Scientific Literacy

Greetings, internet denizens! Today, I’d like to speak with you about science. Yes, science! Now, everyone who has even the slightest clue about what science is knows that it is totally awesome. You can look stuff up in books all day long, but there is no cooler way to understand the universe than through using science.

Naturally, since science is so freaking amazing, the best way to be seen as a smart person is to be scientifically literate. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s find out if you are! Take the test, find out, and come back.



musical interlude


So. How’d you doooo~♫? Did you score 50 out of 50? Because apparently that’s the only way to be scientifically literate.

If you’re anything like me, you wanted to smack the e-ink out of that “science literacy test.” What the hell does it have to do with science literacy? It’s a damn vocabulary test. Yes, you might need to know some of the stuff that’s in there to engage in high-level conversations about specific hypotheses, formulas, models, and so on, but is that the same thing as being scientifically literate? Absolutely not. I’ll say it again for emphasis—absolutely not.

Science literacy, if it has any meaning at all, means the ability to understand the scientific method. It does not have to do with your ability to pedantically churn out game-show knowledge about the periodic table of the elements. What does any of this have to do with being able to figure out whether today’s purported miracle cancer cure is complete bunk or not? Science is the study of the cosmos; specific branches of science study the cosmos at different scales.

Another feature of science that the creator of that test seems to have overlooked? Science is not just physics, chemistry, and biology. Science is not just “hard” science. “Soft” sciences are “real” sciences, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either 1) joking, 2) an asshole, or 3) ignorant of what “science” means. So what does science mean?

Science means you look at data. Empirical facts. Observable things.

Science means you try to explain those observations in ways that fit all the relevant data.

Science means you don’t make assumptions.

Science means you use Occam’s razor to excise unnecessary steps from your explanations.

Science means you don’t try to prove a point—you try to disprove your idea until it outsmarts you and you can’t anymore.

Science means hypotheses that can’t be disproven are useless. (And that includes god claims—buh-bye!)

Science means your explanations must also make reliable future predictions.

Science means you repeat your experiments because sometimes random chance bites you in the ass.

Science means other people do the same thing, just in case you messed up.

Because of these things, science is self-correcting—the more you do it, the better it gets. People who criticize science for “having been wrong” about things in the past fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of science. Our goal as knowledge-seekers is not to be right—it’s to become right. Science is cumulative; we rely on the work of the people who came before us. We use their knowledge to enhance our own. We identify and correct their mistakes, and over time, these mistakes become progressively smaller. Through science, we err toward greatness.

What on earth does any of this have to do with memorizing the atomic weight of Einsteinium?* Absolutely nothing. Knowing a fact makes you no better than a line in a book. Knowing how to use that fact? That’s science.

Scientific literacy is knowing how to avoid being fooled by snake-oil peddlers. Scientific literacy is knowing why homeopathy is bunk and why “ancient Chinese medicine” isn’t medicine. Scientific literacy is knowing why Power Balance bands are a scam. Scientific literacy is understanding why “heritage” bananas are GMOs. Scientific literacy is understanding why the notion of “a” cure for cancer is fundamentally incoherent. Scientific literacy is being able to explain why “non-overlapping magisteria” is impossible—why “magic” and “energy” and “miracles” would be scientifically observable phenomena if they actually existed.

Scientific literacy is knowing how to find real answers to questions. Scientific literacy is not your score on that ridiculous test I made you take. (Sorry about that.)

What I find even more aggravating about this whole misconception of “science literacy” is that it is almost certainly this exact same flawed model that gets presented in our schools—this was certainly my impression from high school, at least, and international test scores don’t seem to suggest a different conclusion. We are deceiving our children into thinking that science is about forcing yourself to memorize ever-expanding lists of monotonous data. This is a problem. We need a different approach. We need to be passionate about science—science is our key to understanding the entire universe; it’s not this dusty relic of decontextualized facts. Science is cool.

* It’s 252, by the way. I know that because people who know more stuff than I do found out and made the information available to anyone with an internet collection. Isn’t that awesome? Yep. So stop sitting around and go thank a scientist.

Public Education

I don’t think I have ever seen a better argument for public education packed into three minutes of video.

Okay, so it’s allegedly marketed at kids who are going back to school as an attempt to get them excited, but this should excite everyone! Look at the progress we’ve made since the advent of mass education. We have the Internet—the goddamn Internet! If you tried to show George Washington the Internet, he would’ve crapped his pantaloons and called you a demon. Maybe. The point is that society is pretty damn sweet, and it’s not the product of people trying to kill each other. Rather, collectivism (albeit with a profit motive) is what got us into this … what’s the opposite of “mess?” Whatever! The reason we have all this sweet stuff is because we’ve used the tool of science to understand the world, and then we gave people the right to a free education. Everyone benefits from science. That’s pretty cool.

I can’t wait for my jetpack. Just saying.

The Sound a Duck Makes

Hey, you know what’s bullshit? Aromatherapy.

“As a holistic practice, Aromatherapy is both a preventative approach as well as an active method to employ during acute and chronic stages of illness or ‘dis’-ease.”

No, sticking nice smelling things in your nose on on your feet or chakras or whatever other nonsense is not preventive medicine. It’s just perfume for newage hippies.

“It is a natural, non-invasive modality designed to affect the whole person not just the symptom or disease and to assist the body’s natural ability to balance, regulate, heal and maintain itself by the correct use of essential oils.”

Hey guys, guess what! If you use vaguely sciencey-sounding words like modality, people might not notice that you’re completely full of it! Yay!

The body is not some discrete entity that gets sick because it’s not “vibrating at the right level.” It isn’t full of an invisible, intangible* energy web that controls physical well-being. We get sick because either 1) foreign invaders are thriving inside of our bodies by killing off the native fauna and too rapidly reproducing; or 2) because some of the organisms comprised by “the body” are themselves damaged. The body is a microcosm of cooperating and competing life forms. Our brains give us the illusion of selfness, but we are, each of us, a multitude.

It’s a bit funny, I think, that both sides of the political climate use the same ridiculous argument. On the right, “evolution is just a theory.” On the left, “germ theory is just a theory.” Seriously guys, science has got this one covered too.

* How strange that only newage woo-meisters are capable of detecting this "energy!" There's one
group that really profits from the placebo effect. And people accuse Big Pharma of immorality...

Disproving Evolution

Creationists love to try to disprove evolution, but they always miss the mark. Why is that? Well, the most obvious reason is that they simply don’t understand it. That’s what perplexes me so much. How can you hope to attack a scientific model you know nothing about? It would be like telling a Muslim that Islam is wrong because it forces its adherents to eat pork!

When I engage with Christians about specific doctrinal issues in the Bible,* I’m often told that I don’t properly understand Christianity. (This particularly amuses me when I’m using one Christian’s arguments against another’s. See also.) In my limited understanding of the Bible, I am told, I simply do not understand the greater context in which a specific passage (e.g., the pro-slavery ones) is meant to be taken. The Bible has contradictions, and each Christian handles these in their own way. Science works differently; because it’s far less individualistic, there’s less room. The scientific process works only thanks to a vigorous interpersonal process of bias-elimination, falsifiability, and objectivity. It’s a collective process, meaning that many minds contribute to the development of any given theory.

This makes it incredibly implausible that one ignorant creationist (and all of the young Earth ones fall under this category) will find “the one proof” that “evolution is false.” If you’ve thought of it, chances are that some biologist somewhere has already encountered the idea. If your criticism had any merit, the evolutionary model would be rewritten to account for it or discarded entirely.

Within the specific perspective of individual creationists, of course, it’s not all that surprising when they believe their criticism disproves evolution. This is because they are simply mistaken about what evolution is. What they are attacking (and indeed, probably successfully!) is nothing but a straw man—an erroneous construct that does not correspond to the actual position it is meant to refute (in this case, the scientific theory of evolution). If I were to suggest that all Christians are immoral because they are all pro-slavery, this would be a straw man because, while the Bible does advocate slavery, most Christians do not support this practice. Both Hanlon’s razor and personal experience suggest that creationists are not deliberately misrepresenting the theory of evolution; they have merely been grossly misinformed about what that theory says.

Jerry Coyne has a list of seven things that could actually disprove (or seriously discredit) the theory of evolution, and it’s a pretty good, concise analysis. In the event that you come across one of those ignorant creationists, this list can be a helpful thing in answering the question, “How would you know if you’re wrong?” These are concrete, evidential findings that we might expect if the theory of evolution were wrong.

How would creationists know if their beliefs are wrong? If the answer is “we can only know after death,” that should set off a pretty big red flag.

* As time goes by, I do this increasingly infrequently. Why? I've come to realize that most Christians do not
actually believe in the Bible. Instead, they believe in their own personal interpretation of the Bible, which
often actually just means the interpretation that their priest/pastor/whoever has told them to believe.

As an aside, I'd also like to point out that an omnipotent god would be capable of guaranteeing that its holy
book would be instantly and unambiguously interpretable so that anyone in the world would be able to precisely
follow that god's mandates without requiring sixteen years of training in apologetics.

Simple Answers for Simpletons

It can’t just be me—surely other people have noticed the freakishly high frequency at which people who are trying to sell you something will insist that their product is easy to understand. In the public sphere, every time I hear a politician advocate for common sense solutions, I throw up a little in my mouth. Running a country (especially one with over 300 million people in it) is not easy. It’s can’t possibly be simple. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is lying to you.

Here’s a simple statistic: the US government spends over $400 million dollars … per hour. Can you even imagine that much money? Most people don’t make anywhere near that much in a single lifetime. (Indeed, most won’t even earn even one percent of that.) The US government spends that much every single hour.

Common sense has absolutely nothing to do with such a system.

You know what else common sense has nothing to do with? Anything. This alleged common sense thing is complete crap. It’s just crap. Common sense is an intuition, and intuitions are inconceivably unreliable. Seriously.

Creationists say that biologists are wrong about evolution. Why? Because it’s easier to believe goddidit. According to them, that’s a common sense answer. Those creationists who insist on trying to develop further reasons have been rather prolific, and you could end up wanting to claw your own eyes out before you finished reading all of their nonsense. (I recommend you stop before reaching that point.)

Denialists of global climate change deny that the planet is warming. Why? Because some scientists’ emails were leaked without context, and some of the stuff they said looked fishy, so obviously all scientific conclusions about climate are false. To them, easier to believe in a conspiracy than it is to understand all the complicated science that goes into climatology.

Birthers continue to insist that Barack Obama is ineligible for the office of the Presidency. Why? Because he’s black. Or something. Actually, I don’t really get this one at all. I guess “amazingly sophisticated multi-generational international anti-American plot” seems far more likely to them than “all the available documentation that demonstrates his US citizenship is authentic.” Whatever.

The point is that there are a lot of people who try to oversimplify reality to sell you a message, and these people are terribly misinformed. (I wanted to say evil, but Hanlon’s razor won out. I’m willing to believe that most of them are just well-intentioned fools.)

So in keeping with this spirit of oversimplified and/or completely wrong answers being given in lieu of actual reasoning, I’d like to address this little gem I came across today. Get your barf bag ready because it offers “six straight-forward reasons to believe that God is really there.” And you know what? They’re uniformly terrible reasons.

Continue reading


I get really confused and depressed when people misunderstand evolution badly enough to use the word microevolution. Creationists often love to fall back on the old “microevolution is real, but macroevolution is a lie!” trope. I don’t get it.

Microevolution is macroevolution. Evolution is evolution! What creationists call macroevolution is just evolution taking place over relatively long periods of time. What does that mean, “relatively long?” It means “long enough for populations to deviate enough from one another that we perceive them as different species.” The only part of that definition that differs from what they call microevolution is time.

Whoa there, I’d best back up a bit. What is microevolution? Well, according to biologists, it’s a bullshit word made up by ignorant creationists. According to those ignorant creationists, it describes changes that occur within a species, such as different breeds of dog. The reason I call these creationists ignorant is that this is evidence for, not against, the theory of evolution.

Continue reading

The Sin of Pride (or On Being Wrong)

Anyone who knows me ought to instantly recognize something strange with the title of this article: I basically never use the word sin—not outside of mockery, anyway. The very notion of sin as a thing is deeply deserving of a thorough lampooning. It is a manufactured, illusory disease for which the only cure is said to be a treatment, equally illusory, administered by the ecclesiastic—it is nothing more than the adult version of cooties.

Thanks to contemporary culture, however, sin has begun to take on a secular meaning of “any reprehensible or regrettable action, behavior, lapse,etc.” I generally prefer to avoid using even this meaning of the word, but today’s topic justifies a break from this tradition. When it appears in the form of hubris or conceit, pride is a truly reprehensible state.

Continue reading