Skip to content

Mass scientific literacy

by Michael Nielsen on March 1, 2008

Here’s Eva Amsen’s idea for a event at SciBarCamp:

My idea: find 4 or 5 volunteers from different backgrounds to sit on a 20 minute panel and (with audience feedback) make a list of Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Science. Since we have a wide audience, this hopefully would be a varied list. Actually, maybe we could just put up a large sheet of paper and have people write down what they think should be on the list and get back to it later.

It’s a really interesting idea, and relates to the question in my last post about finding ways to better incorporate science into public policy.

My number one suggestion for Eva’s list is a deep practical understanding of how science works: what it means to know something, how something comes to be known, the provisional nature of all knowledge, the need to be aware of our own biases, and so on.

A sign that this is curretly lacking is the enormous pressure climate scientists are under to present a clear and simple story to the public about climate change. If they admit to uncertainty or complexity, it is seized on by their opponents as evidence that climate change is not happening. Yet such uncertainty is an essential part of the scientific process. One must confront it head on to get at the truth, and a public discourse in which this uncertainy is absent cannot possibly reflect the underlying truth; in a democracy, this means that science can play at most an indirect role in decision making. In a letter Richard Feynman explains how a colleague once saw through to where the truth lay between two competing points of view, one simple and clear, the other complex:

He smiled and reminded me he was an expert on judging evidence in difficult physics experiments. In physics the truth is rarely perfectly clear, and that is certainly universally the case in human affairs. Hence, what is not surrounded by uncertainty cannot be the truth

In his wonderful review of Ed Hutchins’ book “Cognition in the Wild” (read the whole thing!), Cosma Shalizi writes of the amazing things enabled by mass literacy. I wonder what changes in civilization would be enabled by mass scientific literacy? Here’s Cosma:

The nineteenth century, and to a lesser degree this one, have witnessed a dramatic expansion in the numbers of us engaged in administration, bureaucracy, management, oversight – that is to say, in formally-organized tasks of collective cognition and control. We did not invent bureaucracy, the mainstay of the ancient empires, but we’re much, much better at it than they were. A random American town of 200,000 – Piffleburg, WI, let us say – will have police, a rescue squad, a fire department, a hospital, universal schooling, several large factories, insurance offices, banks, a community college, a public library with several thousand volumes at least, a post office, public utilities, political parties, garbage collection, paved and usable roads everywhere, mercantile connections stretching across the country, and, with some luck, unions. These are corrupt, inefficient institutions which work poorly; every election, Piffleburg’s citizens mutter something like “what do we pay taxes for anyway?” Yet to run any one of these institutions at the level of honesty, efficiency and efficacy which makes Piffleburg grumble would have demanded the full powers and attention of even the ablest Roman propraetor or T’ang magistrate. That all of those institutions, plus the ones not restricted to a single city, could be run at once, and while governed by a very ordinary slice of common humanity, would have seemed to such officials flatly impossible.

The immediate question this raises, of why we are so much better at collective endeavors than the ancients, can be answered fairly simply. To a first approximation, the answer is: brute force and massive literacy. We teach nearly everyone to read and write, and to do it, by historical standards, at a high level. This lets us staff large bureaucracies (by some estimates, over 40% of the US workforce does data-handling), which lets us run an industrial economy (the trains run on time), which makes us rich enough to afford to educate everyone and keep them in bureaucratic employment, with some surplus left over to expand the system. This would do us no good if our ideas of administration were as shabby as those of our ancestors in the dark ages, but they’re not: we inherited those of the ancient empires, and have had quite a while to improve upon them (and improvements are made easier and faster by the large number of administrators and the high standard of literacy). Among the improvements are many techniques (standardized procedures, standardized parts, standardized credentials and jobs, explicit qualifications for jobs and goods, files, standardized categories) and devices (forms, punch cards, punch card tabulators, adding machines, card catalogs, and, recently, computers) for making the administration of people and things easier.

From → Uncategorized