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.



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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.

TAM 2012

Do you like science, skepticism, rationalism, critical thinking, magic (the real unreal illusion kind), humor, and other awesome things? If so, go here, and lose the rest of your day to TAM 2012 related things, including links to recordings of various presentations.

Don’t blame me for any loss of your day, though. Seriously.

Edit: Boo. All the big stuff is on the first page. It gets pretty thin pretty fast. I’m sure more will be released in the future, since apparently most of the talks were recorded. Patience is not a virtue of mine, however. (Aw hell, it’s not even a virtue.)

Here are the videos worth watching so far:

Carol Tavris, Ph.D. – “A Skeptical Look at Pseudoneuroscience” – TAM 2012

Jamy Ian Swiss – “Overlapping Magisteria” – TAM 2012

If you don’t know what rbutr is (Shame on you!), watch this one (the audio sucks): rbutr at TAM2012 – Tim Farley’s Workshop

The Necessity of Secular Governance

I disagree with you. So does most of the world. I can make these claims without knowing any of your actual beliefs because it is almost entirely certain that you and I disagree about at least one thing (probably many more than one). How comfortable are you with the idea of my creating laws that mandate behavior in accordance with my arbitrary whims? In terms of religion, how comfortable would you be with the suggestion that prayer in public should be made illegal?* I assume you feel some discomfort at this—at the very least, the idea should unnerve you. Intertwining religion and government is a universally bad idea. If government has the power to mandate prayer, it has the power to prohibit it. When a government takes a stance to promote one person’s religious practice, it is acting against the religious liberty of everyone else.

Many believers think this is a good thing. I do not because I have no interest in living in a theocracy. Theocracies are inherently discriminatory and oppressive, and anyone who attempts to introduce theocratic legislation into a secular government clearly has no interest in democratic principles. Case in point:

“I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools,” [Louisiana Representative Valarie Hodges] said Monday. “I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school.”

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The Fetishization of Ignorance

What is the purpose of education? Why do we devote such significant portions of our lives to schooling?

Theoretically, the purpose of primary and secondary education is to prepare children with the basic skills necessary to function as adults in contemporary society (and hopefully not just to subsist but to succeed).

… Unless you’re a member of the Texas state GOP, in which case, the purpose of education seems to be to keep kids busy until they’re old enough to enter the workforce and to reinforce any preexisting beliefs they may have learned from their parents. Go get yourself some headache medicine, because you’re about to need it.

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

So this is a “serious” political party arguing that critical thinking skills are bad. It specifically says that students’ fixed beliefs should not be challenged. Maintaining parental authority is apparently more important for education than teaching kids how to think.

I’m sorry, but what?

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