Coded gray.

Wednesday 1 May 2002

Screenshot The Sims

Pic of the day: "Actually, I don't know a thing about science and I would prefer not to learn." "That's OK sweetie, I love you for your boobs anyway." Screenshot from The Sims, of course. (And in real life I find intelligence a major attractor, but that's just me and my family, I guess.)

Ignorance of science

I read an interesting article on today. It tried to say something rational about the Americans' knowledge of science. The really disturbing fact did not occur to me until the second time I looked it over. I hope it's OK that I quote from the actual part that shocked me. (There were more, but they were touching on matters of religion, and as such may reflect attitude rather than knowledge. Several of the scores were in the same range, though.)

Some of the other questions, with the right answers and the percent answering correctly:

Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (False. Lasers focus light.) 45 percent.

Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (False.) 51 percent.


I don't know about you, but the first time I read this I had the vague assumption that about half of those surveyed knew the answer. I see now that the article did wisely not say that. You see, if you don't know the answer, you still have a 50% chance to get it right by just guessing. And ... the results of the survey is very close to what you would get if ALL of the participants just guessed. That is to say, seen by a statistician's mind, it is not 50% of Americans who know how laser works, but approximately 5%. And for antibiotics, approximately 0%. The same holds for dinosaurs, genetic modification and the other themes in the article.

Approximately 95% of the population in the world's only remaining superpower are utterly ignorant about basic science and technology. That's ... fascinating. And dramatic. If people don't know that dinosaurs lived more than 60 million years before humans, what is the chance that they know the Crusades were a resounding fiasco? If they don't know the difference between electric power and psychic powers, what do they know about the witch hunts? How long will they believe in Holocaust? If a toss of the coin would give the same result as asking 1500 people, what is the point of democracy? Would we not be just a well served by a lottery?

I'm not dissing America exclusively here. Actually, the USA is the main destination of the brain drain in the developing world, and some of the developed world too. It's where the brightest people tend to move if they move at all. And still the number of people who actually know more than they personally need is so small as to barely influence statistics.


Now you may argue: "I'm not a scientist or a professional Trivial Pursuit player. Why would I walk around with bits of completely useless facts in my brain?"

Firstly, because you don't know which will be useless. Take the one about antibiotics. Lots of people ask their doctor for antibiotics for their flu or other virus infections. The doctor gives them a prescription "just in case", because he doesn't want to lose customers and he doesn't have the time to explain to them how antibiotics works. Besides, he probably gets a little extra money out of each prescription so why not? Why not? Because over the last few decades, many of our most common bacterial enemies have grown resistant to almost all antibiotics. The more of them that slosh about for no reason, the faster this process goes. Already people die from infections that were treatable when I was a kid.

Secondly, because useless bits of information is what human civilization is built on in the first place. As these bits and pieces meet in a receptive brain, they combine to form new concepts and inventions, and we make progress in thinking and living. Now you may say that civilization is not so great: We have destroyed thousands of innocent species, unbalanced the climate, and are holding the planet hostage to nuclear weapons that could eradicate all higher life. (Actually if you were thinking that way, you would probably say "nuclear weapons that could blow up the whole planet" which is of course way outside our combined efforts. At least until 2005 when the Large Hadron Collider starts attempting to make black holes.)

Well, it is fine by me if you want to go back to nature and dig for earthworms to eat when the caribou is a few days late on its migration. Can I have your car meanwhile?

It's bad enough that there are no signs of intelligent life in outer space. What's really worrying is that it seems to be lacking here on Earth too.

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One year ago: Socialism: The big fat lie
Two years ago: Socialist holy day
Three years ago: No shopping day

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