About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Americans' understanding of science (not good)

A recent article in the New York Times reported an interview with John Miller, a political scientist at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. Miller has studied Americans' understanding of science for a long time. The good news is that science literacy has doubled during the past two decades. Here are some of the bad news:

* Only 20-25% of Americans are scientifically savvy.
* The only thing most American adults understand about molecules is that they are small.
* Less than a third know that DNA is the hereditary material.
* 10% know what radiation is.
* An astounding 1/5th think that the Sun revolves around the earth!

Why? Well, Miller's explanations aren't that surprising, if anything what's surprising is that we are still not doing much about it. Miller points out that the country is increasingly divided in two groups: those that know and those that don't, and the two groups mirror the similarly increasing economic divide between those that have and those that don't.

On the one hand, this country has some of the brightest minds on the planet; but we've also got some of the dumbest people on earth. Lack of education, Miller says, is very well correlated with income and type of job. As he puts it, people who hold fundamentalist views rejecting science "work in jobs that are evaporating fast with competition around the world."

He also adds that whenever he makes these comments in public he gets mail from people who say they'll be praying for him...


  1. Nor are scientists understanding of science always remarkably good.

    "Most scientific papers are probably wrong" August 2005
    NewScientist.com news service
    Kurt Kleiner

    Given all that, it would be would be reasonable to make a few allowances for this SCIENTIST, too. http://www.dmregister.com/apps/pbcs.


  2. Just because scientists may be wrong in what they conclude or how they set up a study, that doesn't mean that the scientific method still isn't the best means of finding out about the world.

    Nor does it mean that ID is really science. Think about it, how is intelligent design falsifiable? How do you tell a non-designed universe from a designed one? If you conclude that any existing universe must have been designed in order to exist, then you have an a priori assumption about the results before you even start your "experiment".

    And if you believe that the designer is omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-everything, then you have to concede that this designer has no limitations in how it executes its design. So once again, you face the problem of never being sure what the designer *did* design vs. what it didn't. If the designer is omniscient, etc., it's very possible that something that apparently looks undesigned to us puny humans actually serves some secret purpose only known to the designer. Or that it has some level of design we can't see or detect or understand. But once again, there is no way of knowing for sure, because you can't really say with any level of certitude, "Oh, an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent designer would never do things this way!". And you can also make excuses ad infinitum for anything that appears to contradict the "intelligent designer" theory.

  3. As an agnostic I allow that there could be a creator of the universe. Maybe he designed everything down to the atomic level and continues to dictate in realtime the exact position of every single atom in the universe, or perhaps he made the earth/universe then set it in motion is watching passively while things run their course. Or maybe even something in between. Or maybe something totally different. I have to allow that an omnipotent power could do things in ways that I can't even fathom.

    Through the ages, science has changed the way that we view and understand the world around us. The germ theory of disease, the discovery that the universe is not geocentric, advances in physics that showed that whether a body floats or not has nothing to do with whether the person is a witch or not ... these are all important advances in the sciences that have increased our knowledge and demonstrably improved our quality of life.

    Religious leaders got their panties in a bunch in varying degrees of insanity over these aforementioned issues, but ultimately no discovery that science has made to date has either proven or disproven the existence of God. Whether scientists think the Earth is 5 billion or 5 thousand years old, they can't say one way or another how it got here. Sure, they can posit stuff about the Big Bang, but how do they know what caused it to happen? To my knowledge, science doesn't have anything to say about what the 'first cause' of the universe was.

    I know that everyone wants outside validation of their beliefs. Who among us hasn't perhaps read to see what Consumer Reports says about our vehicle *after* we've purchased it? How many people will watch the Emmy Awards for the sense of validation they hope to feel when the critics give an award to their favorite show? In a somewhat similar vein, I'm sure it would be nice if science could prove that beliefs we hold about creation of the universe and higher powers are true. As someone who doesn't have all the answers, I'd *love* it if science could tell me what the real deal is. But thusfar I've yet to see science say anything relevant on the matter. Did the bird outside my window exist in the *exact* same form 4000 yrs ago? 4 million years ago? Did the wingtips change from brown to black or were they always that way? I may be curious to know the answer to these questions but obtaining these answers will tell me as much about a higher power as it will the outcome of the next Super Bowl. If there is a higher power, how could I possibly hope to learn anything about it by looking at physical evidence of old stuff thats been left behind? Any fact about how things developed, how old a rock is, etc, is nice to know for its own sake but it doesn't tell me anything about if there's a God or how he built the universe.

    Science can do lots of neat stuff, but proving or disproving the existence of God and the origin of the earth is well beyond what it can do. I suppose that some religious folk are scared out of their minds by tax dollars building schools in which they can't hold Bible readings and mandate school prayer. Yet it's very puzzling to me why they choose *science* as the battleground in which to fight for what they want. Why not the art programs? Why not school lunch? Why not build a church and go there on Sunday?

    As a product of the public school system I can honestly say that I didn't see one person's mind changed on God, creation, etc, based on what was taught in science class. Ultimately, looking to science for answers on questions like these is about as productive as giving this guy a free visit with a palm reader for his birthday.



  4. There's actually a group of fringe Traditionalist Catholics out there who actually believe that the earth is the center of the universe. Not just the center of the solar system, mind you. The entire universe.

    One of them is even offering a prize of $1000 if you can prove that heliocentrism is true. As David Barry says, I am not making this up.

    Traditionalist Catholics are those Catholics who reject the reforms and changes of the post Vatican II Roman Catholic Church.

  5. Anonymous, I believe you're missing the point. Of course science won't tell you anything about a being which sits outside reality. But that's irrelevant anyway: who cares whether the universe was designed or not? The point is that it behaves according to laws which we slowly unveil. The trouble with religion is not that they posit the existence of a Creator, but that this Creator is also a Caretaker, Policeman, Judge, etc. Maybe something created the universe, but it has now been left to its own devices; otherwise we'd be seeing miracles all the time.
    Finally, what's the difference between no explanation and an unfathomable one? If asked "how did the universe come into being?" I'd rather answer (honestly): "I don't know" instead of positing the existence of an inconceivable entity that would, in turn, require an explanation of its own existence.

  6. piero-
    You say "Of course science won't tell you anything about a being that sits outside reality". On this point we are in 100% agreement, however, there are quite a few who would disagree with this statement. In fact, the religious right in this country is desperately trying to use "science" as a means to justify their beliefs in a creator. They want to have "creation science" taught alongside evolution in high school biology classes. So while you and I may take as a given that science has nothing to say on a Creator, the fact is that lots of people vehemently disagree.

    I think people's individual beliefs about god, religion, etc, are very personal matters and very much influenced by an individuals subjective experience of the world. I'm truthfully not very concerned with what people believe, how they worship, etc. What concerns me is the intersection of religion and government institutions. In that sense, it's very much worth making the point that science and religion have nothing to do with each other. I think it's very important to keep religion as far away as possible from public schools.

    Regarding your final point, perhaps there is no difference. But doesn't saying "I don't know" allow for the possibility of a God that created the world? A God whose entity is inconceivable and whose origin is unknown? Are are you really saying "I dont know, but I know that it wasnt God"?


  7. -mjrmjr
    I think the problem is the unwarranted jump from a "creative" divinity to a "ruling" one. If someone wants to believe the universe was created by a puff of divine breath, that's his/her privilege. If, on the other hand, someone believes that divinity to be in charge of the universe then that's a different matter, because it will inevitably lead to divine plans, wishes, demands, ethics, morals, the lot. I don't care about people's religion in the "creative" sense, but I do care a lot if their religious beliefs bear upon their morals and behaviour. I wish I could be more tolerant, but deeply religious people always freak me out; I can't help wondering what they would be prepared to do in the name of their god. It goes beyond the encroachment of religion in government matters: I see religion as a threat to the establishment of a peaceful society.

    And, no: by "I don't know" I mean "I don't know". Though I am willing to admit that I hope it wasn't god.

  8. piero-
    Thanks for clarifying. I think we're more or less in agreement. I, too, care little about what people actually believe in. What I object to is when people translate religious beliefs into a desire for a certain type of government based on what they think God wants. I think this is one of the elements that comes into play when people believe in the "ruling god" that you speak of. That religious folks can't conceive of morality or a system of ethics divorced from a belief in God is a big part of the problem, imo.

    I personally think that a 'creative' divinity is more likely than a 'ruling' one. The latter means that the Holocaust, birth defects, Hurricane Katrina, etc are all God's will. I'm not sure I can accept that. On an anecdotal note, I watch boxing with a friend who is an athiest and one of our biggest pet peeves is boxers who thank God after they win during the post-fight interviews. Oddly enough, neither of us can recall an instance where the losing fighter offered his thanks to any higher power.


  9. mjrmjr,

    You're demanding of science something science can't give you: absulute proof about everything that strikes your fancy.

    Sorry, but that's not how it works. What it does do is search for explanations based on empirical/observational evidence, trying to reach provisional conclusions that are beyond reasonable doubt. Now, the fact that no explanation is ever complete seems like a bad reason to just assume everything is possible, then. Granted, everything IS possible given the right assumptions, but then it's not science anymore. Gotta have data, my friend.

    And by the way, there's not much of a mistery about how the Earth formed, in case you haven't heard about it. The Big Bang, if it really happened at all, is more misterious, sure. But solar system evolution, while not 100% understood (again, as everything in science), is pretty straightforward compared to that.


  10. J-
    I'm demanding nothing of science. Nada. If science comes along and supplies some answers... well, great. If it doesn't, I won't be disappointed or surprised either. Kind of like how, as an adult I don't expect or demand that my mother do my laundry for me. If she came to my house and did a few loads I might say... wow, what a nice surprise! And if not, I'd do it myself as I do every week.

    As to "what strikes my fancy", the question of the origin of the world has occupied people from the beginning of time, and lots of minds far more brilliant than mine. The way you phrase that sentence makes it sound as if I'm looking for proof of an arbitrary and capricious issue when in fact it's precisely the opposite.

    While I'm no great scholar I'm well aware of what the Big Bang is, thanks. However, it doesn't explain , imo, why the universe exists at all instead of a large void. Given the law of conservation of matter, what created that matter in the first place? Was it always here?

    I'm not necessarily looking to science for the answer, nor do I expect it to ever supply the answer.



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