We Must Halt the Dumbening of Our Society

The most accurate thing in this photo is the uniform

The most accurate thing in this photo is the uniform

So we now live in a world where a high school freshman is arrested for making a clock.  Although it impressed the science teacher, it scared the English teacher (apparently not enough to evacuate the classroom, but let’s not let logic interfere).  According to the police, said clock looked like a “movie bomb,” because their training came from Die Hard.  And then, with no understanding themselves, the left starts throwing around a word like “genius” as if any bright, curious kid who likes to play with technology is automatically Einstein.  (Apologies to Ahmed Mohamed, who may be a genius, but who might just be a talented future engineer.)  This whole pile of stupid is what happens when lay-people have no functional understanding of science and technology.

How many times have you heard a supposedly educated and thinking person say to you “Oh, I can’t do algebra” or “chemistry is so boring” without a hint of embarrassment?  These same people would never proudly declare “Oh, I can’t read at a 7th grade level,” or “Shakespeare is so confusing” because people would assume they’re uneducated rubes.  But to my ear, these are one and the same.

When did this happen?  Was it when we divided the world into jocks and nerds?   When we decided all science-types had some form of autism spectrum disorder?  (For the record, I know many socially well-adjusted science-types.)  Five hundred years ago, the model of the educated man was someone like Rene Descartes, who was a philosopher (Cogito ergo sum) but also developed an entire branch of mathematics.  Ben Franklin is as famous for being an inventor as he is for political theory.  But now, top caliber universities offer humanities and social science degrees without any lab science requirements, instead granting credit for “Biology for Poets” and other nonsense.

I’m not on this hobby-horse just because it’s a personal pet peeve.  This is important because it informs our public debate. 

Part of the problem is that lay-people do not understand the process and language of science.    I’m sure we were all taught the scientific method as children.  First, you formulate a hypothesis.  Then, you design an experiment to attempt to DISPROVE this hypothesis.  Once that hypothesis survives enough reasoned attempts at disproving it, it becomes established science.  Sometimes, new data or research methods yield contradictions to established science, and we develop a new testable hypothesis and go from there.

The words “theory,” and “law” mean something different in science than in the vernacular.  A scientific theory is not just a harebrained idea that hasn’t become scientific law.  It’s not a science bill awaiting Stephen Hawking’s signature or something.  They’re distinct concepts.  Laws are models that describe HOW things work, whereas a theory is a broader explanation for a set of phenomena.  (For instance, Newton’s laws of motion describe an object’s behavior at sub-light speeds.  On the other hand, a workable theory of gravity must pull together all prior work on the subject, from Galileo to Hawking.)

Prudent scientists are never 100% certain about anything.  But a dishonest media uses that 0.001% uncertainty as a cudgel in public debate to claim that the scientific jury is still out.  Thus, because of prudence on the part of science, we “debate” whether or not man-made climate change is real.  (It is.)  We “teach the controversy” about whether or not the earth is only 6000 years old.  (It’s not.)  Dr. Trump warns that vaccines cause autism.  (They don’t).  And we talk about whether or not these are “differences of opinion.”  (They’re not.)  These are as “proven” as science ever gets.  There is most certainly a debate to be had about policy approaches, but not about the data itself. To paraphrase the late Pat Moynihan, you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own science.

The other factor that allows liars, charlatans, and know-nothings to manipulate the public debate is lack of mathematical literacy.  I remember years ago watching Dennis Miller discuss climate change on Jon Stewart’s show.  He mentioned that the earth’s temperature had risen 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past century, and then dismissed such a small change as insignificant to the future.  Miller made the mistake of assuming that all relationships are linear.  They are not.  A 1 degree change over the past century does not necessarily predict a 1 degree change over the next century.  More likely, this change is exponential:     


With only two data points, Miller has no reason to assume that the trend looks like the chart on top as opposed to the second chart (or some other relationship altogether).  But he doesn’t even seem to understand that he made that assumption to begin with!   It requires a functional understanding of analytic geometry to see that (thanks Descartes!).  I’m not suggesting that comedians are considered authorities on climate change.  But they and other lay people influence the debate, and as a society, we need tools to critically evaluate their claims.  And we don’t have them.

We don’t have them because we think that math and science are only done by geniuses, so “regular” people can’t possibly learn them.  Or we think that science is informed by “opinion” and that anyone’s opinion matters.  Neither is true.  For the future of our democracy (baseball, apple pie, the American way of life, etc.), we must teach our kids that science isn’t “scary” and “hard.”  Props to Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and a host of others for trying.   The next step might be expecting educators to not immediately be scared of an engineering project.  

Science is as easily accessible as history.  We used to teach history as a rote collection of names and dates, but we don’t anymore, because context lends the subject relevance.  Scientific context and relevance should be even easier since you see it around you every day.  But you need reading comprehension to learn history, and you need math comprehension to learn science.  All are essential for an engaged public and a vibrant civic debate.  We know that we can’t leave history in the past.  We must learn that we can’t leave science in the lab.

Fight the dumbening of society.  (Is that how you spell dumbening?)

Tina S

Tina hangs out around the virtual cube farm of SeedSing and throws out world changing ideas. We assume those are home made clocks she leaves around the office. Show off your smarts by writing for SeedSing.