Saturday, February 15, 2014

The ignorance keeps growing

You can swim all day in the Sea of Knowledge and still come out completely dry. Most people do. ~Norman Juster

According to a National Science Foundation study, 1 in 4 Americans think the sun revolves around the Earth. Only 39% answered correctly that “the universe began with a huge explosion”, and almost half of Americans don't believe human beings evolved from earlier life forms.

Like most studies, this one needs to be taken with a grain of salt. For example, the universe did not begin with a huge explosion; it began with a sudden rapid expansion from a primordial nucleus or a singularity (whichever you prefer). I'm sure the authors of the study had seen one too many episodes of Science or History programs that insist on showing a huge flaming explosion, complete with big booming noises and debris flying every which way and claiming that's the way things started. If other questions were similarly worded, I could see why people who knew better might say no to it.

Over half the people surveyed seem to think that astrology is a science, which is an increase from about 33% a couple of years earlier. What is supposed to have happened in two years to prompt that nonsense?

As to the question of mankind's beginnings, that is a religious question for many people. They may know better, but they keep convincing themselves that the two contradictory creation stories in Genesis make more sense than the fossil record and anthropological research.

That being said, the study (which you can see here) basically says Americans respect scientists but they don't know what they do, and they think they're dangerous. A recent study by the Huffington Post, which I wrote about recently, seemed to indicate that respect for scientists was an up and down sort of thing.

It gets better (or worse depending on your point of view) as far as the study goes. It seems that Europe and China have issues as well. For example, 1/3 of the Europeans and Chinese think the Earth is the center of the universe. However, they are more likely to believe in evolution.

A cursory review of the linked document seems to indicate that they actually put together an agglomeration of many studies, threw them in a blender, and came up with this stuff, which a variety of news sources have cherry-picked to generate a few headlines.

Without benefit of any studies or NSF funding (although they throw a few mil my way if they're suitably impressed), I can tell them a lot about American attitudes toward science. In general, they don't get it. As soon as most people no longer had to take science courses, they simply purged their minds of what little information they had. They now rely on mainstream news (which seldom goes into sufficient detail), so-called science programming (which, as I've discussed many times can range from the adequate to the downright awful), and sensationalist programming about alien encounters, international Masonic plots to rule the world, and the incredible correctness of Nostradamus' predictions, with a dash of Mayan apocalypse thrown in for good measure. And I won't even go into the mermaids and dragons nonsense.

American ignorance about science is as old as the country itself. Americans talk a great show about the importance of education but are loathe to actually have to pay for it. A huge number of years ago, when I was in high school, we had a school tax levy up for a vote. Someone wrote a letter to the newspaper saying he couldn't understand why we needed more money. After all, we could just use the text books a few years longer. Well, having sat through several years of having science teachers having to correct outdated information in our ancient science texts, I had a word to say about this in my own letter to the editor. A Latin book or an English literature book could be a few years old, but geography, history, and science texts needed to be kept up to date. My letter actually got published, a little to my surprise. So what was the reaction? Somebody wrote wrote in to say that if a student could fashion such a well-written letter, it showed that the current system was doing its job without the need of any further expenditures.

I should have written the thing in crayon with a few misspellings or something.

What is depressing about the study, if in fact its statements are valid, is that Europe and Asia are in as much trouble as we are. If it's true that significant numbers of Europeans and Asians don't know that the Earth orbits the sun, then civilization is sinking slowly into the sunset. It's a little hard to tell who is going to pull us out of this morass.

Once upon a time, this country got into science in a big way. What caused that was the Soviet Union launching Sputnik. The sudden realization that we were being out-brained by a bunch of Commies was enough of a kick in the pants to get people to fund education and to steer kids into scientific and technical fields.

There's no such competition now. No one seems to care if China gets people to the moon. Even if they do, they'll be using 50 year-old technology (except the computers will be better). There's nothing there that will get Americans or Europeans (and perhaps not even the Chinese) excited about science.

Where's an alien invasion when you need one?