It’s the 4th of July, and the Mad Biologist doesn’t work on yontif, so here’s something from the archives about scientific literacy (or illiteracy, actually). Surprisingly, I actually agree with Nicholas Kristof (originally published Dec. 8, 2005).
Nicholas Kristof actually made sense today. He described on the widespread ignorance of science and math, even among those typically considered well-educated. Says the Great Solon (italics mine):
One-fifth of Americans still believe that the Sun goes around the Earth, instead of the other way around. And only about half know that humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.
The problem isn’t just inadequate science (and math) teaching in the schools, however. A larger problem is the arrogance of the liberal arts, the cultural snootiness of, of … well, of people like me – and probably you [not the Mad Biologist!].
What do I mean by that? In the U.S. and most of the Western world, it’s considered barbaric in educated circles to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares. A century ago, Einstein published his first paper on relativity – making 1905 as important a milestone for world history as 1066 or 1789 – but relativity has yet to filter into the consciousness of otherwise educated people.
“The great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the Western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had,” C. P. Snow wrote in his classic essay, “The Two Cultures.”…
Without some fluency in science and math, we’ll simply be left behind in the same way that Ming Dynasty Chinese scholars were. Increasingly, we face public policy issues – avian flu, stem cells – that require some knowledge of scientific methods, yet the present Congress contains 218 lawyers, and just 12 doctors and 3 biologists. In terms of the skills we need for the 21st century, we’re Shakespeare-quoting Philistines.…
This disregard for science already hurts us. The U.S. has bungled research on stem cells, perhaps partly because Mr. Bush didn’t realize how restrictive his curb on research funds would be. And we’re risking our planet’s future because our leaders are frozen in the headlights of climate change.
In this century, one of the most complex choices we will make will be what tinkering to allow with human genes, to “improve” the human species. How can our leaders decide that issue if they barely know what DNA is?…..
But there’s an even larger challenge than anti-intellectualism. And that’s the skewed intellectualism of those who believe that a person can become sophisticated on a diet of poetry, philosophy and history, unleavened by statistics or chromosomes. That’s the hubris of the humanities.
Kristof is right that scientific ignorance is overwhelming. I’ve dealt with public health policy makers who really don’t understand the basics of biology (e.g., viruses versus bacteria). Many policy makers do not know enough biology (or other sciences, for that matter). These are not stupid people (well, some are…), and they have often been educated at ‘elite’ universities. This knowledge does matter: you can’t just get some good ‘folks’ with good values and build a light water nuclear reactor. Competency and expertise matter.
Anyone who has had to defend evolutionary biology is painfully familiar with this sort of ignorance. Here’s some examples:
- a misunderstanding of the basics of mutation
- not knowing the difference (or that there is a difference) between the theories of common descent and natural selection
- confusing randomness with stochasticity
- not understanding that mutation (and recombination) give rise to variation, and natural selection alters this variation
- not realizing that evolution happens in populations (this confusion ultimately leads to a misunderstanding of what “macroevolution” actually means)
- not realizing that historically contingent events can not be approximated with mathematics that assumes independent events (the “whirlwind in the junkyard” metaphor)
Now, it’s ok if you’re not familiar with some of the things on this list-the Mad Biologist is not familiar with a great many things too. However, if you are going to attack evolutionary biology, you have to know the basics; otherwise, when you argue from an ‘alternate’ (read: incorrect) biological reality, you’re just being an idiot.
While Kristof is right that scientific ignorance is acceptable, even among the educated, he ignores two other factors which are very important. First, many conservatives have waged an all-out assault on science (e.g., Mooney’s Republican War on Science). Second, Kristof ignores the role that Republicans have played in labelling scientists as elitists (as if somehow a bunch of college professors actually govern the U.S.).
Nonetheless, Kristof does point out that Americans, despite our love of technology, don’t understand it. Now if we can only fix our educational system…