Monday, June 7, 2010

How Important Is Science Literacy In Society?

Everyone should take six minutes out of their day and watch this video of Neil DeGrasse Tyson speaking on the importance of science literacy at the World Science Festival. (I was pointed to this by Uncertain Principles.)

Here are some highlights I found interesting:

First: Avoiding Self Delusion.
Science literacy empowers you to know when someone is basically full of it...If you understand how the world works, and what the limitations are, then you can judge if someone is trying to exploit your... ignorance.
He gives an example of someone trying to sell you crystals with amazing healing powers.  He argues if you have good science literacy you will know you need to have answered questions such as: "How do they work?  What kinds of ailments do they cure?... How have you tested them?" etc...

Unfortunately, poor scientific literacy may lead to a society that is easily duped and/or will form opinons based on bad ideas.  Those with good science literacy realize the importance for backing up claims, an incredibly important trait as "we as a species are particularly susceptible to self-delusion".

Furthermore, knowing how to test claims should be absolutely crucial for wall street, governments, manufactures and society itself to make correct decisions.

Second: Scientists Understand Liberal Arts, But Often Liberal Artists Don't Understand Science.
Scientists by and large are often quite knowledgeable in areas outside of science.  If you go to the home of most scientists there will be Bach and Beethoven and Shakespeare on the selves...   
One thing I think that as a nation we should be embarrassed by is that the scientists-- you can do this experiment yourself, I've done the experiment-- the scientists, by and large, know more liberal arts than the science that is known by liberal artists."
He then discusses how at a cocktail party of scientists you will never hear them laugh how they never understood how to read Shakespeare or couldn't understand basic nouns and verbs.  However, if you go to a party full of people interested in liberal arts, they have no problem laughing about how they never understood the first thing about math.  Tyson wonders why this causes no embarrasement.

Or as said on Uncertain Princpiles linked above:
It should be exactly as embarrassing in educated company to say "I'm no good at math" as it would be to say "I'm no good at reading."
I'm biased but I think there is a point to be made here.



  1. This echoes my experience as well. Just about all the scientists I know are well-acquainted with literature, politics, classical music, history, economics, and so on.

  2. rameumptom and Ben Pratt,

    Thanks for your kind words.

    I guess it is a tough problem: how do you build literacy across the board for everyone. Scientists, you could argue, are forced into this position. We have to learn math, science, how to read well, how to write (reasonably) well, etc... just to make it as a scientist.

  3. " do you build literacy across the board for everyone"?

    I think one needs to create incentives for math competence first in the teachers. If there were some sort of financial incentive - higher salary, increased seniority, etc. - for grade school teachers to have perhaps the equivalent of a minor in math and/or one of the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biochem, CS, etc.). I think one of the reasons that math and science get de-emphasized in grade school is that many of the teachers aren't really comfortable with math and science.

  4. Nick,

    Your right in that at the end of the day, progress depends on incentives.

    Should the bar be raised for hiring grade-school teachers? Should potential grade school teachers be able to demonstrate that they can do *at least* basic high school school math. Geometry and Algebra 1-2? Perhaps also some basic Trig?

    Same with science. Should they be required to demonstrate they have a basic science literacy?

  5. Just an anecdote to back-up my point:

    For the past several years I have volunteered to judge elementary and middle school science fairs in our local school district. At one school in a very affluent area I was able to talk with one of the 3rd grade teachers about the math curriculum in his class. The teacher, a roughly 40 year-old man with a master's degree in education, told me that he personally hated teaching math because, in his words, "I never got math". I asked when his last math class was and he told me it was his junior year of high school but that he couldn't even remember what it covered beyond "algebra or calculus or something".

    Can you imagine any 3rd grade teacher in the US saying "I never got reading" and that he or she wasn't required to take a single English course in college?

  6. Joe,

    I don't think you should require it as much as reward it. Many elementary educators get graduate degrees in education - what if we rewarded a math or science minor the same way?

    Some school districts already pay more for math and science teachers in high schools. Why not do that same for grade schools?

  7. Nick,

    Great anecdote! Also, giving rewards for majoring or minoring in math/science as you do giving rewards for getting a graduate degree is a good idea.

  8. Great post Joseph. I think this really has more implications than what is let on here. For example, what kind of religion might Mormonism be if we could counteract sentimentalism with rational thinking? What might our beliefs include if we didn't have to pay homage to the god of literalism, and could instead focus on real spirituality?

    As has been pointed out on this site before, there need not be a conflict with science and religion, and science literacy could go a long ways in dispelling the notion that they are in conflict.

    One interesting thought I had. My 5 year old asks lots of questions. I try to answer her honestly, but truthfully. Sometimes my wife balks at my explanations claiming it's alright to let her imagination run wild. In other words, to many, if you know how something works, it somehow limits your ability to imagine things. I think this is also erroneous.

  9. jmb275,

    Your story made me smile because I have been on a few family trips to places like Yellowstone where I want to tell everyone all the scientific processes behind everything. However, some don't want to hear it as they think it ruins it for them. It's like people need things to be out of the realm of explanation to be breathtaking.

    However, I am more like Feynmann: "I have a friend who's an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don't agree with. He'll hold up a flower and say, "Look how beautiful it is," and I'll agree. But then he'll say, "I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull." I think he's kind of nutty. [...] There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts."

  10. "It's like people need things to be out of the realm of explanation to be breathtaking."

    Yeah. Joseph Campbell once said "God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought. It's as simple as that."

    I suppose "transcending intellectual thought" really depends on the individual. Perhaps some see God in the beauty of the flower. For the scientist the beauty of God is directly in the explanation for how it all works.

    To each his own.

  11. If I remember well some scientists are not very good at writing until they decide to be, but the problem is that the literary persons have generally more problems to become good scientists.


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