed at the general public. They’ weren’t listed because they are celebrities, of which the most likely candidates are Greene, Wilson and Tyson, all of whom, to varying degrees have been “endorsed” by the popular media.

    I think FIRST is quite useful in promoting both teamwork and ingenuity, which are part of the important traits necessary for a career in science and technology. But it isn’t the only thing that has to be stressed, and of far more importance I believe, is the emphasis on rigorous standards of academic excellence, a point that’s been emphasized especially by former Washington Post journalist Alec Klein in his book, “A Class Apart”.

  23. johnk

    I don’t know, “A Class Apart” but I suspect that John Kwok and others are mixing up the twin purposes of science education. One purpose is to train scientists. The second is to create a science-literate population.

    Arguably, to be science literate, you don’t need any scientific problem-solving aptitude or creativity. Activities like FIRST may be irrelevant. Science literate means, roughly, that you understand a fair amount of current scientific theory, you understand the basics of experimental approaches (and relevant technology) in branches of science and that you can understand how an experiment can test or add to theory.

    Training a scientist requires a whole lot of technical and cognitive skills that are separate from science literacy. Here is where problem solving skills and, perhaps, rigorous standards of academic excellence play critical roles.

    Perhaps one of the problems with K-12 science is that the goals aren’t clear.

  24. John Kwok

    @ johnk –

    I respectfully have to disagree. You can do both, beginning in middle school (or earlier), and especially, in high school, by emphasizing both the creative and rational aspects of scientific research. This doesn’t mean that every student will be so interested in science that they’ll want to pursue careers in it, but it will ensure that they will be scientifically literate before they enter college. But also, as I noted before, one important means of doing it will be to expect a lot – in other words insist upon high academic standards emphasizing demanding curricula – from students, and Klein, in recounting the experiences of students he studied for one semester at his high school alma mater, one of the elite New York City specialized science-oriented public schools (incidentally mine as well), ends on a rather optimistic note expressing how he thinks American secondary school education could be changed for the better, to allow as many students as possible throughout the country to have the same experiences as those he’s written about.

  25. johnk

    John Kwok:

    I should (will?) read “A class apart”.

    My main point was that the two goals of science education should be kept distinctly in mind. Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, etc, clearly have the mission of training science professions in the early stages. Seems like they do a good job.

    Perhaps the other end of the spectrum are the “science for poets” courses taught in colleges. From what I’ve heard, these are stimulating and very good courses. They seem to teach science literacy, do it well, and are popular. What’s missing is the equivalent of “Science for Poets” taught in K-12.

  26. John Kwok

    @ johnk –

    But most graduates of Bronx Science and Stuyvesant do not go on to careers in science, but rather many, often quite different, professions (For example both Bronx Science and Stuyvesant have as notable alumni, several very well known – and quite distinguished – writers of American fiction and nonfiction.). And yet, even from those who aren’t scientists, I often hear how much they enjoyed taking their science courses. Fundamentally I think it’s difficult to separate between the two (Though even at Bronx Science and Stuyvesant – and several others – there is a division in the sense that there are special courses in scientific research whose goal is to submit presentable science research projects in the Intel Science Talent Search and International Science and Engineering Fair.).

  27. I just can’t see any long-term solution that is superior to doing a better job of teaching high school kids about science and getting them to feel that it’s part of their lives.

    Shouldn’t we start earlier than high school? What is the optimal age to start developing critical thinking skills?

  28. Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    Iam from India, my experiences about science teaching of India is we are not giving importance to practical. If we want to make student interested in science,passion for science give more importance to practical teaching.Let student do all experiments with their hand and brain, Teacher only guide them,each and every thing of physic, chemistry, biology must be practical and every thing let student do practical way.
    Curiosity and creative must go with hand in hand. Child Is very curious and want do every by his own hand let them do that.Our all great scientists were independent minded-and very practical.

  29. Baldwin

    I feel that kids who are not interested in science will never be adequately affected by their high school science education. There is only so much that a good, well educated teacher with good curriculum can do. Therefore, I feel that education of the adult public is very important.

    I also think that it’s a sad truth that the students that are interested in science are being educated so poorly. This is reflected in the lack of basic scientific understanding in University students and highschool educators.

    There is a great summary of the misunderstanding evolutionary topics here:
    Gregory (2009)×22/fulltext.pdf
    In particular, check out:
    Table 2 Summary of studies showing the high degree of misunderstanding of natural selection and adaptation among various groups of subjects

    Unfortunately I don’t have a solution, but I am very glad that there has been so much research done on this topic. I personally hope that this general discussion will continue and develop many creative solutions.

  30. I’m all for better high school science education. But at least in my town, the relatively progressive and education-friendly Montpelier, Vermont, one obvious target for improvement in science education is K-5, where science is badly short-changed. The ‘formal’ science curriculum in K-2, e.g., is limited to the “Four Winds” environment science program — which is a nice program, but is limited to weekly or biweekly sessions conducted by parent volunteers. Some teachers add a lot of science on their own, but others don’t.

    Things pick up after that, with a more formalized and steady diet of science ed beginning in 3d and 4th grade. But that seems awfully late in the going. It appears perfectly possible that a kid here can get to 3d grade without introduction to even the 10 greatest hits of science (choose your own). An important window of opportunity is being missed.

    No idea how common this is elsewhere. But if we’re wondering how we end up with grown-ups who don’t understand empirical principles, here’s one possible explanation.

    And yes, we do spend more here in the US on education than most other developed countries of even remotely similar economic strength — and get poorer outcomes than most. In that way (and several others, such as a lack of standards and record-keeping that would allow us to see what works and what doesn’t), US education is much like the US health care system: There’s isn’t really any system, and because of that and a lack of data that allows evalution of comparative effectiveness, our systems are driven by entrenched interests, flashy but unproven supposedly novel ideas, tired ideology, and dead-weight inertia.

  31. Peter Phillips

    I just got around to listening to your podcast after a long vacation. As usual it was very interesting.
    I have just two points I wanted to comment on. First, concerning the dismal record of scientific knowledge in the states, it seems to me to be a matter of critical thinking more then science specific education. If people are taught to think and doubt they can usually get the gist of most subjects and more importantly avoid being fooled by specious arguments. The second point relates to your concern about the plight on young scientists. I can imagine that is very difficult to become a successful scientist these days. But the same can be said about any competitive field. By definition, only a handful of folks can ever succeed in being put at the top of their respective pyramids. As a relatively young architect, I can assure that it is very difficult to break into that field as well. Add to that the ever changing economy and sociopolitical landscape and the endeavor becomes ever more daunting. The world changes, hopefully for the better.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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