Saturday, June 10, 2017

The public versus science

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, sociology, anti-science sentiment

Someone once described scientific law as "What always happens." They were referring to things like "the law of gravity", which is a colloquial way of saying that what goes up must come down.

There is a commonplace view that flying things such as birds "defeat" the law of gravity because they have a flying life, a "different law". Only when they die do they succumb to gravity. In reality, birds take advantage of gravity to fly. The way they fly requires the gravitational force to keep "the wind under their wings". A bird in a zero gee can't orient itself (see this video for an example). Given time, a bird might learn to compensate to some extent, but fast, directed flight requires gravity as one of the forces the bird is adapted to naturally balance.

This is one example of someone getting something partly right because of partial scientific knowledge. While we all take great advantage of technology—all the gadgets and appliances around us—most of us know little about what those things do. Decades ago Arthur Clark wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." For most folks, their phone or auto engine may as well work by magic.

A million years ago, advanced technology was the hand axe. Anyone could make one, though few could make them well. 150 years ago, advanced technology was an automobile. Few could make one, but many could repair them. I grew up learning to do my own oil changes and even did major engine work. My Dad and I rebuilt a VW engine once. I wonder how many backyard mechanics could rebuild the engine of a 2017 Honda Civic or Chevy Impala! The fuel injection system of a 2017 Impala has more moving parts than the entire assembly under the hood of that 1964 VW I had.

There are two fundamental barriers that impede the majority of people from learning science. First, science has proceeded in a stepwise manner, primarily for the past 500 years (with a few 2,500-year-old roots), and to truly comprehend (let alone understand), say, chemistry, geology, physics, botany, zoology, or microbiology (and let's not mention medicine!!) requires years of study to build the core structures in a person's mind that were discovered by hundreds of scholars and experimenters over the past half millennium.

The simplest example is mathematics. We are all able to use basic arithmetic. We learn that 2+2=4 by counting on our fingers, by lining up stones, and many other ways. Probably our first mental step is realizing that negative numbers and zero are useful. Then we learn about fractions, maybe decimals…but it is questionable whether most people ever grasp irrational numbers, even though the vast majority of actual quantities are irrational. And we haven't even got to algebra yet, which forms the foundation for all the disciplines of calculation needed for all engineering and science. Without a solid grasp of algebra, we cannot put useful amounts of geometry, trigonometry, and calculus into our mental toolbox. I thought I was pretty good at mathematics when I gained a solid (so I thought) facility with calculus. Then in graduate school I learned that calculus just opens the door to more dramatic realms of mathematics, which I would need to master to succeed as a geophysicist. I barely made it. I was still not anywhere more than halfway up the mathematical ladder, and did not proceed farther. Most of us never need to proceed anywhere near that far, but if we can't even handle basic algebra (most of us can't), most physical science remains a mystery to us.

The second barrier is that science requires thinking. Sustained thinking. Not the kind of quick figuration we all use to perform most paying jobs. We all start out as sprinters in that realm. It is like we are all born to be pretty good at the 50- or 100-meter dash. But to grasp science requires marathon-level mental performance. Fortunately, understanding the basic concepts of most fields of science is more like running a quarter or half mile; a bit of a stretch for a sprinter, but achievable. Of course, it is hard work. It makes you tired. Most folks aren't willing to put in the work. And so, lacking a tremendous level of effort by both teachers and parents, the vast majority of people grow up with only the haziest notion of the way things really work.

Take eyesight. What happens to make your eyes see? I understand from material presented in Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World are So Often Wrong, by Andrew Shtulman, that most of us think that our eyes work by sending some kind of ray outward, and receiving it back. Kind of like the comic book illustrations of Superman's X-ray vision, where the X-rays went out from his eyes so he could see through things. But if such a belief were true, you would be able to see in the dark. It would not matter whether or not the sun was up or a light was turned on. Just by turning out the light and thinking hard, we can usually figure out that "light", whatever that is, scatters off of things and gets to our eyes, which receive it and are then able to "see".

Andrew Shtulman is concerned that the level of science ignorance, particularly in America, is so great that very few of us can make proper decisions about most technical issues. For example: Do vaccinations cause autism? Certain influential people loudly proclaim that they do, to the extent that many people, not wishing to leave anything to chance, ignore the protestations of every single scientist who has actually studied that matter. If you never get it anywhere else, get this true knowledge right here: Autism is not caused by any of the chemicals or deactivated organisms in vaccines. The proportion of autistic children among those vaccinated is exactly the same as the proportion among those not vaccinated. Period.

Dr. Shtulman presents twelve kinds of knowledge in which we form "natural concepts" or what he calls "intuitive theories". They are all based on everyday experience. For example, when you throw a ball, what path does it follow? Does it rise gradually to a maximum height and then descend just as gradually? Or does it rise up, hang a while, and then fall straight down? Because of perspective, as the thrower, we see it appear to rise, hang, and drop. But have you ever carefully watched a ball thrown by someone else who is some distance away? For example, at a ball game, if you are in the seats either behind home plate or out beyond second base, watch a "clothesline peg" from the third baseman to the first baseman. It is called a "clothesline peg" because a ball thrown hard seems intuitively to go "straight" from hand to glove over a distance of about 125 feet. But if you watch carefully, you'll see that the ball rises at least 16 feet, in a smooth curve like a stretched circular arc (a parabola), and is highest when it passes over the pitcher's mound. It is actually thrown upward at an angle greater than 25°, and is descending at that same angle when it reaches the first baseman's glove.

One of the hardest concepts for most people to grasp is "deep time." I was lucky to have preparation from a young age, when my parents told me that the Earth and the Universe are very old. We were Bible-believing Christians, but one of the first things I was taught, probably from about age seven, is that there is a "gap" between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, between "God created" and "The earth became". Thus, when science teachers in middle school began talking about millions of years having passed, I was not ready to receive it.

We naturally think of most things happening on time scales that are familiar to us. When I first knew my grandfathers, born in 1885 and 1887, they were nearly 70 years old, and in the early 1950's, that was old! Growing up on Bible stories, I was familiar with stories of Jesus and his apostles, who lived nearly 2,000 years before, and Abraham, about 2,000 years before that. I remember as a sophomore in High School learning that when Caesar and Cleopatra went sightseeing along the Nile, the Pyramids were already about 2,500 years old and were considered "ancient history". Particularly in America, few of us know of any building older than 300 years, though some kids in Illinois grow up in sight of the Cahokia Mounds, which are between 600 and 1,200 years old. Even residents of Damascus and Jerusalem seldom see a building older than 3,000 years. So to our natural way of thinking 10,000 years is "really long".

Now imagine one hundred times ten thousand: 100x10,000. That is one million. A human generation is about 25 years. A million years is about 40,000 generations! I love science, but that took me some time to grasp. I had to think about it, and think about it, and think some more. Then there was the concept of a billion years, a length of time 1,000 times as great! Now I am comfortable with such quantities, but it took work. Most people I know are not comfortable with deep time. In particular, the majority of religious Americans firmly believe that the Earth is no more than 6,000 to at most 10,000 years old, and that the first humans were created within a few days from the creation of the universe.

By the end of the book it became clear that the author's heart was in the ignorance of and opposition to the theory of evolution, particularly the idea of human evolution or human origins as anything other than direct, instantaneous creation by God. Very few writers properly distinguish the fact of biological evolution—that it did happen, that life has changed through time—from the theory of natural selection, which is the mechanism of biological evolution. When we say "theory of evolution" we mean the theory of natural selection. It is likely that most scientists, along with nearly all the public, conflate the fact and the mechanism. Fortunately, Dr. Shtulman distinguishes them, though not as clearly as I might have hoped.

To "get" evolution, one must know a great many things, including that many species are now extinct, that all life on Earth is based on DNA, and that there has been life on Earth for many millions of years, even several (3.8-4) billions of years. Without that foundation, all talk of evolution is a castle built on air, and is fruitless. Then, to "get" natural selection, one must know several things further, in addition to the facts of evolution, primarily that the offspring of one pair of creatures differ a little from one another in small, random ways; that not all those offspring will have offspring of their own; and that small differences in the DNA of that set of offspring lead to differences in how well they can grow, thrive and reproduce. Further these small differences naturally occur and over many generations and great spans of time, small differences in the health and reproductive ability among creatures of the same species add up to significant differences in the range of characteristics to be found throughout the individuals of that species.

Very, very few people willingly do the work to learn all those things. In a very real sense, then, most people have no right to an opinion about evolution! They don't have the mental tools to form a valid judgment. Sad to say, many of American society's decision makers are so ill-informed about every single branch of science that they have no proper basis to form valid judgments. But they write legislation that the American public must follow, upon pain of legal sanctions such as fines or imprisonments!

Well, I've chased that rabbit far enough. The subject of Scienceblind is fascinating. Unfortunately, all too frequently the writing is rather dull and I had to slog through it. I didn't skip any, but believe me, I was tempted to!

There was a time in both Europe and America during which a very popular form of entertainment was to attend science lectures and demonstrations by noted scientists. Scholars such as Michael Faraday and Humphrey Davy made much of their income from such lectures. It would do most folks a great deal of good to attend such lectures today. Those who are willing to watch programs such as Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson and programs such as Nature and Nova get a little bit of what they need to "get" the underpinnings of modern science. But those whose eyes glaze over at such material have little hope of making valid decisions about topics, such as vaccination, that can lead to great consequences for them, their children, and for those around them.

1 comment:

Polymath07 said...

Afterword: While reading I noted a few items for comment,
but the review flowed in a way that they were not
pertinent at the time. But I cannot abandon one of them:

On p31 the author introduces an example of variously-
sized metal blocks, a 1x1x1 inch cube of lead, a 3x3x3
inch cube of lead, and a 5x5x5 inch cube of aluminum.
Their weights are stated to be 6.5 oz, 19.6 oz, and
7.8 oz. By my own calculations, the first weight is
correct but the second is radically incorrect. 19.6 is
about 3x6.5, but the cube is not 3x1x1 but 3x3x3 inches,
or 27 cubic inches, and will weigh 11.1 pounds,
or 177 oz! The aluminum weight is also dramatically off,
being the weight of an aluminum block of 5 cubic inches.
But the volume is actually 125 cubic inches and it would
weigh 12.2 pounds, or 196 oz. The cognitive error these
cubes are intended to unmask is that very young children
do not understand density so they will not expect the
medium cube to have very nearly the same weight as the
largest cube.