Before I begin talking about this book I need to apologize. The book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum deserved so much more of my attention than I was able to give it. As the recent lack of blog entries might suggest, this semester has been very busy for me. I’ve tried to maintain sanity with some non-work related reading, but finding slots of time for casual reading has been difficult.
Unscientific America is a review of how the America culture views science. Unfortunately, the view isn’t pretty. In recent years, the average American has developed a somewhat negative outlook on science. This is unfortunate because science plays a central role in education and it’s a central driving force in industry. Science earns its keep by supporting the economy through innovative breakthroughs that allows American companies to sell new and desirable technologies to consumers. This is only one benefit of science. Other benefits are medical advances (wouldn’t we all like to live longer), improving communications (before the internet scientific advances produced the printing press, radio and television), and expanding our understanding of the Universe (some of us like to know our place in the Universe) just to name a few. Greater than all of these outcomes, science teaches us how to think critically—to investigate the world through skeptical eyes.
If science is so important, it’s important to keep its street cred up. When science isn’t respected, it looses support and funding. This is why books like Unscientific America are so important and I feel ashamed I didn’t give it the attention it deserves.
The book gives a brief review of the importance of science in culture. It also outlines recent historical events that got us to our present view of science. In some respects, the book is specifically dated for its publication date of 2009, as it often refers to the Obama administration as a (potential) turning point for science. If I had a complaint with the book, it would be that it often feels like a politically driven discourse aimed at attacking the political right. (One of the authors also wrote the book The Republican War on Science which I’ve admittedly not read, but gives you sense of the author’s political views.)
After placing the problem of scientific illiteracy into context, the book delves into a series of chapters describing reasons why Americans no longer place science as high as it once did (for example, during the days of Apollo). Here, there is some room for controversy—specifically how religion and politics may be involved in causing a rejecting opinion of science. The writing is not presented in a controversial manner, but whenever politics and religion are in the conversation, toes can be stepped on. (In fact, the preface to the paperback version defends itself on its review of how some atheists have attacked religion.) Regardless, I like how the book explores a number of possible origins for scientific illiteracy, including Hollywood.
The final section of the book is the most important. It’s here that the authors suggest a solution to America’s scientific illiteracy. The fix largely starts with the scientific community. Specifically, scientists and journalist must become better communicators. Through a proper dialog scientists can educate and inspire the general public. For this to occur, scientists and science communicators must go to the public on the public’s terms and present science in an invited way (i.e. non-technical and even sometimes entertaining). As I scientist that interacts with the public quite often, I can anecdotally say that even a short discussion will often lead to a positive result. One of my favorite statistics presented in the book is how few American’s actually know a scientist personally (only 18%). This is something I hadn’t appreciated because I’m constantly surrounded by professional scientists.
I would suggest Unscientific America to all scientists as a reminder that our work is not done in a vacuum. Research is largely funded through public support—via the government—and therefore, the public deserves to be involved in the outcomes. It’s also important that scientists communicate their work to the general public for no other reason but to inspire the next generation of scientists. Without a continuing body of new scientists entering the laboratory, we will find ourselves running out of new ideas and new avenues of research. Moreover, the purpose of doing scientific research is for the better of humankind, not to publish results and then to move onto the next project.
Recently the president of the American Atheists, David Silverman, appeared on the O’Reilly Factor. Silverman was invited on the show to discuss the billboards sponsored by the American Atheists. To some, as O’Reilly is quick to point out, the messages proclaimed on the billboards can be interpreted as offensive. Before going further, I want to be clear that this posting is not about the American Atheist agenda. It’s about Bill O’Reilly’s disappointedly poor understanding of Astro 101 science, which we can see in his interview of Silverman.
So Bill O’Reilly’s argument for God appears to be simple enough, “The tide goes in, the tide goes out. Never a miscommunication.” I’m not completely sure what O’Reilly is trying to say here, especially the part about the ‘miscommunication’. If I had to conjecture I would say that he’s trying to argue that natural phenomena, such as tides, are directly the work of God. This is really one of the classical arguments for God (think Greek and Roman gods, for example). Where O’Reilly fails miserably is in his selection of which phenomena he attributes to God.
The cause of the tides is well understood and has been for hundreds of years thanks to Newton himself. They’re the result of the gravitational pull from the Moon acting on the Earth. More specifically, the ocean tides happen because the gravitational attraction between two objects depends on their separation. The closer two objects are, the stronger the gravitational attraction between them. This means that the Moon pulls harder on the near side of the Earth in comparison to the center of the Earth. Likewise the center of the Earth experiences a greater attraction to the Moon than the far side of the Earth. The difference in gravitational attractions is what is referred to as tidal force. The tidal force ultimately manifests itself as a rise in the Earth’s liquid oceans. (For a more in depth description, check out Tides, the Earth, the Moon, and why our days are getting longer.) For those thinking on a higher level, yes, the Sun likewise produces tides, but at roughly half the extent the Moon does.
So back to O’Reilly. He picks a natural occurrence that is explained by science. In fact, it’s a level of science that’s taught in most any Astro 101 course, or even more likely, in a middle school earth science class. If O’Reilly was just a little bit more educated he would have asked a deeper question like, why does Newton’s gravitational constant have the value it does? Now there’s a question not necessarily outside the realm of science, but one that’s not readily addressed with our current state of knowledge.
Regardless, it’s clear that O’Reilly lacks an understanding of the tides. What’s worst is that he challenges Silverman to explain the tides, as if an understanding of such a concept is beyond the understanding of the human mind. O’Reilly repeatedly states, “You can’t explain that.” This is where I fly off the handles.
The point of science is to construct self-consistent models that allows us to explain past observations and to make testable predictions about the future. Tides fall well within this scope. We have a model for the cause of the tides. We can predict times for future high and low tides. We can even observe tidal effects on distant worlds. It is science! But for O’Reilly he seems content to assume an explanation for the tides that appeals to a supernatural being. Moreover, he appears to even think that it cannot be explained otherwise.
What annoys the pooh out of me is that he has no apparent interest in learning about science. His religious beliefs are preventing an understanding of Nature. So what’s the harm in this? Isn’t he entitled to his own beliefs? Consider the recent story about congressman John Shimkus. According to Shimkus, “The planet won’t be destroyed by global warming because God promised Noah.” Here we have a person in political power that has a direct voice in environmental policies that may or may not lead us on a destructive path, and yet he’s outright discounting science for his own religious beliefs.
Obviously these individuals have placed a personal belief in one particular religion so high that they’re willing to discount a rational explanation based in science. To these individuals I say, Nature is going to do whatever it wants to do. We can either construct useful models in an attempt to understand how Nature works, or we can take the O’Reilly/Shimkus approach of blindly assuming the unknowable workings of a supreme being. One approach allows for progress in information sharing, extending life expectancies, knowledge about our place in the Universe, etc, etc, etc. The other approach … well I’m not sure what they expect out of it.
Of course, O’Reilly’s comments have led to many WTF’s moments on the web and on television. One of the best comes from Steven Colbert on The Colbert Report (Bill O’Reilly Proves God’s Existence – Neil deGrasse Tyson).
As usual Colbert makes insightful and whimsical remarks. His summary of O’Reilly’s argument for the existence for God is just perfect, “There must be a God because I don’t know how things work.” Most importantly, The Colbert Report attempts to educate the public about how the tides really work by having a well known astrophysicists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, describe their cause. For that I thank the show.
By the way Bill O’Reilly, here’s another argument for God, as suggested by the American Atheists, Inc Facebook page, “Food goes in… poop comes out. No miscommunication! You can’t explain that!!!”
Have you heard the really cool news? LEGO and NASA signed a Space Act Agreement. (If you’re not into all that legal mumbo-jumbo here’s the press release.) Over the next three-years these two icons of inspiration will partner together to encourage today’s youth to participate in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
The partnership is a bit of a no-brainer. NASA has inspired kids for a number of generations with their cutting edge technology, distant travels, and amazing discoveries. LEGO building blocks have been around for only slightly longer than NASA, but has played a very similar role. LEGOs have that certain appeal that originates from their seemingly endless possibilities. There is no right or wrong way to build with LEGOs.
As if the NASA/LEGO alliance wasn’t the coolest thing ever (at least it is in my world), the kickoff event includes launching LEGOs with the next shuttle launch. The crew of the STS-133 mission will carry with them two miniature space shuttles. Originally the mission was to launch at the beginning of November, but due to cracks in the shuttle’s tanks, the launch has been pushed back to mid-December at the earliest and maybe even to February of 2011. Personally I’m hoping for the current listed launch date of December 17 because I’ll be in the area on vacation. If the launch is a go, the family and I have made contingency plans to watch the liftoff in person.
Besides carrying a LEGO space shuttle onboard a real shuttle, LEGO will release four new NASA inspired products to be incorporated into the LEGO city theme next year. Some of the sets will be simple while others will be aimed more at the big kids, like me. Each kit will include educational material. I wonder if this means I can purchase these LEGO kits and consider them a tax write-off as a work expense?
If that isn’t cool enough, the STS-134 space shuttle mission (to be launched in early 2011) will carry LEGO sets to the International Space Station. The point here is to have children on terra firma build the same sets as what astronauts will build on the ISS. In the process students will realize how difficult it would be to build standard LEGO sets in a microgravity environment. I immediately have this vision of an astronaut tearing into a bag of LEGO parts and having them fly about in the interior of the space station much like Homer’s potato chips did. Actually the sets will be built inside a see-through box so that the parts don’t get lost randomly throughout the space station.
I’m very envious of the astronauts that get to build LEGOs in space. I’ve always said I wouldn’t like to travel to space because I don’t think I could mentally survive the launch, but for LEGOs, maybe I could.
If it sounds like I’m gushing for LEGOs it’s because I’m an AFOL (an Adult Fan of LEGO). In fact, we recently had an incident at my home where one of my boy’s friends came over and commented that my son has a lot of LEGOs. I had to interject and make the correction that they are my LEGOs, not my sons.
If this is something that tickles your fancy, keep an eye on LEGO’s dedicated webpage for the partnership at http://www.legospace.com/.
While driving to and from work I typically listen to podcasts. I have a handful of podcasts that I tend to listen to in clumps. Lately I’ve been working through the latest Point of Inquiry episodes. Today’s was really enlightening and motivating. It was an interview of Steve Spangler. Steve is an entrepreneur of science education. His specialty is kindergarten through twelfth grade education.
The interview (hosted by Karen Stollznow) covered topics such as the use of entertainment in science education, common misconceptions of hands-on science learning, and the internet as a means to spread simple but instructional demonstrations. For anyone interested in improving science literacy I would recommend spending the 40 minutes it takes to listen to this informative podcast.