People are scary in a way that numbers are not

Two months ago TNC inveighed against reformers who depend solely on statistics to explain human motivations. They are blind to the possibility that changes leading to higher property values won’t automatically be supported. They can’t see that a neighborhood is often much more than a financial instrument. Most importantly, they often fail to note “the humanity in the actual human beings they would have reformed.”

This passage in particular struck me:

Looking back on this, the thing that strikes is the importance of journalism. I think it’s really easy to become the sort of writer who reads reports from Brookings and analyzes charts and graphs, without ever having to talk to the people captured in the numbers. People are scary in a way that think tanks are not.

He could have been describing reports on scientific literacy. The Americans are scientific buffoons porn is quite easy to find. The people captured in those reports not so much. Who are some of these people without “basic factual knowledge of science?” What do they do for a living? For fun when they get home? Do they really need more science to live meaningful lives? As I said about women in science, it’s easy to rob people of agency and assume their lives are tragic. It’s a lot harder to try understand their decisions on their own terms.

None of this is meant to undermine either the value of education or basic factual knowledge. It is not a good situation that only 20% of Americans know the Earth revolves around the sun. We should try to improve the situation.

But if we had some deeply reported science journalism to complement the statistics, perhaps there wouldn’t be so much fatalism. If we recognized that real people leading real lives can get along just fine even with their scientific illiteracy, there would be no reason to judge them so harshly. As with housing policy reform, science outreach is easier if you actually respect the people being reached out to.


    1. Ok, a quick Google search alleviates my concerns over Americans and makes me more concerned for the world in general:
      These results are comparable to those found in Germany when a similar question was asked there in 1996; in response to that poll, 74% of Germans gave the correct answer, while 16% thought the sun revolved around the earth, and 10% said they didn’t know. When the question was asked in Great Britain that same year, 67% answered correctly, 19% answered incorrectly, and 14% didn’t know.

      1. Thanks for the nice comments Maher. And I’m glad you discovered those stats. I keep meaning to blog about it. It’s actually the whole world that’s scientifically illiterate, not just the U.S. And these statistics have been fairly stable since the 1960’s or so. i.e., all over the world for at least the past 50 years, overwhelming majorities don’t know basic scientific facts. Not sure what that means though. As I said above, it’s not good. But it’s also not as apocalyptic as some other people say.

        Anyway..thanks again. Hope all is well.

  1. Having done my dissertation on question wording, I had to go to the source of this 20% earth-sun statistic, of course. Here is the figure from 2005:
    from this study:
    It looks like it’s actually closer to 30%. The numbers haven’t changed much over the years. from 2008 (reported in 2010, I think)

    I don’t think the wording is that good, to be honest. The exact question they asked is “Does the Earth go around the Sun or does the Sun go around the Earth?” First of all, there is a presupposition that one of those two things has to be true. Second of all, I don’t see any evidence of this question being counterbalanced so that both phrases appear equally in the 1st and 2nd half of the sentence. Third of all, I realize they probably used “go around” because they were worried that people would not understand “revolve” but I think that actually confuses the question a bit. Yes, if you think about the definition of revolve, then you should get to the right answer. However, I bet most of us were taught “the earth revolves around the sun” so pulling that from memory would be easier than adding an extra step of deciphering what they mean by “go around”. Some of the other questions on that same survey are using far more complicated words (antibiotics, radioactivity, electrons). This critique is taking away from your point though.

    Am I the only one who thinks that 70% getting it correct isn’t too bad? We should always be aiming for 100% but given that, as you say Praj, most people don’t really need to know this piece of information to operate in their day-to-day existence. We need to equip people with critical thinking skills, infuse them with an eagerness to question everything, and reward them for engaging in scientific and civic discourse. Then bad science and bad journalism would naturally get weeded out of the rhetoric. Why can’t we do that from kindergarten?

    1. Thanks for the insightful comment! I like your informed analysis of the survey questions. I agree the wording is a bit odd. I also think the question choices are strange. Some of them really aren’t that easy!

      I read the stat as 70% getting it incorrect. I do think more people should know that basic fact…but I don’t view it as a problem of scientific illiteracy as much as one of the general state of education.

      I almost completely agree with your final list. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to teach people to “question everything.” I don’t think most people (including PhD applied physicists!) are capable of questioning a topic like climate change or even health care. In these cases, I would focus more energy on training people how to identify reliable experts, to recognize scientific consensus from policy disagreement, and to approach complicated topics with a dose of humility.

  2. Perhaps you should correct or amend your original post with the correct statistic! You don’t want to be accused of spreading bad reporting! 🙂

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