Posted tagged ‘popular science’

What Does the Public Really Need To Know?: Science/Math edition.

July 14, 2008

So, last week I have the good fortune (a) to junket in LA (thanks, History Channel — look for their latest Einstein documentary sometime between October and the new year) and, thus geographically advantaged, the chance to raise a glass or two with Sean Carroll and Jennifer (new digs) Ouellette (familiar haunt) — two of the brightest lights among those who blog the physical sciences.

Among much other discussion (how to do good science on television, whether there is any useful algorithm available to help navigate LA traffic) we drifted into that hardy perennial: what, really, does the general public need to know about science. Not for the greater good of science, not to secure more complaisant support for big accelerators or stem cell research, but for them/ourselves?

There are lots of facts that I think would give people pleasure — I love knowing that Albert Einstein patented a hearing aid (with Rudolf Goldschmidt); that chimpanzees fashion tools in the wild; that the first reaction written down in something like the modern form of a chemical formula was that describing the fermentation of alcohol. There are ideas that are enormously powerful — and some of them are clearly of value as part of anyone’s mental apparatus in confronting daily life. (Natural selection, offers insights well beyond the history of life, for example, (though great care must be taken, as we know, to our sorrow) and as general a heuristic as Ockham’s Razor would help people deal with silly season stories like this one.)*

But while these and much more are part of what I think any education should provide, the question I asked over something-or-other in martini glasses last week,** and re-ask here, is what the minimal body of knowledge is that every adult should possess.

Regular readers of this blog will guess the answer I gave: the bare minimum is arithmetic, or more broadly, a grasp of quantitative reasoning and a set of simple rules to apply such reasoning in everyday life.

For example — these posts sought to illustrate of the value of remembering to do something as basic as converting a cardinal number into a percentage, to make it possible to compare different data points.

Another example: the habit in this country of focusing on miles-per-gallon as a measure of fuel efficiency leads systematically to bad decision making. If we instead looked at gallons-per-mile (or hundred miles), it would make it clear that replacing a 16 mile per gallon SUV with a 20 mpg station wagon is a much better choice than replacing a 34 mpg compact with a 50 mpg hybrid, assuming equal miles driven for each vehicle. No one reading this needs much help figuring out why — but for the details, listen to the NPR story from which this particular example came. (See — I had to say something nice about NPR after slagging them for their Shakespeare follies.)

In sum: I’ve been at the popular science game for a quarter of a century now. I’ve written about climate change and physics and cancer research and precision guided weapons and big telescopes and the origins of the pentatonic scale and I can’t remember it all now. I hope everything found some audience who got something out of it. But more and more now I look for stories that in their telling express some of the basic habits of scientific thinking — whatever the body of facts with which I may be dealing.

There is much more to such habits than a quantitative turn of mind — notions of observation, of framing answerable questions and lots besides . But more and more the starting point seems to me to be conveying how much mastery of the world one can get from astonishingly simple acts of counting and comparing.

What do y’all think?

Update: See Chad Orzel’s recent post on John Allen Paulos’ Innumeracy for another swipe at the same problem. (h/t Bora)

*For an antidote to the “Who wrote Shakespeare” tomfoolery, you can begin here with James Shapiro’s latest — one of the best of a spate of Shakespeare-as-window-on-the-birth-of-the-modern books that have appeared recenlyy.

**Fortunately, the waiter in the very chic bar in which the three of us chatted had never heard of what I tried to order, a French 75, which is the only reason I remained unfogged enough to have any kind of a conversation that night. Just the mention of it makes me feel a little shaky. Enjoy, but at your own risk.

Image: Codex Vigilanus, 976 C.E., in which Arabic numerals first appeared in a Western European manuscript. Source: Wikimedia Commons.