Fermi versus some guy from Podunk

Enrico Fermi at the blackboard

Nobel prize-winning physicist I.I. Rabi commented once that “In science we can’t let some guy from Podunk have the same vote as (Nobel laureate Enrico) Fermi.” Science has nothing to do with voting – I dislike gravity (especially when I step on a scale) but convincing my fellow citizens to vote against gravity (or to vote for a lower gravitational constant) isn’t going to change the way the universe works. The world is the way that it is and the job of science is to try to tease out the rules that describe its workings. No vote – no matter how overwhelmingly one-sided – will change the rules of nature. So why is it that a recent University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) survey showed that belief in science continues to dwindle in the United States?

Consider how much our society depends on science – the generators that produce our electricity (and the motors and electronics that use it), our medicine, GPS navigation, computers, and everything else – even to try to support the Earth’s current population without a heavy reliance on science would be almost impossible, let alone letting us enjoy the standard of living to which we have become accustomed. Yet somehow there are an amazing number of people who accept the directions from their GPS units, search the web and send e-mail from their computers, fly around the country, and watch television – all the while decrying the science that makes their lives possible. How is it possible that so many can take so for granted the science that gives us the things we like in life while refusing to accept science when it becomes inconvenient (e.g. evolution, the use of genetically modified foods, or global warming)? And more – in our increasingly technical society, how many court cases revolve in part or in full on the jury’s understanding of science and scientific principles? Not only that, but there are those who not only don’t understand the science, but who refuse to understand the science – and who are even proud of their scientific ignorance. Is it even possible to have a Jeffersonian democracy – based on the collective wisdom of an informed electorate – in a scientific age when a significant fraction of citizens celebrate their scientific ignorance?

In the August 30, 2005 edition of the New York Times reporter Cornelia Dean wrote about some aspects of the lack of scientific literacy among the American public, citing work by Northwestern University professor Jon D. Miller. Professor Miller noted that “While scientific literacy has doubled over the past two decades, only 20 to 25 percent of Americans are ‘scientifically savvy and alert’” and that the rest “’don’t have a clue.’” In Professor Miller’s opinion “people’s inability to understand basic scientific concepts undermines their ability to take part in the democratic process.” Miller cites surveys showing that only about ten percent of Americans know what radiation is and that twenty percent do not realize that the Earth revolves about the Sun—something that scientists figured out more than four centuries ago. Miller also found that a troublingly large number of American adults are also unaware that DNA is the molecule that encodes the instructions for every organism, or even what molecules are.

Court cases are unlikely to turn on a juror’s understanding of astronomy—whether the Earth revolves around the Sun or the Sun around the Earth is probably not going to have an impact on any court case. But jurors who does not know that DNA is a molecule that is unique to every person on Earth—or even what a molecule is, for that matter—are going to need a great deal of education by expert witnesses before they can deliver a just verdict in a rape or murder case that hinges on DNA evidence. A juror who does not understand these matters is one thing—they may not know but they can be educated—a juror who refuses to understand because they are proud of their scientific ignorance is something else entirely.

Writing about recent trends in anti-intellectualism in the February 17, 2008 Washington Post, journalist and science writer Susan Jacoby comments on “the arrogance about (our) lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know…it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place…The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.” And Jacoby is one of only a few to comment on American anti-intellectualism, here are just a smattering of books and articles written on the subject in recent years:

This list is just a start—consider George W. Bush’s boasting that “I remind people that, like when I’m with Condi I say, she’s the Ph.D. and I’m the C-student, and just look at who’s the president and who’s the advisor” along with the majority of Republican presidential candidates who have stood on stage and rejected the theory of evolution. The fact is that too many of us—whether in politics or in ordinary life—are not only uninformed in many areas of science but, indeed, just do not seem to care about their lack of understanding.

Anti-intellectualism is not a recent phenomenon in the United States. In 1963 Columbia University professor Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book Anti-intellectualism in America on the topic, but even Hofstadter was far from the first to raise this theme. In fact, Jacoby quotes American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), who wrote in 1837 that “The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.” Jacoby notes that “It is almost impossible to talk about the manner in which public ignorance contributes to grave national problems without being labeled an ‘elitist,’ one of the most powerful pejoratives that can be applied to anyone aspiring to high office. Instead, our politicians repeatedly assure Americans that they are just ‘folks,’ a patronizing term that you will search for in vain in important presidential speeches before 1980.” As Jacoby—and innumerable other writers throughout the history of the United States—pointed out, there is a very strong tension between the intellectuals who founded the United States and the tendency for the general public to be suspicious of those who comprise the nation’s intellectual elite.

The entire topic of anti-intellectualism reaches into virtually every aspect of American life and society. It has been decried by intellectuals on both sides of the political spectrum and it has been exploited by politicians, political commentators, social activists, and others—also on both sides of the political spectrum. In the increasingly complex world we live in—a world in which so much depends on our science and technology—rampant anti-intellectualism threatens our nation’s present and future security and prosperity. But unfortunately, something that has been so long-lasting a part in American society is hardly likely to go away anytime in the foreseeable future. This is not something to be proud of.

Note: I’d like to apologize for not posting last week – I’ll try not to miss again!

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3 Responses to “Fermi versus some guy from Podunk”

  1. Mark L. April 13, 2012 at 8:32 AM #

    Welcome back!

  2. Common Sense April 16, 2012 at 1:50 PM #

    Knowledge and ignorance has been at odds with each other for centuries. It doesn’t help that our society has been raising generations of spoiled kids, aided by a soft-educational system.

    “Everyone is a winner” approach to raising kids is intellectually spoiling them. A misinformed concept should be pointed out and dismissed as so, because primary education is about learning facts, not building opinions. Leave opinion-building to the college and beyond, for god’s sake.

    Let them enjoy the “I respect your opinion” treatment when people can get their facts straight, but until a proper intellectual foundation is laid, we have to find ways to cure ignorance.

  3. Louise April 16, 2012 at 8:06 PM #

    Even in psychiatric hospitals, a decade ago- a frothing frightened aggressive old woman would have been treated poorly, but thanks to science her sugar levels are checked and balanced and she is pleasant again within two days! And I fear that religious people would still say it is “demons”, “possession” or “evil”. Thanks to devoted science that family got their loving mum back within a week.

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