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Science and Public Ignorance July 12, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science.
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There was some very interesting (and disturbing) polling information released last week regarding public attitudes toward science. Via CNET:

In the current survey, only 27 percent of Americans cited scientific advancement as one of the country’s most important achievements, compared with 47 percent in May 1999.

That is a curious drop-off in just 10 years. I’m not sure what the explanation is although scientific illiteracy may have much to do with it.

Among those [scientists] surveyed, 85 percent see the public’s lack of scientific knowledge as a major problem. Almost half criticize the public for having unrealistic expectations about scientific progress.

If the public has unrealistic expectations about science, when science inevitably doesn’t deliver, the public may be disappointed in the promise of science.

The media may contribute to the public’s scientific illiteracy.

The media also shares in the blame, say scientists. About 48 percent of scientists say the news oversimplifies science. Newspaper coverage comes off best, with 36 percent of scientists rating it excellent or good. But TV coverage of science fares worse–only 15 percent of scientists see it as excellent or good.

The media is often guilty of overselling science by reporting as scientific fact findings that have still not been confirmed. In most news stories, you have to read to the end to find out the degree of consensus regarding a particular discovery. Even then it may not be clear how complete the scientific understanding of a phenomenon is. So when speculative or insufficiently researched results don’t pan out, again the public is disappointed.

Of course, when you have a public that just flatly refuses to believe even settled, well-confirmed scientific explanations, it is hard to know what conclusions to draw from this data.

The majority of scientists firmly believe in evolution, with 87 percent saying humans and other living creatures have evolved over time through processes such as natural selection. Only 32 percent of the public believes the same.

A full 84 percent of scientists say global warming is the result of human actions, such as burning fossil fuel, while only 49 percent of the public agrees.

Science is so pervasive in human life that the public’s lack of understanding seriously threatens democracy.  The human race, long ago, chose the route of technology to satisfy needs and there is no turning back. We cannot make good decisions about how to live without understanding the nature of the reality in which we must live.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com


How Not to Think March 27, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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The New York Times is read by millions of people everyday. Why do they allow drivel on their editorial pages? (The offending op-ed piece is in Friday’s Union-Tribune)

On Thursday, Nicholas Kristoff wrote:

Ever wonder how financial experts could lead the world over the economic cliff?

One explanation is that so-called experts turn out to be, in many situations, a stunningly poor source of expertise. There’s evidence that what matters in making a sound forecast or decision isn’t so much knowledge or experience as good judgment — or, to be more precise, the way a person’s mind works.

Huh? How does one make a good judgment without knowledge or experience? Don’t we go to doctors when we are sick for a reason—because they have knowledge and experience?

Then he goes on to give examples of how people who pretend to be experts can bamboozle us.

“But experts who are trotted out on television can move public opinion by more than 3 percentage points, because they seem to be reliable or impartial authorities.

Well of course. But people who pretend to be experts are not really experts. We are fooled by reliance on authority—but that doesn’t tell us anything about genuine expertise.

We are already deep in the weeds of a thesis descending into nonsense—but it gets worse.

The expert on experts is Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His 2005 book, “Expert Political Judgment,” is based on two decades of tracking some 82,000 predictions by 284 experts. The experts’ forecasts were tracked both on the subjects of their specialties and on subjects that they knew little about.

The result? The predictions of experts were, on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses — the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.

and then reinforces his point with:

Other studies have confirmed the general sense that expertise is overrated.

This completely misconstrues Tetlock’s thesis. Tetlock’s book is not about the uselessness of knowledge or expertise. Tetlock, a highly regarded psychologist, shows that a certain kind of judgment—one that is very sensitive to context, complexity, and change—is more reliable than a judgment that follows from rigidly held ideology that produces formulaic solutions.

Nothing in Tetlock’s book could be construed as an attack on knowledge or expertise. Instead, he attempts to distinguish genuine experts from hacks.

Kristoff in his zeal to sell newspapers is trying to tap into the anti-intellectualism that pervades our culture. Tristero over at Hullaballoo explains why this is dangerous.

This is one of the silliest pseudo-American myths, pure Norman Rockwell, that the average Joe (never a Jane) can perceive The Bigger Truth that somehow eludes the so-called pointy-headed experts.

This is how we get Joe the Plumber giving advice on foreign policy.

The decline of newspapers in this country may be a real loss in some respects. But sometimes they deserve their demise.