Thursday, November 26, 2020

Scientific Illiteracy

An interesting article at Quillette by a physicist who taught at Yale in the 80s, and has been prominent in the field since as well, about the lack of scientific information among our "best" students. The example given about population seems amazing to me, as I have been aware of what the approximate US population is since about fifth grade. I think of it as something people should know in able to understand a hundred other things. How does one understand immigration, legal and illegal, without having that perspective? What does "going to war" mean without some idea of relative resources? 

It is reminiscent of CP Snow's Two Cultures, which I have written about a few times, most recently in my countdown of most-visited posts. Stephen Jay Gould thought the idea was wrong and damaging, which I consider considerable evidence, in and of itself, that the idea is correct and helpful.

There is a type of social intelligence which mimics what I would call real intelligence.  I concede there is some debate. One needs some IQ points to be able to learn social intelligence, and some nod must be given to cognitive abilities that help one "get ahead" by more than a few narrow definitions. Still, they aren't the same, and "EQ" is mostly a dodge.

I did question his assurance that both Amy Coney Barrett and Kamala Harris both possess intelligence sufficient to a achieve the scientific literacy necessary to converse about such subjects at a policy-making level.  Barrett clearly does.  Harris may have that intelligence but has yet to display it convincingly.  She went to Howard University, a good-enough school and graduated. She went to a below-average law school as an affirmative action applicant with below-average credentials, but she did graduate. That puts her up above stupid, anyway. We do not know how much her sexual advantage, her cruelty to poor defendants, and her race improved her career, but we certainly cannot mark her UP in the face of those without some additional qualifiers. In the few clips I have seen of her off-the-cuff she does not impress with vocabulary, but what I have seen may be drawn from a pool of her worst moments.


David Foster said...

"There is a type of social intelligence which mimics what I would call real intelligence."

I've been using the term 'mirroring intelligence,' referring to people who astutely pick up on the ideas and phrases that are common among their peer group..or the peer group they hope to join...and play them back smoothly. There is a lot of this in Barack Obama. I see a fair amount of it in my LinkedIn feed, with people attempting to position themselves as deep business thinkers without much in the way of actual *ideas*.

PenGun said...

Larry is just great. His series of interviews of actual 'clever people' are wonderful.

CP Snow

"the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had"

Now here is where we differ, perhaps a lot. You think all kinds of people that I consider border on idiocy are clever, or intelligent people. CP is doing the same thing. Hi ho.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ matism - sorry, we go almost that far but not quite here.

james said...

Some things are invisible to me. I can't keep track of actor's names--or which pop singer is which--even though they're ubiquitous in the news. Back when University Square was still a shopping center, I walked by a florist every day and never remembered that flowers might be a nice treat for my wife--until the bus was arriving.

One obvious question is "What are the bits of essential information people ought to know?" Maybe even just outlines: basic rules of thumb about health, for instance...

Grim said...

Tonight I calculated that a certain download speed in megabytes per second would mean a certain number of gigabytes could be downloaded in a certain time. The numbers weren't even, and to some degree my estimate was a fine rounded number; but I did it in my head, just so I can still do it. Aristotle was right: virtues are always matters of habituation, actualizing whatever kind of potential you have.

Hell, maybe I was wrong. There's no penalty for that. Being right is not even as important as just trying to work with the numbers, the orders of magnitude, keeping in practice; setting an example for your children.

Sam L. said...

PenGun, who is this Larry you mention?

Douglas2 said...

Larry is the author of the Quillette article, Lawrence M. Krauss.

Douglas2 said...

Interesting article. I'd thought the guy was 'cancelled' at the height of the 'me too' movement but I'm happy he's a visible voice for understanding of science in the current debates.

Summing up the article, he distinguishes from innumeracy or math-phobia (about which I've got my own teaching stories) and science illiteracy. The way I read it, he takes pains to point out that science is not conclusions but a process of gaining knowledge, one that has uncertainty -- and that communicating that uncertainty is also important.

It strikes me as somewhat disingenuous to complain of politicians saying "I'm not a scientist, but", after we've had 8 months of a very strong movement that only qualified 'experts' should make judgements on issues of appropriate COVID-19 response. "In this, and all areas where scientific evidence is both public and sufficiently overwhelming, public figures who even feign ignorance for reasons of political expediency should be called out." he says, illustrating that in spite of being an American citizen and resident in this country since the late 1970's, he either is ignorant -- or feels it appropriate to feign ignorance -- of the 'Ginsburg Rule' and the importance of it for maintaining judicial independence. It's kind of startling really, that a man who would purport to offer advice in areas of public policy, could be so ignorant of something that has been in the national news repeatedly during his adult career.

We've not seen his book yet, but when I read him saying "I wrote my new book, which presents the fundamental science behind climate change, in part to specifically respond to this sorry state of affairs. Outrageous denials, or outrageous doom and gloom predictions equally subvert the ultimate goal, which is to develop rational public policy. Gaining a perspective of the fundamental science . . is a precursor to proposing rational policies to address one of the most significant global challenges of the 21st century. I think that it is a needed tonic if it turns out to be as described. Yet, when books and articles that can be described similarly have come out by others who are equally supportive of the fundamental science and insistent that the policy-response be rational, they tend to get labelled as 'deniers'. But perhaps I see 'rational' as being policy that has some hope towards attaining its stated goals without 2nd-order effects that will inevitably subvert it or lead to increased human suffering and ecological damage.

I've been mulling over this post for a while - I've a facebook friend who is a retired professor of Physics from a top program, who continually posts to facebook activist articles on renewables in his country. Without being a jerk about it I do manage to occasionally get him to acknowledge that the numbers claimed in these articles are implausible or already proven incorrect. In effect, he is selectively and by choice innumerate and scientifically illiterate! It seems to me that he is happy to live in a mental world where 100GW of solar and/or wind can 'replace' 100GW of baseload or dispatchable electricity generation, and to argue for policies that put the ratio of uncontrollable to controllable generation pretty far into the danger zone, but I find that he'll straighten up and fly right as soon as I start asking questions of him with real numbers. I suspect there are areas were I'm the same, in that I affiliate with positions that I find amenable for non-scientific reasons, but shy away from looking too closely at the details lest I might need to change my views to something less fashionable.

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Texan99 said...

Like about half of California law school graduates, Kamala Harris flunked the bar on her first try. That's a high enough failure rate not to disqualify many California law school graduates from a moderate level of professional success in one of the less demanding areas of law, but failing the bar the first time is still a strong indicator of mediocre intelligence. Amy Coney Barrett, in contrast, was at the top of her Notre Dame law school class and is routinely described by colleagues at the highest level of appellate practice (already a rarified field) as wildly smart. There's scarcely any comparison between the two women's intelligence. The only people who could seriously argue for their IQ equivalence are people whose notions about high intelligence are murky, long-distance, and large theoretical.