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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Science and the General Public

Two recent articles appeared (yesterday and this morning) regarding scientific literacy in the United States:

Science Literacy


Why is the Sky Blue

Aside from stating what is obvious to most people on the front lines of the creation-evolution debate, these articles made me think. What is it that people should know about science and why? The article containing the questions compiled by 'top scientists' included some very basic questions. Yet, is it truly imperative that people know 'what are the oldest fossils on earth'? It's a good jeopardy question, but knowing the answers to any of these questions does not make someone scientifically literate. I don't mean to slam the questions or the questioners, but it seems that we are missing something more important.

I will argue that the path to scientific literacy is not through the memorization of facts, but through the application of science to real world problems. In my experience, students remember science that is applied to everyday situations. Newton's Laws of motion make more sense when taught through the eyes of a person driving a car

1. Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.
If you don't apply your brakes soon enough (frictional force), then you are going to hit the car in front of you and that will act as the external force.

2.The relationship between an object's mass m, its acceleration a, and the applied force F is F = ma. Acceleration and force are vectors (as indicated by their symbols being displayed in slant bold font); in this law the direction of the force vector is the same as the direction of the acceleration vector.
It's worse to get hit by a semi at 30 mph than a Yugo at 40 miles an hour

3. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
When you get hit by the semi, your car is going to hit back

I'm not saying that students should not go beyond the simple explanations, but its the simple explanations that will be remembered by most people who don't deal with science everyday.

Science bears part of the burden for the state of scientific literacy in the US. Many of us fail to explain our work to the general public in an understandable fashion. We are tied to jargon and the complexities of the argument are lost on the people who support our research (through taxes etc). In many ways, we can take our cues from the intelligent design and young earth creationist groups. While their science is awful, their explanations are very simple and sound compelling. It seems ludicrous that good science cannot be made more comprehensible. After all, if bad science can sound compelling, should not good science sound irrefutable?


Joe Meert


At 4:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As disgracefully low as the rate of adult scientific literacy in the United States may be, Miller found even lower rates in Canada, Europe, and Japan

Now that's scary.

I got 9/10 right on the literacy test, but I was sweating halfway through it, lol.

I'm not a scientist but I did get a degree in Chemistry and I have to admit, I didn't spend as much time as I should learning the language, so to speak. I concentrated on learning the concepts: so I can talk about Sn2 reactions, but offhand I don't remember what an ester is. :/
I think that sort of knowledge is good for a lay person (but not so good for a scientist, which explains why I'm currently a salesman ;)).

At 6:35 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Well, you can probably think your way through an answer. Even if you get the wrong answer, you will have approached in scientifically (hopefully). By the way, all scientists are salesmen! We have to sell our ideas to others.


Joe Meert


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