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:

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!


~ by claytonbrown2 on October 10, 2010.

6 Responses to “We live in a strange country”

  1. Documentaries have always been one of my favorite ways of learning. Information is set in context of a story, and I like stories. I remember stories. I remember information I learn in stories because it bears meaning.

    Some of the countries/regions you mentioned have a history of emphasizing a correct-answer type of education. Critical thinking is dissuaded. Give the correct answer, get a good job. America primarily uses the correct-answer type of education too, but independent thinking and innovation are hallmarks of our country’s character. Perhaps Americans, who are not afraid to think (and who do not necessarily need high test scores to get a well-paying job), need science presented in meaningful ways, rather than by rote learning.

    My boys (ages 7 & 9) sit, riveted, to an archaeology documentary series on the History channel. I wasn’t sure if they’d make it through the first episode I showed them, but I was blown away by their engagement. We have rented complete seasons of the show from the library and they are excitedly, independently making their way through the DVDs. And learning. Kids love stories too!

    Keep up the good work. I wish that more schools would teach science in meaningful ways. I do think that would help with the current state of scientific affairs. 🙂

  2. It’s called comfort: the ability to do things without any negative consequence (at least that’s my definition). In other times, believing in God was a must. You didn’t do it, or at least publicly admitted it, you got burned. Likewise, believing in God while being on the sickbed and refusing medicine is likely to get you killed as well. Evolution works in those cases. But now? You can safely say that there are angels and dinosaurs and (oh, oh, oh) superheroes, because it doesn’t affect you in any way. Even if the entire world sees Americans as (*ahem*) naive, it doesn’t bother people. But it doesn’t stop (or start) there. Comforts like freedom and law and equal opportunity disappear instantly when the money and calm climate that supported them disappear.

    And then I ask: could it be that the belief of the vast majority of people is a social thing, that has nothing to do with truth, only with what we are free to believe? And then, what good is freedom anyway?

  3. This is the most significant blog I’ve read in a long time. What I call “human compliance” is the ability of humans to adopt notions just because they fulfill our emotional needs. Instead of separating the fiction we sometimes desire from pure facts, we go on believing in angels, the afterlife, a personal god that will always guide us through the difficult times. However, the more we seduce ourselves into creating our own reality for comfort, the more we drive away from the facts that make our surival essential, like for example, science. I myself have asked many times while dinning out….I wonder how many people in this room know the chemical formula for water…or air?…essential to our life. How many have a clear understanding of our tiny place in the universe? How many can debate the possiblity of sustaining life in planets different than ours? I often too feel very depressed, to know that in 300 BC there were humans like Euclid that learned to look at the world through scientific thought, and here we are…in 2010, a substantial amount of time in human advancement, and only a small percentage of us have such insight.

  4. My answer to the big explosion question would be “That’s the generally accepted theory.” It does an acceptable job of explaining most of our observations. I don’t “know” it to be true nor does anyone else.

    Of course my idea of knowledge is pretty stringent. The only thing that I know is that I exist and the only reason I know that is that something asked the question and it had to be me. Everything else is subject to some doubt, however slight.

    Having said all that, I am constantly amazed and discouraged at how dumb the average human is. I test out on the top end of the bell curve and yet I constantly berate myself about my stupid actions and behaviour. I need every scrap of intelligence I can muster just to function, not sure how I would make out with much less.

  5. It must be guardian angels that are causing global warming!
    I saw a program on the History Channel that said angels are really aliens, so there you go. Be careful of the “documentaries” you choose. While working as a teaching assistant, I met a California middle school science teacher (teechur) who had never heard of cell theory, and, when another TA and I explained it to her, she thought we were pulling her leg. A certain Texas Governor, among others, still believe that special creation fills in the “gaps” of the theory of evolution.

    — James Ph. Kotsybar

    Some sinister forces would try to gain
    control of what is deemed permissible.
    Theirs is the moral high ground, they maintain.
    All disagreement is dismissible.
    They’d train, with discipline that’s drilled by rote,
    young minds to dumbed-down dogmatic belief,
    denying what might provide antidote —
    the skeptical questions that bring relief.
    They’d take the dictionaries from our schools, r
    eplace our science instruction with creed
    and guarantee a future rife with fools —
    a pious and uneducated breed.
    Thank goodness these disgruntled lack the wit
    to cancel what the moving hand hath writ.

  6. Sir,
    There is plenty of evidence for Intelligent Design. The theory of evolution is only a theory. To accept it as a fact is ignoring basic and fundamental science principals. A universe once void of all matter, spontaneously and without cause, EXPLODED into physical existence. THAT line is harder to swallow than ANYTHING I.D. scientists have to say. There is a Creator and just like a sculptor, He left his “fingerprints” on His work.

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