December 7, 2005

What's so funny about Quarks, Chromosomes, and Chi-Squares?

Nick Kristof had a great editorial yesterday about America's disturbing lack of real scientific understanding. (The piece is behind the Times Select wall, so if you have access great, you've probably already read it, and if you don't, well, linking to it won't help. Sorry)

He cites a variety of statistics:
  • 1/5 of Americans believe in a geocentric solar system
  • only 2/5 believe in evolution
  • 13% know what a molecule is
  • only about half know for sure that humans didn't live with dinosaurs (which, given that Jurassic Park made $570,020,947 domestically—IMDb—means a hell of a lot of people didn't get the point of the movie)
This data leads me to an important revelation—if only 13% know what a molecule is, we can't just blame this scientific ignorance on the red states.

I'm just kidding, but it is important to realize that scientific ignorance is not just Kansas's problem or Kentucky's problem or the flyover zone's problem. It's a national problem.

Kristof suggests an origin that has little to do with bad teaching or even the anti-intellectualism rampant in America. He thinks that the problem is a cultural arrogance toward science that says, We can get by on the humanities—we don't need to know science because that's what scientists are for; we need to know poetry in order to live with other people.

"There's an even larger challenge than anti-intellectualism. And that's the skewed intellectualism of those who believe that a person can become sophisticated on a diet of poetry, philosophy and history, unleavened by statistics or chromosomes. That's the hubris of the humanities."

Kristof speaks of leavening, but leavening is precisely the view of science he's arguing against—that it's supplemental to the humanities. I would argue that science and math should be the bread itself.

Now excuse me, I have to finish a paper on the georgic elements of Milton's Paradise Regained. But I'm planning on reading some Richard Dawkins this winter, so I'm still cool.

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