Galileo must be spinning
July 12, 2000
A few weeks ago, I was complimenting my 14-year-old for getting an A in Algebra. As I was waxing on about how proud I was and how important it is to do well in school, my practical son cut me short with the question: "Have you ever had occasion to use your knowledge of algebra since you finished studying it, I assume about 35 years ago?"
I sheepishly confessed that, other than doing homework with him and his brother, no, I don't think I ever actually needed to use algebra. As I retreated from the conversation, I did point out however that of course, I have been an actor, a lawyer a political hack and a pundit, but I have higher hopes for my children. Thus, he might well have need of algebra to invent the software that will permit our family to retire from compensated work for a few generations. But there was little conviction in my voice.
Even in an age of science, most of us get by without using science or math very often. As long as the guys who know that stuff keep making computers with the software already installed, the rest of us only have to figure out how to insert the larger prong of the plug into the larger receptacle of the socket or can afford to hire someone who does know such things.
Let us hope so, because according to reliable public polling, Americans have an appallingly tenuous connection to rudimentary scientific concepts. Perhaps the most curious fact, according to a National Science Foundation survey, is that while 46 percent of the public now uses the Internet, only 16 percent knows what it is (a network that connects computers and permits electronic exchange of information.) That is about the same as saying that most people who drive cars don't know that a car is a vehicle, powered by an engine, that moves forward and back and can be steered.
What, exactly, are those 30 percent of the Internet using- but- not -understanding members of the public thinking they are doing when they search for a topic and get lots of relevant information up on their screen? Where in the world did they think that information came from? Are they like our primitive ancestors who, on seeing the sun in the sky thought a large person hung a lantern up there? That same National Science Foundation survey disclosed that more than half the public thinks that early humans lived at the time of the dinosaurs (they were only off by 60 million years.) Likewise, more than half of our fellow adult countrymen do not know that it takes a year for the Earth to orbit the sun. Hadn't they heard that the Earth rotates around the sun, or didn't they noticed that winter, spring, summer and fall come at the same time each year. And just think, some of those who got the answer right were probably guessing.
But if we Americans don't know things that are true, we do believe in things that aren't true. Thirty-six percent of the public believes astrology is scientific. Of course, given the other answers, they may not know what the word scientific means. Almost half the public believes in ESP, UFOs, psychic healing, haunted houses, ghosts, lucky numbers and communicating with the dead. I personally find it hard enough communicating with the living.
Women are more likely to believe in paranormal phenomena, while men are more likely to believe in UFOs and bizarre life forms (that sort of figures).
Not surprisingly, according to the same National Science Foundation survey, regular viewers of "The X Files," "Unsolved Mysteries," "Sightings" and "Psychic Friends" were "significantly more likely than those who did not watch these programs to endorse paranormal beliefs." To be fair to the television executives, self-selection for idiocy may partially explain the last statistic.
To round out the picture, 87 percent of the adult public does not know what a molecule is, while a full 71 percent does not know what DNA is. On the sort of positive side, 70 percent know that oxygen comes from plants, and light travels faster than sound (of course, that means 30 percent of our fellow Americans don't know those facts - those are the people who hear the thunder and rush outside to see the lightning that caused it).
Some hectoring sourpusses may find these statistics cause for alarm. But correctly understood, they are invigorating sources of optimism. Without doubt, the Germans, Scandinavians and Asians outscore us on such tests. But, with only about one-third to one-half of the American public understanding basic scientific principles, the miracle of American civilization nonetheless permits us to lead the planet in science and technology. If we can tweak, even marginally, our schooling and media coverage of science - say, get our scientific literacy up to about two-thirds - we should be able to surge even further ahead in the coming century.
Tony Blankley is a columnist for The Washington Times. His column appears on Wednesdays.
Copyright © 2000 News World Communications, Inc. Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times
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