Mending a Broken Heart

As a science teacher, sometimes I feel a bit heartbroken when I see ridiculously inaccurate statements thrown around by otherwise intelligent and educated people, even my own friends and family. I can get pretty worked up. Drives my wife crazy. I’m the guy that yells at the radio in the car when the morning DJ makes an ignorant comment about climate change and CO2 being good because it’s plant food (By the way, it doesn’t work like that. It’s way more complicated.).

Facebook doesn’t help. I once got into a three-day “exchange” with a friend of a friend about something called chemtrails. If you don’t know what these are, good. Some people believe that jet airplane contrails (condensation trails), the thin white exhaust plumes that form as the hot, moist exhaust from the jet engines cools in the atmosphere, are actually part of a secret government conspiracy to spray mind control chemicals into the air over major population centers in an attempt to keep us all docile and compliant. Typical conspiracy theory stuff. I just couldn’t leave it alone.

He would say something about how the trails would start and stop and how that must mean that the chemical cartridge was being swapped out for a new one. I explained about air masses and relative humidity. His girlfriend chimed in with something about how there are more trails over Michigan because “they’re spraying the lakes.” I suggested looking at a map of the major commercial flight paths. He asked me to explain why there were elevated levels of aluminum in lakes. I don’t know, maybe because aluminum is the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust? My point is that every suspicious thing he claimed as evidence for this massive government mind control conspiracy was easily explained with a basic understanding of some simple science. I kind of felt sorry for the guy. His lack of understanding made some pretty common things seem mysterious and confusing to him. He fell victim to one of the classic logical fallacies, the argument from personal incredulity. This essentially says “I can’t explain this or understand it, so it must not be true or it can only be explained by mysterious force X.”

This worries me. I know it’s a cliché, but we are, in fact, living in a more complicated world. The political decisions that we (and soon, my students) are required to make are becoming ever more complex and reliant on a scientifically literate population. Human population is increasing rapidly and large portions of it are beginning to make the demographic transition to developed, modern lifestyles. The human footprint is increasing and scientific issues dominate the public policy scene. You’ve heard of them; climate change, stem cell research, alternative energy, green energy, conventional energy, energy security, nuclear energy, nuclear waste, nuclear proliferation, viral pandemics, vaccinations. You get it. It’s a lot and those are complicated things.

In 2009 the California Academy of Science commissioned a national survey to test adult science knowledge. Some heartbreaking highlights are,

  • Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
  • Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not exist at the same time.
  • Less than 1% of adults know that only 3% of Earth’s water is fresh. (That’s scary, considering how important this resource is.)

Jon D. Miller, of the U of M Institute for Social Research, has been studying American scientific literacy since the 1980s. His research reveals some improvements. Not much, but some. In 1988 only 10% of U.S. adults had the basic scientific knowledge to understand the Tuesday Science section of the New York Times, compared to 28% in 2008. There’s some hope yet. However, when you look at the results more closely, it’s clear that more improvement is needed. For instance, in 2008 only 25% of respondents could give a correct definition of a molecule. Of course, that’s up from 13% in 1999, so…

The thing that gives me hope, like a ship on the horizon sighted from a lifeboat, is a surprising revelation gleaned from Miller’s work and echoed in a 2013 poll by Smithsonian magazine and the Pew Research Center– Americans are getting the message and are concerned. The dismal results show unsurprising similarities to Miller’s findings about science content knowledge. But, like a beacon from that ship, they also support Miller’s findings that U.S. adults favor more focus on math and science in schools. When asked the question “What one subject should K-12 schools emphasize more than they do now?” 45% of respondents mention some aspect of science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) subjects. Interestingly, we also underestimate how we match up to other developed nations. According to the poll, 44% of people believe that U.S. 15-year-olds rank at the bottom in science knowledge compared to other developed nations. You can take pride in the fact that you’re squarely… in the middle.

It’s true that we’re facing complicated scientific issues and that Americans aren’t terribly well informed about some of them. But knowing that we’re getting the message, things are slowly improving, and at least someone is interested in fixing the problem eases the strain on my poor heart and gives me more optimism. Twenty or thirty years from now, what issues will we be faced with? It’s hard to predict, but they certainly won’t be any less sciencey.

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19 thoughts on “Mending a Broken Heart

  1. I completely understand where your going with this, those sort of weird statements that people mention can sometimes never make any sense; and it only makes it harder for those of us that want to understand, and then hear it the wrong way sending us down the wrong path or for those of us that do understand, and then get completely outraged by what the public is saying. I think that those who are going to mention how things work in public should really look more into it before humiliating themselves in front of others who know what their talking about.

    • @rmodafferi22- I also think it’s the obligation of critical thinkers (like yourself) to ask questions when they hear the “weird statements” that you write about. If people aren’t confronted (in non-confrontational ways) about these ideas, then they may not realize that there’s another way of looking at the situation or problem.

      • That’s exactly why I liked this piece so much! I find that this post has a great way of showing how people just see or hear something once, and then they suddenly think it to be the right answer without ever really caring to look into it themselves. This piece has recently begun to start my mind thinking on how many things I myself have heard on T.V or on the radio that I have just taken to be the right answer. I find this post to be helpful to everyone so that they may now realize the mistakes they have made, and to take more action in reducing them so that way we will not be deceived again by any type of unfaithful information.

  2. I didn’t realize people were making such inaccurate theories. I believe if views such as those should be kept private. Besides one’s own statement should be researched and backed by facts so that others can research. Also since his comment was seriously misguided it should be ridiculed.

    • @justbacon- I definitely like the point you make about how well-supported statements can lead to other, better research. I wonder, though, about the uses of ridicule. Honestly, I am frequently tempted to poke fun at things or people that strike me as uneducated or foolish, but I try to remember what the great ridiculer Jonathan Swift said:

      “Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”

  3. I would understand how you feel when you know a topic so well but then people with a stronger voice will completely fabricate everything you learned. Like when people say coffee will stunt your growth. Not proven yet but still people believe it.

  4. I do know that feeling. I like it when the right thing is being said, and I get angry when people say the wrong thing. Though there is a lot of things being said on the internet that is not true, and make the people wonder if it is true. They then believe the new info. Think of it like Technology. It is the new thing. Since it is the new thing, more people like it. While others don’t believe technology. They believe Books, which have been more trustworthy.

  5. I very much agree with the part where you wrote, ” I know it’s a cliché, but we are, in fact, living in a more complicated world.”, and I feel like, you don’t even have to know what you are talking about to connect with it, it’s very personal, and that’s what makes it interesting. Also, because you gave us an idea, of what kind of person you are (I’m the guy that yells at the radio in the car when the morning DJ makes an ignorant comment about climate change and CO2), I believe it made it more interesting to read about. The title very much matched the blog. Great blog!

  6. I think one problem is some people seem to leave it up to the “pros”. They figure humans are more scientifically advance than ever before and we have reached our “limit of knowledge” per say, or just think to themselves that this information is not messing with they’re daily routine or them themselves so why should they care, it’s not their job and they don’t need to know it so why should they? With this logic humans would, in theory, be at a technological stand still. I for one am very grateful for science being a required academic class proving useful in life’s development. I cannot comprehend, however, how some educated adults can provide us with such artificial evidence in theories.

  7. A government conspiracy? I feel bad for that poor guy as well. I like the fact that you say that, “…we are, in fact, living in a more complicated world.” You’re right. Some of the most simplest, in a way, are the most intricate pieces of of work. Like a spider web, it looks simple far away, but when you get closer you see all of the little details that the spider made to make his/her web sturdy. It’s important to look at things closely rather than an overview of things. I like how you backed up your statement with statistics. It was helpful to picture what you were talking about. The percentages were a bit shocking though.

  8. When i saw the title, I thought it was going to be about an actual heartbreak. Regardless, I really liked all the facts the you included in the post. It was really interesting to know the percentage of people who were clueless about a lot. Very informative.

  9. First of all, these statistics are shocking! I was unaware of the interesting details and data that kept me on the edge while reading. This also gave me a great sense on what kind of random theories are coming up and being easily spread over the internet. It’s actually so annoying that someone can have a theory or idea that can be so completely brilliant but it could be just as easily tweaked or completely changed by someone with a “stronger voice.” It just leaves us knowing we can’t always trust every statistic or idea we hear. It is always better to do research behind it before using it without knowing that you are fully correct.

  10. I really enjoyed reading this blog because it seems to be very true. There are many who come up with these ideas that sometimes just don’t make any sense whatsoever. I also really liked how you put this from your perspective on things and made it very informative. I was very surprised with the results from the California Academy of Science’s national survey. I agree that it is very scary that only that amount of adults know things about the earth that almost everyone should know.

  11. The polls and surveys that I referenced are looking at a certain type of science literacy – specific content knowledge. But there’s another bigger and harder to measure type of scientific literacy. It’s a way of thinking. A way of understanding the universe. The content knowledge is important because it provides the framework but it’s the way you incorporate new knowledge that is especially important. It’s all about observation and inference based on objectivity, evidence, and rationality. One interesting thing that Miller discusses in his research for U of M is how much science knowledge people need to learn AFTER their formal education is finished. Think of stem cells. This has become a pretty big political issue. But back in the ’90s (the coolest decade ever, by the way) my high school biology class definitely didn’t cover this. No one knew. Everything I know about stem cells (admittedly little), I’ve learned on my own. This is why I’m so excited about including critical thinking as a specific skill-based class at WTMC. It’s made me think a lot about my own science class because scientific thinking = critical thinking. Big ups to Grysen, Boland and Weber!

  12. I definitely understand where you are coming from with this article. Sometimes such inaccurate statements can hit close to home and I can relate alot to this article.

  13. I definitely understand how you can get fed up with people and how they think their reasons and opinions are the only ones that are fact or the truth.

  14. I find conspiracy theories to be really interesting and in some ways thought provoking. It’s easy to turn up our noses at admittedly improbable ideas but on the same token it’s important to question the world around you. Quite apparently airplane trails are not in fact mind control chemicals, but at least someone looked into this and studied it and found the actual scientific explanation. Asking “why” is a crucial part of what drives us forward as a species, and our own curiosity is what continues to push us forward toward bigger and better inventions. Conspiracy theories, although generally misguided, are at least taking notice in the world around us. There is something to be said for people who so vehemently research and study things like mind control chemicals. Ridiculous, yes, but passionate as well.

    But of course, spreading misinformation is dangerous and we should work on better educating people.

  15. Oh man. Facebook wars are not something to get into. I know though it’s hard to resist when someone just goes a little too far.
    Humanity is all about pointing our fingers at the people who aren’t on the right path, it’s sad but true. And though some have the cockiness to wipe it off, others crack and give up. Then there are the other people who rise up and prove the disbelievers wrong, and I believe that our generation is going to be the generation to prove to everyone that we WILL amount to greater things and it will certainly be an amazing adventure.

  16. (Late Comment) But I can relate to being the kind of person to yell at the radio in the car when someone says something super ignorant or at the TV when a game in football is getting real intense. But also getting into a huge debate/argument with a friend OF a friend on facebook. They’re no fun. especially when more people start to get involved. But like you said, it is cliché but we do n deed live in a complicated world.
    I really like your title, it really draws a reader to the post and relates to the post itself. I also like that you had facts/statistics to back up your argument so it really shows that you know what you’re talking about.

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