We live in a strange country
I was reading Scientific American last night and came across Lawrence Krauss’s regular column, “Critical Mass.” He quoted some alarming statistics from the Science and Engineering Indicators report (published every two years). Adults in our country are less willing to believe that Evolution and the Big Bang are facts than adults in other industrial countries. But he dug deeper to find some figures that were omitted from that report. Here are two questions and their answers:
1. “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” only 45% answered “true” in the U.S. (Japan: 78%, Europe: 70%, China: 69%, South Korea: 64%)
2. “The Universe began with a big explosion.” only 33% answered “true” in the U.S.
I did a little more research:
- Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
- Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
- Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water.
- 55% of Americans believe in angels, including 50% who believe they are protected by a guardian angel.
- Only 49% of Americans believe human activity is causing global warming.
- Only 10% of Americans know what radiation is.
American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.
I find this very depressing. But also very strange, given that 4 in 5 American adults believe science education is “absolutely essential” or “very important” for US healthcare, global reputation, and economy. How can these both be true? My hero, Carl Sagan, explained it eloquently here. He got off a plane once and took a cab with someone who was very excited to find out he was riding with “that science guy.” He was really excited because he had lots of questions about science. However, to Sagan’s dismay, the guy wanted to know about UFOs, channeling, crystals, and astrology. In a (compound) word, pseudo-science. Sagan’s take was perfect:
“[my companion] was well-spoken, intelligent, curious—had heard virtually nothing of modern science. He wanted to know about science. It’s just that all the science got filtered out before it reached him. What society permitted to trickle through was mainly pretense and confusion. And it had never taught him how to distinguish real science from the cheap imitation.”
As 137 Films works on a film called The Believers about the two electro-chemists from Utah who claimed they had discovered Cold Fusion, it’s fascinating for me to juggle how I feel about that so-called discovery. I have heard extremely rational, clear-eyed, respectable people tell me both that “cold fusion is complete nonsense” and that “we can prove beyond a doubt that it’s real.” Monica and I got asked many times in New York when we were at the IFP Independent Film Week “so, what do you believe? Is cold fusion real or not?” We had to explain that that was not our, or the film’s, intention. We are not going to answer that question. We are going to raise that question. And if scientists disapprove of our film and believe we are contributing to the confusion of Carl Sagan’s passenger, I would refer them to the last sentence in Dr. Sagan’s quote above and say that, in fact, I believe, is our mission.
The way Monica describes our company’s objective is that we raise scientific literacy through storytelling. With The Atom Smashers, audience members left the theatre or turned off the TV knowing, roughly, how a particle accelerator works by following a race to make a discovery. With The Believers, maybe someone will come away knowing that fusion is supposed to create radiation because two people claimed they had discovered a way to do it safely, on a tabletop, at room temperature.
Maybe we can bring that 10% up to 11!