Is it reasonable to expect people to know anything?
- The new age of ignorance
We take our young children to science museums, then as they get older we stop. In spite of threats like global warming and avian flu, most adults have very little understanding of how the world works. So, 50 years on from CP Snow's famous 'Two Cultures' essay, is the old divide between arts and sciences deeper than ever?
After all, we are tuned to survive in a social environment, this Paris Hilton worship. Maybe it's too much to expect people know anything about anything. Hopefully the robots will feed us and scratch behind our ears when they take over.
son of parnas
July 1st, 2007 11:11am
I don't think there is a deep divide between arts and sciences, there is a deep divide between those who like arts and sciences and the rest who don't care about either of them and only care about money.
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
- Robert A. Heinlein
July 1st, 2007 12:49pm
Is caring about money and caring about art/science mutually exclusive?
July 1st, 2007 1:18pm
Outlandish supposition there and completely unsupported:
"there is a deep divide between those who like arts and sciences and the rest who don't care about either of them and only care about money"
Plenty of rich people are heavily into arts and sciences.
Very poor families are rarely into arts and sciences.
I don't see there's any correlation at all, and if there is it goes in the opposite way suggested.
July 1st, 2007 2:00pm
"the average American adult today knows less about biology than the average 10-year-old living in the Amazon, or the average American of 200 years ago"
I suppose the point he makes about the Amazon and frontiersmen is that when you catch, skin and butcher your own game regularly, you learn things about biology that you don't get from memorizing words in books?
July 1st, 2007 2:11pm
"I go through these science books for kids and they are so dull compared to the novels that children read... I think that you have to make it an epic journey, a narrative with heroes and villains, molecules engaging in this struggle for life."
Boy is that an incredibly fucking stupid idea.
July 1st, 2007 2:13pm
July 1st, 2007 2:19pm
Of course science and arts need money, and of course many people with money do care about science and art.
But good science and good art requires a single mindedness that leaves no room for thinking about money.
Art driven solely by money leads to kitsch, science driven by money leads to nothing because the outcome of science is always different from where it started.
I knew all of those, to the point that I even somewhat disagree with two of the answers.
The light bulb question is not correct since the explanation given is that of a DC circuit, with current flowing to and from your house from the electric company in a big loop. Even if they knew about AC, to be accurate, they'd want to explain the role of transformers on the way from the plant to your house, and it would be even better if they gave an attempt to explain what is happening in the tungsten filament that makes it give out light. Electrons smash into the tungsten, making it vibrate, heating it up and eventually the absorbed energy causes the electrons in the tungsten to jump up to the next quantum potentiality level, and when they fall back down they give of photons. None of the answers, or the official correct one even touched on any understanding of any of this. That most of them could not even explain that there are wires and a circuit is simply bizarre since they are professionals whose job it is is to influence the public.
The other one was about cloning. Clones are not the same as identical twins at all because of the host eggs mitochondrial DNA. It's mentioned by one respondent, but their summary of his response "Yes, see his response" isn't accurate since his answer was not yes. It was that there are similarities, but it's not the same thing, and the reporter didn't know enough to understand the response.
July 1st, 2007 2:31pm
PE your answer was incomplete. You forgot to explain about quantum electrodynamics.
I found this one most amusing:
Q: Why is the sky blue?
Kirsty Wark: Because it's a reflection of the oceans on the planet. No idea apart from that. I think the sky is blue because... the rain clouds obscure the blue, and the blue is a reflection... because of the sunshine. Fuck! I don't know! Why is the sky blue?
July 1st, 2007 2:56pm
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, etc, etc (Heinlein)
Not really something a philosopher (non-Continental), a scientist or an analyzer would say. It IS something a synthesizer, an integrator, or a myth-maker would say. Novelists are myth-makers. 'Specialization is for insects' is a myth that makes humans feel good about themselves. As if they were not part of the animal kingdom and its rules of engagement. Better than, even. Not true, but soothing.
Here is what a scientist in the OP link (Ian Stewart, geologist) did say about thermodynamics: "Different field from mine, you know."
July 1st, 2007 3:07pm
> "A human being should be able to change a diaper,
I would add diagnose network problems at the bit level using an analyzer, make gun powder out in a desert, and make a radio from spare hair dryer parts.
son of parnas
July 1st, 2007 3:12pm
vivant, do you think that QED is an important part of the generation of the photons in the tungsten? I would think it applies more to what happens once the light leaves the bulb. I guess that's reasonable to be part of 'what happens when you turn on the light switch', but it is probably outside the scope of what you'd expect from a scientifically literate but non-specialist member of the public.
If we start in about QED in the response, soon enough we'll be into multiple universes and the nature of reality. Shortly thereafter, we have to revert into a state of ignorance about even fundamental things, and then giving the answer "shit, I don't know and neither do you" is probably the most accurate response to all the questions.
At that point then "Is it reasonable to expect people to know anything?" is best answered "Absolutely not, because it is not reasonable to expect that anyone can know anything about anything."
July 1st, 2007 4:24pm
Lots of people know a whole lot, and I think it's a byproduct of not knowing anything to think that other people don't know very much.
In my experience, the less intellectually developed someone is, the smarter they feel and the dumber they feel everyone else is.
The scientists in my extended family are very aware of the boundaries of their knowledge and tend to not speculate outside of their domain. They know how full of shit they are if they wander too far from their narrow specialty, because there is undoubtedly someone who has spent a lot more time thinking about anything that is not their specific thing.
Personally, I think they take this too far and I find it annoying that we can't even playfully speculate at dinner on what aliens look like.
Also, the list of 'what humans should be able to do' bugs me. If your goal is personal development, fine, but lists like that seem more like a shallow exercise in stamp collecting. Having a wide range of obscure skills does not mean that you are intelligent or well rounded.
July 1st, 2007 4:27pm
Maybe I didn't get it, but I think the question asked by the quoted articles is what sort of basic understanding of science we should expect. The survey showed that some 'scientists' and 'science journalists' can't answer very simple questions that are just slightly outside their supposed area of expertise.
With such narrow specialization, it's reasonable to wonder if they really understand anything at all. A full understanding even of the things in one's specialty relies on an understanding of the world in general that the typical practitioner apparently lacks.
July 1st, 2007 4:35pm
+1 for nitpicking the question about light bulbs. I find that answer particularly offensive.
July 1st, 2007 4:37pm
>> Having a wide range of obscure skills does not mean that you are intelligent or well rounded. <<
Heinlein's point was that mastery of a subject isn't required -- just enough knowledge to get a minimal set of tasks done in that field. You don't need to be Dr. Spock & have complete knowledge of child-rearing -- just enough to be able to change a diaper, fix their boo-boos when they fall down, and comfort them when they need it. Everything else is superfluous detail.
July 1st, 2007 5:20pm