Skip

New age of ignorance
July 1, 2007 3:23 AM   Subscribe

The new age of ignorance. A panel of well known (UK) scientists and artists are asked some basic questions about science. Except the questions weren't that basic (since when is the Second Law of Thermodynamics considered basic knowledge?) so the results weren't surprising... although some of the answers were amusing ("The sky is blue because the sea reflects on it."). The worrying thing is that the questions could have been much simpler ("How many planets are there in the Solar System?") and I suspect the results would have been much the same. Meanwhile, ignorance marches on.
posted by bobbyelliott (127 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yes, CP Snow is still right. Too many writers and artists might as well be creationists for all they know about science. Interesting discussion of this perennial issue on Crooked Timber a few weeks ago. A lot of good points were made, but I'm also seeing a lot of bobbing and weaving.

I'd consider the Second Law of Thermodynamics pretty basic knowledge. On par with evolution and heliocentrism.

Here's my own candidate for 'ignorance marches on'.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 3:43 AM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


LOLIGNORAMI
posted by grouse at 3:45 AM on July 1, 2007


Memory wears off, news at 11. A degree in any branch of science isn't equal to the memory of ALL the facts you don't routinely practice, but certainly if you ask a physicist what the laws of thermodynamics are you kind of expect him/her to remember and even describe in minute details.

What is often underevaluated is the fact that a well prepared person can easily refresh memory of facts by just spending a couple hours reading the study books, as opposed to somebody who never ever learned what an integral is, what first and second derivative are and so on.

Yet I have the impression that the disdain for culture, any kind of, has reached high levels : glorification of idiocy, idolatry of money, lack of responsability as a right, delusions of invisible beings telling people to explode themselves for god or to respect a sacred bunch of cells at any cost, including unwanted kids, too early pregnancy in a society in which the more poor people, the richer the rich exploiters become.

The abrasive comedian Chris Rock puts it quite well in his ferocious satire of teh Niggah
posted by elpapacito at 3:45 AM on July 1, 2007 [4 favorites]


Ops I messed the niggalink
posted by elpapacito at 3:52 AM on July 1, 2007


Will Self is a brilliant writer and commentator. Am I worried or even embarrassed that after 25 years of non-use, he only vaguely remembers the science he learned in high school? Not nearly as worried or embarrassed as I am that the President of the United States (and tens of millions of others) thinks that Genesis is a science text. (If it is, where are the illustrations, the little "Do You Know?" sidebars, and the questions at the end of each chapter? Where, for God's sake, is the Teacher's Edition??)

The questions themselves are not very fair. "Is a clone a twin" needs to specify whether they mean genetically or in terms of process - as evinced by the answer "it depends". "Why is the sky blue" is a notoriously difficult question, and the throwaway answer doesn't begin to answer it (though Iain Stewart's answer shows me he's read Cliff Stoll's The Cuckoo's Egg).

I wonder how many well-known scientists could answer "basic" questions about the arts?
posted by ubiquity at 4:07 AM on July 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


> Yes, CP Snow is still right. Too many writers and artists might as well be creationists for all they know about science.

Interestingly, most of those writers and artists will say they "believe in evolution." Which is exactly the right way to put it: they believe not out of well-supported knowledge and educated biological understanding but as a tribal marker and an article of faith--in short, they believe in evolution religiously. I suppose that's marginally better than disbelieving in evolution religiously, but to my mind the margin's pretty narrow.
posted by jfuller at 4:11 AM on July 1, 2007


Too many writers and artists might as well be creationists for all they know about science

And, of course, too many scientists might as well be Philistines for all they know about the arts.
posted by jack_mo at 4:19 AM on July 1, 2007 [4 favorites]


I like it when she says 'fuck'.
posted by mullacc at 4:20 AM on July 1, 2007


Although the questions are simple, many of the answers aren't. I don't think not being able to articulate why salt dissolves in water (which is not terribly useful everyday knowledge) is indicative of appalling ignorance.
posted by rhymer at 4:21 AM on July 1, 2007


Interestingly, most of those writers and artists will say they "believe in evolution." Which is exactly the right way to put it: they believe not out of well-supported knowledge and educated biological understanding but as a tribal marker and an article of faith--in short, they believe in evolution religiously.

I admitted to that sort of semi-educated belief in evolution on here once, equating that belief with Creationism, and it was pointed out to me that, whether I know and understand it or not, the evidence is there should I wish to learn about it in greater detail - ie. simply believing in something true is legitimate, in a way that simply believing in a load of old tosh is not.
posted by jack_mo at 4:23 AM on July 1, 2007


Even the article is wrong about why the sky is blue. It's got nothing to do with Rayleigh scattering, the answer is much simpler. The sky is blue because air is blue.
posted by Mwongozi at 4:27 AM on July 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


It's got nothing to do with Rayleigh scattering, the answer is much simpler. The sky is blue because air is blue.

And why is air blue? Good one, Mwongozi.
posted by grouse at 4:34 AM on July 1, 2007


the questions could have been much simpler ("How many planets are there in the Solar System?")

Dude, you haven't been paying attention, have you? This is no longer a simple question.
posted by languagehat at 4:41 AM on July 1, 2007


Too many writers and artists might as well be creationists for all they know about science.

To many scientists think that art is what you can crap out of a flatbed scanner. Tragedy abounds.
posted by mobunited at 4:42 AM on July 1, 2007


Wait, you think that a geologist, a comedian, a fertility expert, etc., is ignorant because they can't explain the fundamental principles of physics and chemistry? Hello, that's not their field. Are you ignorant because you can't articulate the kind of ethics preferred by Aristotle? No, not unless you're an ethicist.

Damn, lower that bar, and umbrage, just a bit, please.
posted by oddman at 4:50 AM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


oddman: Yet there are certain "general knowledge" things that we expect everyone to know. I'm a historian (modern Japan), I don't expect most Americans to even know what the Meiji Restoration *was*, much less know about its specifics. That's part of my specialty and not part of the general knowledge. But I do think that it isn't unreasonable to expect most Americans to know what the American Revolution was, and to have a bit of knowledge about why it happened, some of the important figures, etc.

The same can be said for certain questions regarding basic knowledge of literature, etc. Most Americans can probably tell you that Shakespeare is a long dead writer of plays, and that we see a lot of his lines repeated today. It would be wrong to expect much more than that from people who aren't into Shakespeare, but I think its equally wrong to expect much less than that.

Not surprisingly, most Americans do have a fairly decent grasp of the general knowledge type questions for history, literature, etc. But science is treated simultaniously as a) an utter mystery that requires genius to even comprehend, b) a pack of lies by the Evil Athiest Conspiricy, c) ***BOOOOORRRRRING*** (often with a paradoxical pseudo-reverence for the science that their religious leaders don't explicitly condemn). Many Americans can't even get simple stuff like "does the Earth go around the sun, or does the sun go around the Earth?" type questions right, and seem to feel that this is a badge of honor.

Much worse, these people aren't content to simply be ignorant and say "beats me, but I'll assume that the majority opinion among the experts is probably right", nope they want to "debate" the very thing that they neither understand nor appreciate. So we get people who don't even have a basic, Biology 101, level understanding of the subject trying to argue that evolution isn't real. Or that somehow, magically, despite the fact that they don't know squat about climatology, that people should listen to them spout off on global warming.

Its one thing to be ignorant of specialized knowledge, everyone is ignorant of most specialized knowledge. Its another thing to be ignorant of the basic facts of the universe around you, and its still another to simultaniously revel in that ignorance and claim that your ignorant opinion is equal to that of the experts. Most Americans, regrettably, seem to fall into the third category, and I think that is definately a complaint worthy subject.
posted by sotonohito at 5:21 AM on July 1, 2007 [9 favorites]


This article completely misses the point. Being scientifically literate isn't about memorizing a bunch of random facts from your high school years (really the salt thing?). It's a way of thinking rigorously and logically, which enables you to assess and evaluate facts and claims from all areas of life.

That's why it's perfectly valid to 'believe' in evolution even if you're not a biologist or someone with an in-depth knowledge of how monkey DNA overlaps with human, and why 'believing' in Genesis as literal truth is completely ridiculous.
posted by miss tea at 5:22 AM on July 1, 2007 [8 favorites]


What revolves around the Earth?
http://remino.net/en/entry/691
posted by remi at 5:32 AM on July 1, 2007


"Heat is work and work's a curse, but all the heat in the Universe,
Is gonna cool down, 'cos it can't increase,
Then there'll be no more work and there'll be perfect peace.
Yeah, that's entropy, man!"
from the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics by Flanders and Swann.
posted by tabbycat at 5:33 AM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


"Many Americans can't even get simple stuff like "does the Earth go around the sun, or does the sun go around the Earth?"

Do you have a source? I simply don't believe that this is the case. (Granted, you could mean numerically many, such that a very small percentage of the population counts as many people. But, if so, then find the claim disingenuous.)

In the first link, the claim is made that knowing the second law of thermodynamics is equivalent to having once read Shakespeare. This seems wrong to me, also. Perhaps knowing the law is equivalent to knowing one of Hamlet's more famous passages, but then I doubt many people could do more then sputter something about roses.

To your point about so-called general knowledge. What counts as that? Who is the arbiter of what general knowledge is supposed to be? Most people, including most academics, would probably have very different ideas about what general knowledge is supposed to be. Should it include knowing how to cook, clean, or maintain a motor? If not, why the not? We do those things a hell of a lot more often then we think about entropy. Yet, most academics in my acquaintance know very little about and of those more mundane tasks. Do we get to count them as ignorant if they don't know why salt is used in sweet deserts? Are they ignorant if they can't name last years World Series or Copa America winner? Sports are a huge part of western culture, it would seem to me that not knowing the various champions is a rather embarrassing gap in one's knowledge.

And a more general point. Their is sometimes a tendency to equate lack of knowledge in a field with being ignorant (in the pejorative sense of being a so-called ignorant person). I don't think that this is clearly the case. Very few people know much about engineering, but we interact with its results continuously. Are we all, therefore, ignorant people?
posted by oddman at 6:04 AM on July 1, 2007


I'd consider the Second Law of Thermodynamics pretty basic knowledge. On par with evolution and heliocentrism.

That seems a fairly unlikely claim, and, I have to say, possibly a little self-serving. For a start, neither evolution or heliocentrism require any maths to grasp. Simple facts and "common sense" theory are enough to have a basic working understanding of either. This is not the case with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. One might accept it, but without the maths, you simply can't grasp it.

Further, knowledge of evolution and heliocentrism have actually come to have an effect upon practical perceptions of the world. Evolution has an impact upon religious belief, perceptions of morality, psychology, functionality. These are areas in which many or most people feel comfortable thinking. As for heliocentrism, space travel, Hubble, SETI &c. have brought space into most people's homes through television. There are no exciting stories or pretty pictures about increasing entropy.

The fact that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is frequently thrown up as a distraction by creationists is, however, at least one reason why I think it should perhaps be better taught. There are lots of good reasons for a better understanding of science, in fact, but let's not pretend that a lack of knowledge of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a sign of absolute howling, flat-earther, creationist, scientific illiteracy.
posted by howfar at 6:15 AM on July 1, 2007


I would posit most people everywhere, everywhen have known very little; so these occasional reports of x nation's people don't know y knowledge is baffling. Why the surprise?
posted by Captaintripps at 6:19 AM on July 1, 2007


I've heard rumors that not only does a certain young celebrity author not know what the Avogadro constant is, he doesn't even know what it's used for. And don't even get me started on the number of actresses and models who do not know that PV equals nRT. Morons.
posted by psmealey at 6:29 AM on July 1, 2007


Overall the so called western adult has his / her brain filled with garbage! Most people know more about celebrity nonsense ("Paris Hilton, Angelina's lipps, Posh Spice's new boobs, etc.), tech crap (iPhone hype anyone?) and tv stuff ("Oh yeah I totally need to see if Elliot and J.D. get together in the next season of Scrubs") then about their direct social enviroment (neighbors, coworkers), political or scientific issues.

Most of today's news is 'non-news' totally irrelevant to our well being as a social and political community.

So it's no surprise that most adults are not up to date or have forgotten basic science stuff. There are way too many other things to worry about as a pro-consumer or modern ignorant ("Global warming is bad, but I still like to fly away for vacation!").

We are about to squander the western achievements of the age of enlightenment by sheer 'noize'.

Mefi is actually an excellent example for this: mostly a collection of nice crap and weird stuff. Nothing really to learn from. Sometimes there are a few GREAT gems here - that is why I would always recommend it over total time wasters like Fark or information overkills like Digg.
posted by homodigitalis at 6:40 AM on July 1, 2007 [4 favorites]


Wow, really great link -- thanks. I learned (and re-learned) all sorts of cool stuff by using wikipedia to explore the answers in a little detail.
posted by lastobelus at 6:43 AM on July 1, 2007


I've heard rumors that not only does a certain young celebrity author not know what the Avogadro constant is, he doesn't even know what it's used for. And don't even get me started on the number of actresses and models who do not know that PV equals nRT. Morons.

I know you're being snarky, but the juxtaposition of science and celebrity reminds me of something I now find rather disturbing.

Several years ago when the new millenium still seemed somewhat new, Time magazine had a cover feature about "looking back at the 20th century and the top 100 influential scientists that shaped it", or something along those lines. In the following issue, one of their numerous reader response letters arrogantly stated that he didn't care about scientists because in his opinion, if life had movie credits then scientists would merely be listed among the numerous insignificant gaffers and bit players.

At the time I dismissed it as just another wag in the peanut gallery. Now, I can't help but think that said letter pefectly encapsulates the current wave of prideful anti-intellectualism, framed and exacerbated by a worldview shaped by shallow commercial entertaiment.
posted by PsychoKick at 7:08 AM on July 1, 2007


Wow. A lot of people here are pretty defensive.
posted by c13 at 7:20 AM on July 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


This is not the case with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. One might accept it, but without the maths, you simply can't grasp it.

It's all a matter of degree. How many people, if questioned, would answer that hot things cool down unless you keep adding heat to them? I'd say pretty much everyone.

An educated person might reply that this is described by the second law of thermodyamics. And a smart ass will start babbling on about entropy. And a real smart ass will start showing you how to calculate it.

How many plants in the solar system? How many do you want there to be?
posted by three blind mice at 7:22 AM on July 1, 2007


This thread is particularly depressing having just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The questions they ask are fairly basic, but like many above, I'm not terribly concerned at the lack of answers, even though I'm an engineer. Not everyone needs to know these things, and indeed, so long as the people who DON'T are willing to withhold action on those things until they do some sort of research, society will be fine.

Unfortunately, people who are ignorant on certain subjects frequently overstep the boundaries of their ignorance and attempt to make other people do things based on misinformation. That's the real misfortune.
posted by invitapriore at 7:23 AM on July 1, 2007


Posh Spice has new boobs??
posted by ubiquity at 7:34 AM on July 1, 2007


A Newsweek poll of 6/25 has 41% of Americans answering in the affirmative to the question: "Do you think Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was directly involved in planning, financing, or carrying out the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001?" Four in ten. Worrying about whether enough of us grasp principles of physics is, I'm sorry, a luxury we simply can't afford at this juncture; obviously we'll lack that grasp if 41% of us lack either the interest or the intelligence to occasionally read a fucking newspaper (or its digital equivalent). I wish we were at a place where it made sense to gnash our teeth and rend our garments over how poorly most of us know our high school science, but we are just not. Concern over those who can walk but not run must take a backseat to concern over those who can barely crawl.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:35 AM on July 1, 2007 [3 favorites]


For a start, neither evolution or heliocentrism require any maths to grasp. Simple facts and "common sense" theory are enough to have a basic working understanding of either.

no, "common sense" has nothing to do with it ... "common sense" and what i can see tells me that i've never seen a monkey's descendants turn into humans ... "common sense" and what i can see tells me that the sun comes up in the morning, moves across the sky, goes down in the evening and me and everything around me stays in one place ... "common sense" and what i can see also tells me that the earth is flat

i suppose that's why it's difficult to convince people of things that seem to contradict what they actually see, because "common sense" can lie
posted by pyramid termite at 7:37 AM on July 1, 2007


No are these two ideas (evolution and heliocentrism) simple . It took a few hundred years for very smart people to come up with them and to prove them. They only sound simple because the authors of your high school textbook worked very hard to reduce them down to the simplest of forms which require neither the thought nor understanding.
posted by c13 at 7:54 AM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


On review, kittens has it, I think.
posted by invitapriore at 7:58 AM on July 1, 2007


kittens for breakfast: Four in ten. Worrying about whether enough of us grasp principles of physics is, I'm sorry, a luxury we simply can't afford at this juncture

But that's where you're wrong. Teach people better reasoning capabilities that can go along with a basic education in science, and suddenly they might be able to realize on their own what a load of horseshit is being sent out their way.

This isn't about people needing to memorize random facts that someone feels is "general knowledge", but simply insuring that the scientific basline of understanding is raised.

I mean, what is your alternative to your problem cited above? Would you rather have a shrill, competing network on the air that denounces the above views, but once again demands that they accept this fact on faith, or would you rather that people be intelligent and informed enough that they can figure out on their own how ridiculous that is?
posted by vernondalhart at 8:03 AM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


This article completely misses the point. Being scientifically literate isn't about memorizing a bunch of random facts from your high school years (really the salt thing?). It's a way of thinking rigorously and logically, which enables you to assess and evaluate facts and claims from all areas of life.

Well said! Check out Minds of Our Own, for more :P
posted by Chuckles at 8:19 AM on July 1, 2007


lack of responsability as a right

That's a really interesting observation.. I mean, the stupidity thing is interesting too (I can't believe it gets such a low score on imdb..), but I've never heard the irresponsibility idea expressed.
posted by Chuckles at 8:26 AM on July 1, 2007


ok. i'm an artsy English geek.

What's a gerund?

Why is is correct to say, "Just between you and me," rather than, "Just between you and I?"

What constitutes a sonnet, and what's the difference between a Petrarchan and a Shakespearian sonnet? ("Petrarchan," mind you, is not recognized by our spell checker)

When did the Renaissance take place?

What's the difference between one, two, and three point perspective?

Define staccato, allegro, and mezzo piano.

Name the instruments in a string quartet.

Hell, what's irony?


Like the questions from the article, some of these are obscure, some of them fairly useless in everyday life, and some of them are just far too complicated to answer in pithy paragraphs.


and that's ok, people. that's ok.
posted by es_de_bah at 8:29 AM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


My first thought was more of this is what the future holds if a physics teacher from the UK is to be believed. Teaching hard science as touchy-feely opinion will only churn out "educated" morons. And if you think things are any better in the US of A, you're smoking some serious bud.

"No Child Left Behind" is manufacturing a generation of students that are being "taught the test", not the subject, at the rate the slowest student can manage. Couple that with the current cultural glorification of ignorance, and the future is bleak. The problem isn't that scientists don't know the basics... it's that soon hardly anyone will.

Dumb people are easier to fool. If you don't believe that, review the last couple of general elections.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 8:32 AM on July 1, 2007


Teach people better reasoning capabilities that can go along with a basic education in science, and suddenly they might be able to realize on their own what a load of horseshit is being sent out their way.

And being able to recite the Second Law of Thermodynamics from memory has nothing to do with that.

You know, if we want to use bad responses to science questions to gnash our teeth about how poorly people can reason, a better quiz would have been to sit the participant down at a computer, and give them a few minutes to Google the question, and then give the answer in their own words. The participant could then demonstrate that they have the ability to determine reputable sources on the Internet and synthesize information to explain something. Far more important than rote recall, for a scientist or anyone else.
posted by grouse at 8:33 AM on July 1, 2007 [3 favorites]


The real answers strike me as being very shallow and useless. You have to remember a few words and then you will feel that you know why salt dissolves, etc. The only substantial thing they say is that water molecules are attracted to Na and Cl ions and then "slowly dissolve the salt". So.. why does air does not? Does water fail to dissolve some ionic substances? My point is that you can give an expected answer by remembering vaguely that it's an ionic substance but without any degree of understanding of how it works. Which is worse than not knowing because you're failing two times: you fail to know and you fail to recognize that. Same thing goes for the color of sky. If I remember the name "Raleigh", that really doesn't give me anything at all. We should think in terms of questions testing the boundaries of understanding. It's not a matter of whether I understand it but of how far my understanding goes. If I can string together a few words that sort of recall what the textbook says, that's close to 0. Air is O, H and N, iirc. Is blue color because of one of these or all of them or a combination of them? Is it affected by moisure in the air? In fact, I don't understand how the atoms in the air create the blue color so I can't even think of other good framing questions, but you get the idea. Age of the Earth is just a number. Show that you understand how dating works. How do you date a 3.5B old piece of rock? How does carbon dating work?

On the other hand I disagree that an expert in a different field should not know at least this much. This isn't something remote like rock formations on the dark side of Io. It takes an amazing lack of curiosity not to know about the salt, or the color of sky, or age of the closest planet to you. It's interesting that most of them said they knew or looked it up at some point but do not remember now, and that's just because you only remember if you gained an understanding, it's much harder to remember if you only memorized a string of words. If you understood it 10 years ago, you could describe it using different, if inexact, words.

It would be much neater if they sampled a hundred people, though, and if they dug in more with the questions, it's really hard to tell the extent of understanding of the ones who gave half-decent answers.
posted by rainy at 8:34 AM on July 1, 2007


as an aside, it's also fun to ask fundamental religious types actual Biblical questions like:

What does the Bible say about swearing on the Bible?

What constitutes speaking in tongues?

Why wasn't Sampson allowed to cut his hair?

Is it ok for gay people to eat shellfish while wearing a cotton / acrylic blend and denouncing slavery?
posted by es_de_bah at 8:35 AM on July 1, 2007


What revolves around the Earth?

Farming?
posted by Grangousier at 8:35 AM on July 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


no, "common sense" has nothing to do with it

No are these two ideas (evolution and heliocentrism) simple


Yes, I have expressed myself badly, which was the reason for the quotes (a lazy practice, forgive me). I wasn't actually claiming that these ideas were simple at all, or that they were, in and of themselves "common sense", that is to say immediately accessible by simple reasoning. Although, pyramid termite, I'd suggest that you are actually confusing empirical observation with "common sense". That is my fault for introducing such a stupid term as "common sense" into the discussion in the first place. I apologise.

I was trying to suggest that the evolution and heliocentrism can be understood conceptually without the need to use mathematics. This doesn't necessarily mean that the average person could demonstrate their veracity, or even do something useful with them, but rather that they are capable of easily grasping them on a different level to their potential understanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
posted by howfar at 8:37 AM on July 1, 2007


I don't think that you need to use math in an explanation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
posted by grouse at 8:43 AM on July 1, 2007


a better quiz would have been to sit the participant down at a computer, and give them a few minutes to Google the question, and then give the answer in their own words.

That's my fear grouse. That people will believe what they read on the internets because they lack the basic education to question it. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the Wikipedia is not a reliable source of information. Incredibly, some internet sites even contain information which is wrong! You're gonna have to grade that quiz on a curve and give partial credit for typing.

The ability to Google is a curse, not a blessing. Googling is not a replacement for book learning. And it never will be.
posted by three blind mice at 8:45 AM on July 1, 2007


New age of ignorance? This seems to imply there was a period when average humans weren't ignorant of basic scientific knowledge.
posted by knave at 8:45 AM on July 1, 2007


Q: Why does salt dissolve in water?

I don't think I can answer.. Sodium and chlorine are easily ionized, and water molecules have a distinct positive and negative orientation, even when they have neutral charge. That doesn't seem like a complete answer though :P

Q: Roughly how old is the earth?

Well, surely several billion of years old, but just parroting "4.5 billion" because that is what people in the media quote all the time just doesn't seem very scientific to me.

Q: What happens when you turn on a light?

Ah, well this I know! I'm not sure we really want to go into the subtleties of electricity generation and distribution, household electrical safety, or black body radiation..
Or are they talking about compact fluorescents?

Q: Is a clone the same as a twin?

Depends, identical or fraternal? Even then.. Kind of, sort of, well I guess I don't know..

Q: Why is the sky blue?

Somebody in MetaTalk said Raleigh scattering the other day, but I can't recall anything technical about it..

Q: What is the Second Law of Thermodynamics?

Well, I just mixed up first and second.. Does that mean I'm dumb?



So, 1 out of 6, sort of.. :)

They even admit that the clone/twin one doesn't have a cut and dried answer.. I wonder why they are so certain that the earth is exactly 4.5 billion years old.. Do they even know if they mean 4.5e9 or 4.500e9?
I almost put 4.5e6.. That means I'm dyslexic, but I already knew that.
Hence the double checking :)

posted by Chuckles at 8:48 AM on July 1, 2007


I was trying to suggest that the evolution and heliocentrism can be understood conceptually without the need to use mathematics.

How do you propose to do this - draw an ellipse with the sun in the middle and the earth riding along the elliptical path? If so, you are just demonstrating the maths geometrically rather than algebraically.

Further, both Geocentrism and Heliocentrism are perfectly valid perspectives given an appropriate problem. If you think the solar system has to be centered around the sun or the moon, then you are still stuck in a 19th century mindset. You can place the origin of your reference frame anywhere you like, though some origins will make your math much more complicated than others.

Evolution doesn't make much sense without combinatorics and statistics.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:57 AM on July 1, 2007


since when is the Second Law of Thermodynamics considered basic knowledge?

Well, enough writers use entropy as some kind of wanky metaphor...
posted by Artw at 8:58 AM on July 1, 2007


Hey, three blind mice, great use of partial quotation to twist someone's comment into meaning the opposite of what was intended. I propose a test to see if people have the "ability to determine reputable sources" and you say that it's a bad idea because some sources are not reliable. Well, duh! That's the whole point of the test.

Googling is not a replacement for book learning. And it never will be.

Actually, use of Google and other search engines is widespread by advanced researchers in many natural sciences. I can't even remember the last time I cracked open a book to find a recent advance in the field. But I and others have a finely-honed sense of which sources on the Internet are reputable. It is far more useful to be able to teach this sense than to tell people that you should never trust anything that you didn't read in a book.
posted by grouse at 8:59 AM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


Facts you think I should know but which I do not are unimportant.

Facts I think you should know but which you don't are evidence that you are a fucking moron.
posted by marble at 9:04 AM on July 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the Wikipedia is not a reliable source of information.

Well, lets just say I disagree. More interesting though, if you know how to click on the wikipedia talk page.. Well, discussion of a topic, if you have time to digest it, is often much more informative than a text book treatment.

Googling is not a replacement for book learning. And it never will be.

Obviously not, but you say that as if it implies the former:

The ability to Google is a curse, not a blessing.

Don't be ridiculous!
posted by Chuckles at 9:07 AM on July 1, 2007


'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'.

Because we have such good assessments of what average Americans knew in 1807, what with the advanced state of sampling and survey technology at the time. Especially the one in eight that were property.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:08 AM on July 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


Overall the so called western adult has his / her brain filled with garbage! Most people know more about celebrity nonsense ("Paris Hilton, Angelina's lipps, Posh Spice's new boobs, etc.), tech crap (iPhone hype anyone?) and tv stuff ("Oh yeah I totally need to see if Elliot and J.D. get together in the next season of Scrubs") then about their direct social enviroment (neighbors, coworkers), political or scientific issues.

Most of today's news is 'non-news' totally irrelevant to our well being as a social and political community.

So it's no surprise that most adults are not up to date or have forgotten basic science stuff. There are way too many other things to worry about as a pro-consumer or modern ignorant ("Global warming is bad, but I still like to fly away for vacation!").

We are about to squander the western achievements of the age of enlightenment by sheer 'noize'.

Mefi is actually an excellent example for this: mostly a collection of nice crap and weird stuff. Nothing really to learn from. Sometimes there are a few GREAT gems here - that is why I would always recommend it over total time wasters like Fark or information overkills like Digg.
Posh Spice got new boobs? Awesome.
posted by Flunkie at 9:08 AM on July 1, 2007


es_de_bah: "ok. i'm an artsy English geek....

[Various questions here]

Like the questions from the article, some of these are obscure, some of them fairly useless in everyday life, and some of them are just far too complicated to answer in pithy paragraphs.

and that's ok, people. that's ok.
"

Noun form of a verb created by adding "ing" (e.g. swimming). Because prepositional phrases require an object, and "me" is the object form. A sonnet is a type of poem with 18 lines (4 quatrains + a couplet). The difference between Petrachan and Shakespearian is, umm, rhyme scheme and/or meter?). The Rennaissance took place over quite a while, starting with the end of the Bubonic Plague (roughly 1400) in Italy and going until roughly 1600 in Northern Europe. The difference between one, two, and three point perspective is in how many vanishing points exist and determines how realistic something looks. Staccato is choppy in style, allegro is fast in tempo, and mezzo piano is moderately soft. A string quartet is (almost always) a viola, two violins, and a cello. There are several forms of irony, and I'm not sure a unifying definition is possible.

I am so sick of the stereotype of the culturally illiterate scientist; my experience doesn't support that claim. I know that's not the point es_de_bah was trying to make, but at the same time, there's this common notion that it's perfectly ok to be scientifically illiterate or innumerate, as those are outside the normal range of human knowledge.

No one, in contrast, would brag about being illiterate. In the article in the post, the questions weren't things that necessarily have straightforward answers, and it seems like a setup. Nonetheless, people do frequently act as though science doesn't affect their daily lives or can be left to the "experts". I don't understand how willful ignorance can be so societally acceptable.
posted by JMOZ at 9:18 AM on July 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


"Not only are scientists like big children (playful, inquisitive, welcoming new ideas and experiences) but infants are like little scientists (searching, researching, speculating, continually forming and testing hypotheses)."
--Brisbane educator Jennifer Riggs from The Australian Broadcasting Corporation: Radio National, Ockham's Razor
posted by jaronson at 9:21 AM on July 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


Not so hard, artsy English geek.

What's a gerund? The -ing form of a verb, like walking.

Why is is correct to say, "Just between you and me," rather than, "Just between you and I?" 'Me' is the object of the sentence.

What constitutes a sonnet, and what's the difference between a Petrarchan and a Shakespearian sonnet? ("Petrarchan," mind you, is not recognized by our spell checker) A poem of fourteen lines. A Shakespearian sonnet has a rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG and a kind of premise (first 8 lines) exposition (next 4 lines) and conclusion (the final couplet) I don't recall the Petrarchan (Petrarchian?)

When did the Renaissance take place? Italy, 550 to 400 years ago next Tuesday.

What's the difference between one, two, and three point perspective? In proper perspective, the count is the number of non-parallel lines in the scene that are not perpendicular to the line of sight.

Define staccato, allegro, and mezzo piano.
Notes separated by a small silent interval.
Fairly fast tempo.
Moderately soft.

Name the instruments in a string quartet.
First violin. Second violin. Viola. Cello.

Hell, what's irony? The guy who wrote this quiz trying to understand the perspective answer above.

--Funny old guy.
posted by hexatron at 9:29 AM on July 1, 2007


JMOZ, bully for you, honestly. I just meant to say that most people I come across, even most highly intelligent people I know, wouldn't be able to rattle those off when asked, and I'm sure that you'd agree that those are all basic questions that most folks who've been through public school have been taught. I wasn't targeting scientists. I applaud the well rounded, but little quizzes like this are just silly.

You do bring up an interesting point. There is a strange difference between how anti-intellectualism attacks the arts and the sciences differently. Science scholars are vilified as geeky and withdrawn from culture, as you pointed out. Artsy types are vilified as snobs, unrealistic, and, increasingly, "emo."

Of course, it's silly to look at the two schools as polarized. Intelligence, for me, is measured by curiosity and rationality, and that goes for scholars of all types.
posted by es_de_bah at 9:42 AM on July 1, 2007


*minus one differently
posted by es_de_bah at 9:43 AM on July 1, 2007


and :p to you hexatron; I did know that about perspective. so there!

(i honestly didn't mean to start a peeing contest! i swear!)
posted by es_de_bah at 9:48 AM on July 1, 2007


Also of note (regarding artsy English geek's attempt at a mirroring quiz) is that the scientists in the group didn't always answer the science questions with exactness and detail. They waved their hands about ions and generally indicated that (A) I'm a geologist, not a chemist, and (B) it's been a long time since high school.

Some of the non-scientists also did this, too, on some questions. But often the non-scientists simply said "Uhhhhh, I 'unno".

That's the real difference - not that the scientists know the answers in detail, but that they have some grasp on them.

So artsy English geek's quiz, despite the fact that (as others have demonstrated) the questions are pretty easy, is not a mirror situation.

To be a mirror, it has to be even easier: It has to allow vague answers as acceptable.

For example, for the question "What constitutes a sonnet", it would have to accept as a valid answer, "Oh, some sort of poem. I think Shakespeare wrote a bunch of them."
posted by Flunkie at 9:50 AM on July 1, 2007


Why is is correct to say, "Just between you and me," rather than, "Just between you and I?" 'Me' is the object of the sentence.

I'm sure this is the answer es_de_bah wanted, but it's incorrect. To the extent that "between you and me" is correct, it's because that's the way native speakers of English say it. To the extent native speakers say "between you and I," that too is correct (for them). "Correct" has no meaning other than "what native speakers say." To the extent you believe otherwise because you read it in a book somewhere or somebody told you, you're being just as unscientific as the people who believe [insert your favorite myth here] because they read/heard it somewhere.
posted by languagehat at 10:11 AM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]




Flunkie, i wold accept that answer. Many of the answers ni the article get close enough to display at least some knowledge. My point (poorly made, I fear) is that their quiz and my quiz are both pretty useless.

languagehat, damn skippy! The age of the Earth and the bit about clones and twins are also fairly nuanced topics, as folks have pointed out. And you could go on forever about the time(s) and place(s) of the Renaissance or the differences between Shakespearian and Plutarchan sonnets.
posted by es_de_bah at 10:46 AM on July 1, 2007


For the curious, a Petrarchan sonnet has two quatrains and two three-line stanzas, with the rhyme scheme being ABAB/ABBA in the former set and a fair amount of variability in the latter...CDC is pretty common, though.

Thank God for Spanish Lit...:)
posted by invitapriore at 10:56 AM on July 1, 2007


The age of the Earth and the bit about clones and twins are also fairly nuanced topics

Right, but there it's a matter of arguing over details. The difference between the "object" answer and the "usage" answer is comparable to the difference between creationism and evolution. In each case, the second is scientific, the first is essentially religious, except that when it comes to grammar the religion is that of Saints Strunk and White or Our Lady of Fourth-Grade English Class rather than the Big Man in the Sky.
posted by languagehat at 11:00 AM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


I recall some test somewhere which was about Scientific Intuition.

One question had diagrams of a man walking forward and then dropping a ball as he walked. You were supposed to show the spot at which the ball would hit the ground.

Essentially the question was testing an understanding of Galilean concepts without asking you to sputter forth some memorized nonsense.

I would never have done too well on these questions even when I was a hardcore physics guy. I've always had what I think is a strong conceptual understanding of physics even while often forgetting the exact details.

For example, a good followup question to the Blue Sky question is "What does this tell you about the color of the Sun?"

Well, since red light is scattering less and blue more then the Sun is redder than it really is. Which means its white. Its another simple step to understanding why the sun appears redder and redder as it sets and its light has to go through a thicker atmosphere.

Could the atmosphere be so thick that all blue light gets scattered? What color would the sky be if we orbited some other type/color star? An interest in Science is founded on a sense of wonder.
posted by vacapinta at 11:00 AM on July 1, 2007


Flunkie, i wold accept that answer.
So then most people you come across, even most highly intelligent people you know, wouldn't be able to rattle off that a sonnet is a type of poem?

I find that somewhat dubious.
posted by Flunkie at 11:03 AM on July 1, 2007


The Second Law of Thermodynamics is basic.

Lots of people claim to have a "basic understanding of science" or even an "understanding of basic science" (a hair-splitting argument worthy of seven pints, profanity and maybe even a little fisticuffs), but at the same time lots of people claim to be good judges of character with excellent senses of humour who are at least slightly above average in intelligence.

I'm pretty sure most of these people are wrong. Self-assessment is tricky.

The Second Law is a decent litmus test, in my opinion. There are two correct answers to the question, "What is the Second Law?" and they are: a) to define the law, or b) to seek clarification concerning whether the answer should be framed in terms of robotic morality or physics. Either reply is valid for the purposes of establishing an outer bound to the depth of ignorance in play.

I'm not saying every man, woman and child has to know what the second law is -- I'm suggesting that anyone who claims "a basic understanding" ought to be able to at least loosely define it. Without it, it's hard to say which way time is going and if that isn't basic, I don't know what is.
posted by CheeseburgerBrown at 11:22 AM on July 1, 2007


(Wait, Petrarch or Plutarch?)

FWIW, I didn't think the answers in the article were that bad. Most people displayed a good understanding of the question, a general idea of the field in which the answer lies, and waved their hands in the right direction when they ran off the end of their knowledge. So I would expect that if they had a need to know these things, they could easily find and comprehend the answer.

Compare them to a hypothetical person who wants to know why salt dissolves but who doesn't even have the atomic / molecular theory of matter.
posted by hattifattener at 11:31 AM on July 1, 2007


What if I said the Second Law of Thermodynamics is that energy is neither created nor destroyed? Where do I fall on the stupidity chart? How gauche is it that I got the laws mixed up? Would I have looked stupider if I had instead said, "The Second Law of Thermodynamics... that's when energy stays the same, yes? I mean that it doesn't disappear or come out of nowhere? That's about right, I think."

Also, the answer to "what happens when you turn on a light?" isn't technically correct; that's more accurately the answer to "what happens when you flick a switch on an electrical device?" The answer says nothing about how a light bulb produces light, which you would think would be the point of asking "what happens when you turn on a light?"
posted by chrominance at 11:31 AM on July 1, 2007


what's irony?

Metonymy, parataxis, similey and irony are the four master tropes - the most wondrous devices in all of literature! Let me tell you all about them, because you people sound like you could do with some education and they're really useful if you want to talk more better.

Metonymy is the practice of putting a "y" on the end of a name, like when you call someone Billy instead of plain old Bill. I fucking hate it when people do that - don't call me Billy, you asshole. It's not my name. My name is Frank, you fuck.

Parataxis is easy to describe by noting that you wait forever for a taxi to come and then one comes along and then another one comes along too. And there you have a parataxis.

Similey is like saying "I feel so :)!!!" All the great writers use this trick, and actually e e cummings wrote all of his poetry in this kind of text-message bullshit.

So what's irony? Well, it means just what it says! Basically something is irony if it’s quite iron-like in appearance - hard, cold and prone to rust. American people don't like irony - they prefer stainless steel, because they invented technology and it's shinier. But the French love "l'ironique" as they call it, and actually they built a huge tower in Paris made out of 100% PURE IRON. It's so fucking ironic, that thing – it’s huge, dude. You should check that shit out.

Another thing that's pretty damn irony is the erection I get whenever I see an Alanis Morrisette music video - both because I abhor her music and because I'm usually impotent.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 11:35 AM on July 1, 2007 [11 favorites]


The real answers strike me as being very shallow and useless. You have to remember a few words and then you will feel that you know why salt dissolves, etc

No, you don't. The dissoluton of salt in water was used as one example of a much more general priciple in your textbook. Which, incidentally, has a lot to do with the Second Law. The potential energy of sodium and clorine atoms is lower when they are dissoved in a polar solvent, than when they are arranged in a crystalline structure. Since the entropy of the system always tends to increase (Second law), the bonds between Na and Cl break and the total potential energy of the whole system decreases. If you know this, you don't need to memorize why salt dissolves in water, it's self-evident. It will also be self evident why different salts dissolve to a different degree, and why they don't dissolve much in organic solvents. Or why oil and water do not mix (do not dissolve in one-another). Or why the temperature of the salt/water system falls and you can this to phenomenon to make yummy home-made ice-cream. Or many other things.
Sience is not just a bunch of facts (usefull or useless) that one has to memorize. It's a collection of relatively few concepts that allows you to explain how the world works.
Furthermore, the problem with general population is not that they are ignorant of basic scietific concepts that have been the basis of Western civilization for the last few hundred years. They are ignorant of everything else. To use above examples, it's not that they JUST don't know why salt dissolves, they don't know what a sonnet is ALSO. Much like they don't know where Iraq is. Or what Shakespeare wrote. Or pretty much anything else you want to ask them.
posted by c13 at 11:59 AM on July 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


Ahem.. you can USE this phenomenon...
posted by c13 at 12:00 PM on July 1, 2007


Is it ok for gay people to eat shellfish while wearing a cotton / acrylic blend and denouncing slavery?

Well is it?
(The suspense is killing me...)
posted by sour cream at 12:28 PM on July 1, 2007


These questions demonstrates an ability to recall and not knowledge; two very dissimilar human qualities that are frequently confused by folks trying to show everyone how stupid they are.
posted by willie11 at 12:30 PM on July 1, 2007


"Correct" has no meaning other than "what native speakers say."

Oh give me a fucking break. I see today you are wearing your Defender of Descriptivism Derby and I know that it is a popular hat, but language does have parts and rules and reasons behind those rules, because in general it is a pattern. Are there exceptions to rules, often made because people find it pointless and start contravening it? Sure. But it isn't some crazy free-for-all where no one knows which way the herd is going to move next, however much that notion may set your heart a-flutter.
posted by dame at 1:07 PM on July 1, 2007


'Entropy,' Angier writes, 'is like a taxi passing you on a rainy night with its NOT IN SERVICE lights ablaze, or a chair in a museum with a rope draped from arm to arm, or a teenager.'
posted by parallax7d at 1:14 PM on July 1, 2007


I always thought the second law was a good reason for not cleaning up my room: it's just going to get messed up again anyway and it takes more energy to make it orderly than it does to let it descend to its preferred state...
posted by Maias at 2:00 PM on July 1, 2007


If you know this, you don't need to memorize why salt dissolves in water

Where "this" is why salt dissolves in water.
posted by cillit bang at 2:25 PM on July 1, 2007


Mwongozi no. The sky isn't blue because air is blue. First of all the "air" in the sky isn't a homogenous thing - as you go higher it changes. There's no such thing as an "air molecule" - so I have no idea what that web page you linked to is talking about. Is it irony ?
The blueness of the sky has a small contribution from the blueness of ozone high up, but by and large I'm afraid it really is down to boring old Raleigh scattering. Sorry to disappoint.
I spent six months researching this for a project I did called "Most Blue Sky" where we found the place on earth with the bluest sky in the world, so I feel I have some claim to authority here.
posted by silence at 3:01 PM on July 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


Is it ok for gay people to eat shellfish while wearing a cotton / acrylic blend and denouncing slavery?

Well is it?


No. Never wear cotton / acrylic blends.
posted by blacklite at 3:19 PM on July 1, 2007


The questions are very basic. I found the answers from the panel to be depressing.

The specialization of our education almost immediately after High School leaves very little room for a holistic understanding of our world.

I'm sure if you were to ask basic questions to a panel of another field like literature you would see similar results.

I support the interdisciplinary undergraduate programs that are being introduced into Canadian Universities. That particular school seems to have created the idea but similar programs now exist across the country. Nevertheless, even those programs have a liberal arts emphasis and surely lack the science. Perhaps students should be required to take both a liberal arts and science based general first year of study before they specialize into say Engineering or Philosophy.
posted by ageispolis at 3:34 PM on July 1, 2007


There's no such thing as an "air molecule"

Hi, welcome to the English language. This is a fine language with many current users, and we hope that you'll enjoy communicating in it. In this language, if someone says or writes "air molecule," you can take this to mean "Any of the various substances that commonly make up the atmosphere, such as N2 and O2."

by and large I'm afraid it really is down to boring old Raleigh scattering

Really, would it fucking kill you to at least correctly spell "Rayleigh"?

The position of the page linked to is not that Rayleigh scattering doesn't take place or that it's not the underlying reason why the sky is blue. It's only arguing that going straight to scattering is not useful pedagogically, and that detouring through "air is blue" to "why is air blue?" is a useful thing to do.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:34 PM on July 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


I always thought the second law was a good reason for not cleaning up my room

Of course the correct answer is, there is no good reason for not cleaning up your room. Obviously!
posted by Chuckles at 3:53 PM on July 1, 2007


If you have to simplify things down to "air molecules", then of course you don't need to get Rayleigh scattering involved.
posted by c13 at 4:06 PM on July 1, 2007


The position of the page linked to is not that Rayleigh scattering doesn't take place or that it's not the underlying reason why the sky is blue.

Right, only Mwongozi took that incorrect position, perhaps through a misreading of that page.
posted by grouse at 4:13 PM on July 1, 2007


I don't expect most Americans to even know what the Meiji Restoration *was*, much less know about its specifics.

I know about the Meiji Restoration! But only because I watch anime.
posted by chlorus at 4:14 PM on July 1, 2007


Oh, and I don't see what is so bad about specialization. Ignorance is efficiency!
posted by chlorus at 4:14 PM on July 1, 2007


Hello ROU_Xenophobe How are you this evening ?

So I take it then that by saying "an air molecule is blue" what the writer means is that "Any of the various substances that commonly make up the atmosphere, such as N2 and O2, are blue". I restate my position - this doesn't make any sense to me. I'm baffled - are all the gasses blue? Is one of them blue (and if so, why not just name that one)? Are they blue only in combination? What exactly is it in the "air molecule" that apparently looks "like a bluish dust mote".

Really, would it fucking kill you to at least correctly spell "Rayleigh"?

Really, would it fucking kill you if I didn't ?
posted by silence at 4:51 PM on July 1, 2007


I was struck by this correct answer "The switch controls the flow of electricity through a circuit - a complete, unbroken loop through which electric charges can move. When the light switch is on, these electric charges can move in an endless loop. This loop begins at a power station where the charges pick up electric energy. They then flow through wires to the light switch, then to the light bulb where they deliver their electric energy, and finally back to the power company to obtain more energy."

It makes electric 'charges' sound like a bucket within which a power station loads up energy to be carried through the loop. I guess in their scheme the 'neutral' is a wire the charges use to travel back home for more energy. Is my meager understanding of AC electric current failing me or is this a pretty poor analogy for how it works? What about two or three phase power, which of those wires does the charge move back to the power station on?

With all that said, I've come to firmly believe that our problem is getting stuck in the details of Thermodynamics, Calculus and Atomic (Quantum when we are ready) physics. It is easy to understand stuff at the level of the ancient Greeks, and so our social 'common sense' tends to stay there. To make progress we need to start seeing how these new areas of knowledge help change our view. A good understanding of these areas helps inform all decisions, social as well as scientific.
posted by meinvt at 5:16 PM on July 1, 2007


by and large I'm afraid it really is down to boring old Raleigh scattering

I think the thing is that if you don't really understand what this means, then you can just memorize those words and throw them out there when asked, and it is completely meaningless. When someone doesn't understand the actual interactions that ground the activity, saying that turning a switch "completes a circuit" can be empty nonsense, while it can a fully intelligible answer from someone who is providing it with an honest comprehension of the mechanics. The same sort of things sometimes happens with cliche phrases or arguments. If you just repeat something you've heard other people use, not because you came up with it yourself or because it really means anything to you, but because you've seen it essentially "do the job" for other people, you can end up having conversations or discussions where you are not thinking or learning at all but always merely trying to "win the battle."

In a case like science, the way to win the battle is usually to learn what the answers are - not to question / think about them, or try to understand them so that you could really create your own circuit if you were alone in an emergency, or anything like that, but just have enough answers to be able to provide an expert-sounding few sentences to your buddies when necessary... Like the woman in the article who'd forgotten the blue sky one recently, the problem with this approach can be that meaningless answers are harder to hold onto, because there isn't really a true "eureka" moment from just reading something about "rayleigh scattering" if you don't really understand what it means.

There's a bunch of stuff in Wittgenstein about how we can differentiate between the consciousness of information and the consciousness of understanding that this reminds me of... Why should it matter? But really, we are teasing ourselves and each other, imitating a higher consciousness than we actually have if we pretend to understand things that in fact we simply do not understand. It is a funny temptation, but we're embarrassed to just say straightforwardly that we don't get things or don't know things, and will far too often give in to pretending to know when really all we know is a few words that point toward the general area. I suppose another complication is knowing exactly how close or far you are from understanding, though... A person may think they have a perfectly satisfactory answer that another person considers not even superficial (eg, the grammar question above starting a discussion on prescriptivism)
posted by mdn at 5:32 PM on July 1, 2007


language does have parts and rules and reasons behind those rules, because in general it is a pattern. Are there exceptions to rules, often made because people find it pointless and start contravening it? Sure. But it isn't some crazy free-for-all

Oh, dame, why do you hurt me when I love you so? Of course language has parts and rules and reasons behind those rules, and it's the job of linguists (scientists) to discover, through analysis of data, what those parts, rules, and reasons are. The religious folk think they can intuit the rules and reasons just because they're bright and literate, or they think they know them because they take the word of an Authority. That's like being a guru (in the first case) or a guru's follower (in the second). What bothers me is that so many intelligent, otherwise wonderful people, who scorn religion and the whole idea of taking things on faith, fall right into the pit of theology when it comes to language. It makes a salty, salty tear fall from my eye.
posted by languagehat at 5:41 PM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


There's a bunch of stuff in Wittgenstein about how we can differentiate between the consciousness of information and the consciousness of understanding that this reminds me of... Why should it matter?

Exactly. If you're an electrician or an engineer, I'd prefer you know the physics of involved, but otherwise, if you know how to flip the switch, that's enough.
posted by jonmc at 5:44 PM on July 1, 2007


I think a lot of this arguing back and forth misses some fundamental truth, that lacking knowledge about basic science will harm you in seemingly innocuous ways that might otherwise fall beneath your view.

For instance, I notice a tire shop near me now advertises that, instead of filling tires with air, they're filling tires with an "improved" air mixture that's 78 percent nitrogen. Next door, there's a drug store that sells homeopathic remedies right next to the Tylenol. I go to the grocery store and notice that "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" is advertised as a health food.

They're all lying to you. Hopefully, you're armed with enough science knowledge to go out and face the world.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:46 PM on July 1, 2007


They're all lying to you.

This differentiates them from other advertisers how exactly?
posted by jonmc at 5:50 PM on July 1, 2007


This differentiates them from other advertisers how exactly?

It's a matter of degree. The claim that "Skin Cream X" will make you look younger is subjective. Filling your tires with air and telling you it's a special 78-percent nitrogen mix is a whole 'nother thing entirely.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:55 PM on July 1, 2007


On the sky is blue argument.

Couldnt you say orange juice is orange because of Rayleigh scattering? I think answering- "because air is blue" - is a simpler answer but it is perfectly acceptable for the question.

If the question was - "Why is air blue?" talking about wavelengths would be more appropriate.
posted by phyle at 5:56 PM on July 1, 2007


Couldnt you say orange juice is orange because of Rayleigh scattering?

No.
posted by grouse at 6:14 PM on July 1, 2007


No.

That was sort of a serious question. Can you explain why not? Why is orange juice orange?
posted by phyle at 6:19 PM on July 1, 2007


Well if you don't like specialization, you may have a problem. It takes anywhere from 8-12 years (from first year at college to defending your dissertation) to get a PhD in the current, abhorrent, specializing system. How long would it take to get a holistic education?

Well, you need the fundamentals. Say two courses in each of the physical sciences, math, English language literature, western non-english literature, middle-eastern lite, asian lit, african lit, philosophy for each the just mentioned regions, art history for all of them, political history for all of them, history of science. Of course you should learn either Latin or Greek for the ancient languages and one contemporary foreign language, then you'll want some civics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, music theory, art theory, and don't forget religious studies. Yeah, about one year of each of those should give you a good start on a well rounded education. Now, you'll also want to have more then a dilettante's knowledge in at least a few of these subjects. There's nothing worse than a person who knows just a little bit about everything but a lot about nothing. So, you should take another few semesters pursuing more in depth knowledge of two or three of these disciplines. Let's say physics, Chinese history and ethics. So, now you know enough about these latter subjects to hold a conversation with an expert without embarrassing yourself. Now pick one of these and do some real work and research so that you can get into grad school or professional school. Made it in? Good. Now it will take 5-8 years to get your PhD. Don't forget that the broad knowledge portion of the education probably took something like 10 years (six years for the broad, shallow portion than a few more for the narrower specialties). So, were now at what 15 years of work at a minimum, and this doesn't even count taking courses like drawing, photography, speech, health, journalism, astronomy, history of Star Trek, and other classes just for fun. (Recall that contemporary specialists take about 9 years for the equivalent degree.)

Whew. That's an exhausting amount of work. A truly well rounded education is no longer realistic for the vast majority of people.
posted by oddman at 6:27 PM on July 1, 2007


Couldnt you say orange juice is orange because of Rayleigh scattering?

No. Because orange juice is orange not because of scattering, but because of preferential absorption of light of specific wavelengths (everything "not orange") by extended conjugated pi orbitals.

There's nothing worse than a person who knows just a little bit about everything but a lot about nothing.

What? Why? Is it worse than knowing nothing about nothing?
posted by c13 at 6:35 PM on July 1, 2007


Yes, haven't you head that a little knowledge is dangerous thing? Knowing nothing about anything makes you Socrates, and thus, pretty damn wise.
posted by oddman at 6:43 PM on July 1, 2007


Hmm.. maybe it's more of the "air molecules" thing, and I'm just not following, but do you mean dangerous = worse?
posted by c13 at 6:55 PM on July 1, 2007


No. Because orange juice is orange not because of scattering, but because of preferential absorption of light of specific wavelengths (everything "not orange") by extended conjugated pi orbitals.

Ok I guess that makes the "air is blue" answer kind of wrong...
posted by phyle at 7:01 PM on July 1, 2007


Well, and that's exactly the problem. They simplify the answer so much that it becomes almost wrong. Basically, what they are saying is that matter is not transparent, which is kinda obvious. Some things are more nontransparent than others. A little air is transparent, a lot is not, especially if you take into account the fact that air is transparent only in certain parts of the spectrum. But like they said, it still does not explain why air is blue and not opaque. But that was the original question! So they waved their hands for a while, but at the end retuned to invoking Rayleigh scattering.
posted by c13 at 7:19 PM on July 1, 2007


It's amazing the amount of sniping this post seems to have generated. I think it points at an insecurity we, each and every one of us, feel. As Charlie Brooker pointed out in his Guardian Guide column (and forgive me for not finding the particular article, but they're mostly worth reading anyway) some months ago, each and every one of us lives in fear of other people finding out quite how stupid and ignorant we really are.

The bad feeling that runs down this thread seems to be a symptom of our insecurity. "Science Nerds" feel looked down upon by "Arts Geeks" as being soulless and cultureless . "Arts Geeks" feel excluded from scientific debate because of their own ignorance, and feel that their specialisms are looked down upon by the "Science Nerd" as "soft", or universal, and so not really worthy of specialisation in the first place. We all feel stupid, and so we all have a go at everyone else.

There is no "new age of ignorance" among the educated elite, which is what the post title seems to suggest. There is just ignorance. Always has been, always will be. We all more ignorant than we are informed. So what?

And, having read this, you probably think I'm an ill-educated moron, that's probably because I am.
posted by howfar at 7:31 PM on July 1, 2007


Hello ROU_Xenophobe How are you this evening ?

Tense and cranky. It seems to show; sorry.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:32 PM on July 1, 2007


The bad feeling that runs down this thread seems to be a symptom of our insecurity.

I'm not sure that's the case, howfar. To me it seems like a lot of people display their ignorance almost with pride. "I'm an artist/scientist/secretary/etc, I don't need to know this!" It's like we define ourselves by what we are NOT. I would not be surprised to hear that form a janitor, but when a guy who's working on a Ph.D. in engineering needs help changing out brake rotors on his Jeep (true story), I get depressed.
posted by c13 at 7:49 PM on July 1, 2007


c13, I don't share your impression about this thread, I have to say, although I agree with you more generally. That also seem to come down to insecurity. People don't know something, they feel bad about not knowing it, and so denigrate the value of having that kind of knowledge. We also tend to regard the sort of knowledge that we have as being essential for being a functioning human being, or a useful worker, or interesting to talk to, or whatever.

Apparent arrogance nearly always comes from insecurity, the appearance of humility from confidence. I know that I'm at my most blusterous and verbose when I feel out of my depth in a subject.

I'm not sure about your story about the engineer. Doesn't it depend on what sort of engineer he was? Also, I myself have no clear idea what a brake rotor is. I'm not proud of that fact, but I feel absolutely no shame about it. I'm not wilfully impractical, and if I need to know about brake rotors and how to change them, I'll find out. Also, next time, you PhD pursuing friend might well be able to do it on his own, so he's learned something. We all start off ignorant, and we all keep learning, so there seems to be no shame in not knowing anything at all, as long as we are prepared to be perceptive and inquiring.
posted by howfar at 8:02 PM on July 1, 2007


This thread is particularly depressing having just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Because Pirsig's book itself is an example of sophomoric acquaintance with a subject falsely imagining itself to be competence? Or is that not what you you had in mind?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:32 PM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


Hi, welcome to the English language. This is a fine language with many current users, and we hope that you'll enjoy communicating in it. In this language, if someone says or writes 'air molecule,' you can take this to mean 'Any of the various substances that commonly make up the atmosphere, such as N2 and O2.'

Sorry, no. Molecule is not a word commonly used outside of its technical meaning. People don't commonly call small bit of things "molecules". If they did, I'd agree with your argument. At best, people will misuse molecule thinking that it's something it isn't. That's a mistake, not normative. For it to not be a mistake and to be normative, people would have to commonly use molecule knowingly as meaning something other than, or beyond, its technical definition.

The position of the page linked to is not that Rayleigh scattering doesn't take place or that it's not the underlying reason why the sky is blue. It's only arguing that going straight to scattering is not useful pedagogically, and that detouring through 'air is blue' to 'why is air blue?' is a useful thing to do.

First of all, while the article quite explicitly says that Rayleigh scattering is part of the fundamental explanation, Mwongozi stupidly asserted that "it has nothing to do with Rayleigh scattering". In its context, that's such an ironic and egregious error, it's sort of amazing.

Second of all, as silence points out, the "air is blue" answer is fundamentally misleading about what air is. In that the explanation both conflates wavelength absorption of specific atoms and molecules with the particulars of how different wavelengths of light travels through a varying mixture of compounds (which is much more complex and has more to do with Rayleigh scattering and the blue sky than the former) and that it misleads people about the very nature of the atmosphere...it's a damn bad answer.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:58 PM on July 1, 2007


And, of course, too many scientists might as well be Philistines for all they know about the arts.

That's very true and is basic to Snow's complaint in The Two Cultures.

Even so—and please note that I very strongly believe that common knowledge of the arts and other non-science subjects is very important—I don't think the two things are equal in importance with regard to the civil sphere. One's knowledge of science has far more important and far-reaching implications for one's view on public policy—and thus politics—than does one's views of the arts.

While I think that awareness, appreciation, and knowledge of both science and art are just about as important for the development of an individual personality, I don't think they are equally important in terms of civics.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:03 PM on July 1, 2007


The bad feeling that runs down this thread seems to be a symptom of our insecurity. "Science Nerds" feel looked down upon by "Arts Geeks" as being soulless and cultureless . "Arts Geeks" feel excluded from scientific debate because of their own ignorance, and feel that their specialisms are looked down upon by the "Science Nerd" as "soft", or universal, and so not really worthy of specialisation in the first place. We all feel stupid, and so we all have a go at everyone else.

I think this is a legitimate insecurity but for only one side. "Science nerds", or at least the legitimate ones, have a logical outlook and a passion for reasoned thought. It's really what defines someone as being a science nerd. This is not in anyway appreciated by people on the outside unless it's quirky geek gadget cred, and they find little interest in what the science nerds say in addition to often hostily dismissing their views. "Arts Geeks" on the other hand are worshiped in entertainment culture and reap the social rewards. Namely, knowing the Bose-Einstein equation will never get you laid whereas being a musician or hell, just knowing about bands will. The same goes for basic social connections. This is becoming more of a legitimate threat now that people genuinely have the freedom to pursue whatever they want. A lot of people I know with otherwise good intentions and healthy minds, gave up their passion for the sciences because they would just never be cool in the way the arts are. Yet society does not need the arts the way it needs things like medicine.
posted by kigpig at 9:32 PM on July 1, 2007


Sorry, no. Molecule is not a word commonly used outside of its technical meaning. People don't commonly call small bit of things "molecules".

Yes, but air is made of molecules. Molecules of N2. Of O2. H20, CO2. The only things in air that aren't molecules are trace amounts of argon and other inert gases.

If someone says "air molecules," only the King of Pedants on Planet Pedantia would think they were asserting that air is a single unified substance which occurs in a particular molecular structure. It seems obvious in context that a more reasonable reading is that "air molecules" is merely shorter and more convenient than "molecules of N2, O2, and various impurities held at a pressure gradient commonly observed in the Terran atmosphere, and in a ratio of 78:21:1."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:39 PM on July 1, 2007


If someone says "air molecules," only the King of Pedants on Planet Pedantia would think they were asserting that air is a single unified substance which occurs in a particular molecular structure.

I think that you're giving people too much credit. Doesn't some of the answers to these question by people who are quote obviously educated and intelligent demonstrate that a strong ignorance of at least some elementary science topics is more the rule than the exception?

Look, I find snobbery from either side of the "two cultures" as pernicious as anyone and I'm quite willing to concede that a lot of things that I think of as basic and important from either realm are truly, in fact, not that necessary for everyone to know and understand.

But I think that's distinct from the belief that explanations of scientific ideas in common language be reasonably technically correct and, more importantly, not misleading. I think the misuse of the term molecule in this case violates the first rule sufficiently to matter and certainly the second. At the moment I can't think of an example, but the distinction between Rayleigh scattering and simple absorption almost certainly results in profoundly different behavior under certain circumstances—behavior that this misunderstanding would expect to be the same.

Ah, wait, what vacapinta has already said is a great example. If it were absorption that was the mechanism—that is, the atmosphere is absorbing other wavelengths of light less than blue and thus transmitting blue preferentially, thus appearing "blue", similar to a theater light gel, then what would the Sun look like? Answer: it would look bluer than it really is. However, as vacapinta explains, it actually looks redder than it really is. That's because it's not that case that we're getting less red light than blue light as it traverses the atmosphere, but rather because alteration of the directions of these frequencies of light as they are traverse the atmosphere is not the same—blue acts differently than red.

There's a profound practical, commonly experience behavior that a simple "air is blue like other things are blue" contradicts. It's a bad explanation. And certainly Mwongozi's, which denies Rayleigh scattering altogether, is even worse. In fact, his error is a good practical example of why that web page is bad: it mislead him and he referred to it as an authority, even though it flatly contradicts him. That's because a large part of what it seems to be asserting is misleading.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:00 AM on July 2, 2007


(It's also worth noting that Rayleigh scattering, from very small objects like air molecules, is called that to differentiate it from Mie scattering, from larger objects like fine dust grains or pollen. Mie scattering isn't as wavelength-dependent as Rayleigh scattering. There are a lot of different ways for color to happen. Besides scattering and molecular absorption bands (the orange juice example), there's also interference/diffraction, which often produces iridescent effects on insects, oil slicks, DVDs, etc.)
posted by hattifattener at 12:52 AM on July 2, 2007


phyle Normally things are the colour they are because they absorb particular frequencies of the light that falls on them and reflect others. White light is made of a whole specturm of frequencies mixed together. The red ink on the scary final demand bill that's sitting next to my computer, for instance, is absorbing all the other visible wavelengths of light except the ones that cause my eyes to see it as red.
The reason the sky (usually) looks blue is different - sunlight enters the atmosphere and gets scattered when it hits particles ("air molecules" ?) in the air. Small particles tend to scatter light of certain frequencies more than others, and the blue part of the light gets scattered more than the other frequencies. The end result is that if you look up at the sun it appears yellowish, because the direct rays of light coming directly from the sun to you (without having been bounced in a different direction) has less blue in it (if you take blue away from white you end up with yellow). The blue light that's missing goes bouncing around the atmosphere and eventually reaches your eyes, but from a different direction, and so the rest of the sky appears blue.
ROU_Xenophobe elegantly and gracefully handled, my compliments to you sir (or madam).
posted by silence at 1:14 AM on July 2, 2007


"Science nerds", or at least the legitimate ones, have a logical outlook and a passion for reasoned thought. It's really what defines someone as being a science nerd.

kigpig, I will apologise for the question begging nature of my argument, but you do see that you could be understood to be making your case for me. You state that scientists are unfairly looked down upon in society, but you precede it with the claim that "science nerds" have a monopoly on "logic" and "reasoned thought".

You also compare vastly different things. "Knowing about bands" is not the equivalent in the arts or humanities of "knowing the Bose-Einstein equation". Most people, be they artists or scientists by training, are going to know something about bands. We should take a legitimate example of education in the humanities, possibly familiarity with the works of Moore, Russell and Wittgenstein (with detours in Frege, Ayer and Kripke, perhaps); or an understanding of the development of satire in the English language from Swift to Austen. These things take "logic" and "reasoned thought" to achieve, and are yet nothing to do with scientific knowledge or the scientific method. And, unfortunately, they don't seem to add very much to one's chances of getting laid. I think your confusion is to place all worthwhile skill and knowledge in with science, without considering the complexity of many non-scientific disciplines.

I'm really not sure about your claim that society doesn't need the arts in the same way it needs medicine. It's true to a certain extent, but then you might argue that society needs medicine less than it needs bin men and sewage workers. These, like medicine, are vital and noble occupations, but does that mean that it is illegitimate to pursue any other course? The capacity of sight is enriched by visual art, history and philosophy generate new possibilities of thought, music provides intellectual stimulation, hands down stories, gives communal identity. These are all goods. To discard them as secondary seems to be very dangerous.

You seem to have cast the debate in terms of a competition, and my very point was that there must be some kind of motivation for this. I really don't think that it is because one group or the other is unfairly denigrated, but rather because of our own self-doubt.
posted by howfar at 3:56 AM on July 2, 2007


your case = my case. Sorry, lazy editing.
posted by howfar at 3:58 AM on July 2, 2007


Some smart people are easily embarassed if you quiz them about things that are outside of their area. Shocker... aka Slow News Day.
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:20 AM on July 2, 2007


Seems to have touched sort sort of nerve, however.
posted by howfar at 4:29 AM on July 2, 2007


The religious folk think they can intuit the rules and reasons just because they're bright and literate, or they think they know them because they take the word of an Authority.

Actually, that is not so weird. You can intuit the rules if you pay enough attention in the sense that you can understand the pattern and put words to it. Likewise, taking the word of an Authority is a lot like believing in science because of what the scientists tell you, isn't it? I think the point is that rules are contingent, not that you didn't puzzle them out for yourself. And don't worry, crankypants, I still love you too.
posted by dame at 8:28 AM on July 2, 2007


Think I'm returning too late, but no I don't see it as begging the question. Science is after all a method and as languagehat above pointed out even linguistics is a science, a notion I think most people would be surprised by. I fail to see however how "familiarity with the works" of anyone takes logic or reasoned thought. It certainly takes intellect but "familiarity with" implies memorization not logic. Of course to actually be a Russell one does need great logic and reason capabilities but he clearly embraced them, something many of those in the humanities don't seem to be doing (if this has changed over recent years great but during my college years, there was an open hostility to scientific rationalism in the English department for one. Hell, there was a hostility to it even in the Psychology department) which was more my point than claiming a monopoly on them.

Further I disagree that being able to wax on about the works of any writer, history, politics doesn't breed better social success. I used 'getting laid' as a snide example, but really the ability to interact, to have friends at all naturally resides in our abilities to communicate with them in a manner that interests them and the interest lies one-sided in favor of humanities. I cast it in terms of competition because we learn by reward mechanisms. I don't think anyone here would bring into question social conditioning, in this case how some people will cease to engage in fields that produce negative results and lean towards those that produce positive ones. It's not even an irrational choice as far as ones quality of life goes.

As to the necessity of fields, I looked back at the sentence and realized it can be read two ways. I meant that society does not need the arts period not to a lesser extent. There's nothing wrong with pursuing them as there's plenty that we don't need but like, however they are social overhead and nearly interchangeable such that you could pluck a few out of the mix without any noticeable harm. Whereas society would be harmed by the loss of sewage workers in the same way it would be harmed by the loss of doctors or mechanics or chefs and a lot of things that are tangential to science. Including history and philosophy in there is a bit misleading as they are usually viewed as in the arts but probably shouldn't be. History for example, is in great need of scientific approach so that we learn what socio-political decisions work and what do not. A lot of major historians apply this type of scholarship to their works, but of course we have many hacks with agendas who get away with willful dishonesty to a public that isn't interested in viewing the history in a scientific manner. The idea that 'music provides intellectual stimulation' seems absurd for a field where people will nod in line to genocidal lyrics if only it's placed to a peppy tempo. It provides intellectual stimulation only when the lyrics themselves are intellectually stimulating which then could just as easily be supplanted by the written word. There are studies about the effects of music on health and intellectual development in children, but this is not a universal trait across styles. In order to know what ones are beneficial and what ones are not, again, one must apply scientific principles.

As an aside I agree with the bulk in this thread that stated that the questions failed to demonstrate the point at hand after an article that read as a tocsin.
posted by kigpig at 9:09 AM on July 2, 2007


I suspect ignorance is celebrated because there are social incentives to do so being pushed by those who profit from certain types of lies. E.g. politicians, advertisers, etc.

That would be the societal change. That orthodoxy is merely on a broader scale than it was. It is at once more lax, yet more insidious and all-encompasing than it’s ever been.
You don’t need the threat of torture anymore to constrain someone to think as you want them to in order to maintain your invisible machine, you merely incentivise it and make it easy and attractive and popular. Make it driven by inclusion/exclusion.
Indeed, children are prime targets and typically the most orthodox (albeit unthinkingly - which, ironically, is akin to what is sought in adults) - if some kid uses big words on the playground they’re typically ostracized. Anti-intellectualism has been around for some time, but it’s often shifted form. The form is new, but it’s the same agenda. It’s typically been easier to exploit people than to utilize their intellect to make a profit. That’s not always been so, but it usually is.
What’s needed is to change that. We’re currently in one of those wells where it’s easier to exploit.
It goes without saying that one needs to know how to think in order to be reasonably intelligent.
It is not that I know how salt dissolves in water. It is that I can differentiate between that kind of knowledge - knowledge which is transmittable and repeatable and therefore universally useful - and the other kind of static knowledge that can only be learned by rote. E.g. - God created the Earth.
I cannot - by any means - replicate knowledge of how God created the Earth. I can replicate the experiments used to derive knowledge of how the universe was formed.
Given an objective universe - whether that includes God, Gods, Spaghetti monsters, etc. - we have perception of it and make subjective assessments from there.
I cannot verify your subjective assessment where you derive ‘God’ by whatever means, nor can I verify your subjective assessment where you derive the sky is blue.
But I can replicate your process of perception - or not.
Where I can replicate your process of perception - your experimentation - that we call scientific knowledge.
It doesn’t absolutely mean we will come to the same subjective assessment. It’s likely, given we’re seeing the same result. But we can hold different theories, particularly where the perceptual data is vague.
Arguments therefore become about the value of data and subjective assessments. And there it is subject to myriad forces beyond pure perception.
I can say “the sky is blue because” all I want, but if someone threatens to torture me until I say it’s green, that could weigh heavily on my subjective assessment (or at least my perceived subjective assessment).
Similarly - the major lament here is not the ignorance itself (one’s own subjective assessment is occasionally obscure, even from oneself) but those forces shifting the value of the data.

Reading the piece I didn’t see anything like glorification of ignorance. The panel seemed for the most part embarrassed by what they didn’t know.

This, I believe, is another factor that weighs upon value. Fear of public speaking is a fear greater than death (according to polls).
Presumably this is in part because no one wants to look stupid.
The kid, therefore, on the playground using the big words makes you feel, if not look, stupid. So you push back.
This plays out to greater or lesser degrees in society.
However the key is that our modern thinking of the benefits of intellectual rigor is barbaric.
I agree with what was said above about the Asian conceptualization of schoolwork. If you don’t get it - you’re not working hard enough.
The western view seems to be predicated on “talent” or some innate trait.
This is as foolish as thinking one is naturally muscular or naturally good at running swiftly. Ridiculous. Hard work IS talent.
As the student on the playground should not be excluded because he or she has worked hard on their vocabulary, so too should the other students not be made to feel inferior. At least in that way.

And that’s part of the problem. Intellect is not seen as something earned. Nor is information seen as the end result of a perfectly repeatable process.
The flip side of that coin - that supports that is that ignorance is despised and reviled; that information is privileged.

All that is required for scientific thought is the recognition of repeatability. I can go and find out how for myself. I can conduct experiments and figure out why salt dissolves in water.
Artistic thought also can be repeated, I can see what you see in a given work of art - but the value is placed on the flip side - on the novel, the fantastic, the imaginative, but that which is also valuable because it also imparts insight.

This piece, unfortunately, promulgates what it opposes. Orthodoxy. And a didactic type at that.
Consider the form - Question, answer - whether the answer is right, wrong, close, fuzzy - the ‘correct’ answer is given.
This is an assertion of value, and value from a given source, not an earnest inquiry into the objective.
Why wouldn’t a valid answer would be: “Salt dissolves into water...huh. I don’t know. I could do an experiment though by reducing the number of variables that could be acting to dissolve the salt, like heat. So I’ll start by dissolving a consistent amount of salt in water at variable temperatures....”

Science, by definition, is a process. And indeed, a process predicated on ignorance and eventual discovery.
Knowing how to think within that process and knowing how to differentiate between replicatable knowledge and subjective knowledge is not ignorance.
The answers might show that, but then, I can’t replicate the process by which they were derived since the article doesn’t show that. With a few short exceptions no one spoke about how they derived their answers. Indeed, it seemed for the most part they simply used their memories.
That only shows how good or bad their memories are.
And indeed, whether they have been exposed to those facts or not and whether they can answer perfectly or not is irrelevant as to the question of whether they can think scientifically.


I would argue that any worthwhile literati would be an excellent resource in this matter given similar tools of consistiency are required to create a good story, that the data itself may be entirely fantastic is, at worst irrelevant, but I suspect would be of great use and insight. At least to less didactic minds. Science as a process is useful, scientific fact as imparting meaning to human identity and giving voice to comingled experiance, is typically not as useful as art. As art is of lesser value - indeed of negative value - in repeatability (as art is, by design, not consistient in it’s revelation).
But again, the division is process Vs. the dispersal and quantification and value assignation of data. Not between science data and art data (as I think has been cast at various points here). The latter are most certainly value judgements. One can argue the value of any product of any given system - art or science - but the necessity of either process to human development is indisputable.
And, ironically, it is those that are being subjected to value assignation: “I don’t need to know science” or “Art is worthless” and so forth.
This only leads to the greater privileging of the fruits of those endeavors such that it’s not hard to imagine that language dichotomy would return to western culture such as it existed under the Church of Rome with Latin.
Indeed, one can see elements of this now. Most people speak the language of advertising. Some few speak jargon. Fewer still speak with any real clarity. And the elites speak all of these plus a kind of specialized language of distortion akin to Orwell’s doublespeak.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:00 AM on July 2, 2007


They should have listed to the lyrical terrorist MC Hawking.


Verse 2
Defining entropy as disorder's not complete,
'cause disorder as a definition doesn't cover heat.
So my first definition I would now like to withdraw,
and offer one that fits thermodynamics second law.
First we need to understand that entropy is energy,
energy that can't be used to state it more specifically.
In a closed system entropy always goes up,
that's the second law, now you know what's up.

You can't win, you can't break even, you can't leave the game,
'cause entropy will take it all 'though it seems a shame.
The second law, as we now know, is quite clear to state,
that entropy must increase and not dissipate.

Creationists always try to use the second law,
to disprove evolution, but their theory has a flaw.
The second law is quite precise about where it applies,
only in a closed system must the entropy count rise.
The earth's not a closed system' it's powered by the sun,
so fuck the damn creationists, Doomsday get my gun!
That, in a nutshell, is what entropy's about,
you're now down with a discount.

posted by gregschoen at 2:53 PM on July 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


« Older The mother-load of BBC documentaries.   |   pretty bottles Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post