[The following is a paper I wrote for my English 122 class. Keep in mind that I had to phrase it in this way because, as is the situation in school, I needed to write it for no better reason than to get a good grade. You will notice that the writing style differs from my usual. That is because I needed to draw inside the box and only with the approved colors or crayons. I will revise it a bit in a while. What is here was written 5/4/11]
Imagine a world in which most adults in the first world couldn’t read, couldn’t perform basic math, and had no knowledge of geography beyond their own city. Why would this world be worse than a world full of people who possessed these skills? It’s difficult to think of a single answer, assuming that everyone in our hypothetical world knew enough to function in their lives. But mathematicians, literature experts, and geographers would know that these people are missing out on a much more fulfilled existence. Let’s change gears a bit and focus on science and change the area of our discussion from our hypothetical world to our world. Let me share a story with you from my experience.
I was in a college classroom and we’d just talked about stars and a student asked something like “what about falling stars? Don’t they move?” It’s horrifying on it’s own that a student was able to make it through general education and not know what “falling stars” are. It would be nice if she had been taught something about the nature of the universe and how objects of that sort of density literally bend the universe about it and understood why the idea of a star falling is nonsensical. It was like a college math student asking what a fraction is. But the fault was not hers. She had been let down by her educators in her primary education. Imagine the plight of a twentieth century history instructor whose class didn’t know the basic facts about the WWII Holocaust, like the fact that Germany played a large roll in it.
The problem of scientific ignorance is more pervasive than this incident makes it seem to be. Several high quality surveys attest to this. For example, 44% of the United States believes that the universe is roughly 6000 years old and that all life on the planet has was created more or less in it’s present form at that time. 25% of the citizens of Britain believe that the earth orbits the sun once per month. Why is this a problem? It isn’t easy to come up with a pragmatic reason why we ought to value scientific knowledge. In a poetic sense, there is something deeply satisfying about understanding the world around you. With regards to the 25% of Britains mentioned above, I can’t help but wonder, just what exactly do they think a year is? What do they think causes the seasons? Are they not even curious? Scientific knowledge gives us access to the most importance and enlightening facts imaginable. The fact of our own existence, put in the context of our evolutionary history as well as the origin of matter in the cosmos, is a candidate for the most important and amazing thing that we will ever be called upon to contemplate in our whole lives.
But if pressed, it is certainly possible to come up with pragmatic reasons as to why one ought to be armed with basic scientific knowledge and its more-or-less the same reason why one ought to know basic history: self defense. If you don’t know any science, any charlatan stands a better chance of convincing you to buy his/her magic tonic, use her/his alternative therapy instead of medicine, convincing you that he/she can locate your missing child using remote viewing, get you to doubt the validity of certain scientific facts so that he/she can justify teaching your kids whatever he/she wants instead of science, and simply take advantage of your ignorance.
There are reasons for scientific understanding on the scale of society as well. Knowledge is the basis of informed consent and informed consent is the basis for democracy. How can a democracy possibly function when its participants literally don’t know what they’re voting for? Granted, most voting issues aren’t science questions, but if a vote were to come to the polls to address something like NASAs funding or whether or not our nation should build nuclear power plants, some scientific knowledge will be necessary to give an informed vote.
And on the scale of the world, the immortal words of the late Carl Sagan, that brilliant cosmologist and science writer of the late twentieth century, are very appropriate. From his 1994 book The Demon Haunted World, “We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.” His point here is that science education is necessary so that people are informed about the very things that their lives depend on.
The problem of scientific ignorance is a serious one, and our nation is falling behind. The data show that students in the US consistently score worse on average in math and science tests than a growing number of other developed nations. If we don’t want to fall behind, or worse: destroy the world through our ignorant wielding of vast power, we need an informed public with a basic understanding of science. And for that, we need quality science education.
I couldn’t find a place to insert a second large quote, but I liked this one too.
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” -Sagan, The Demon Haunted World
And this one.
“It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works—that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.” -Sagan, Pale Blue Dot