A Bad Week for Scientific Literacy in America

I don’t know if there’s a sociological scale for the willful ignorance of a population — a plot of false assumptions against access to education or the like, to give a concrete measurement of just how embarrassing it is for you to not know better. But if there is a scale like that out there, America is placing pretty poorly on it lately.

This has been a good week for pausing to remember that most of our country has a third-world understanding of natural science, despite their first-world education system.

North Carolina’s legislature wins for absurdist hilarity this week, with a bill being circulated to restrict state agencies from using some kinds of math to calculate sea level rise. Specifically:

The Division of Coastal Management shall be the only State agency authorized to develop rates of sea-level rise and shall do so only at the request of the Commission.  These rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900.  Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise. [emphasis mine]

Now, nutty bills get circulated all the time. This one might not even make it to the floor, so there’s no reason to read too much into it. But take a moment to really think about what they want to write into law here: your projections are illegal if they show something unexpected. Calculate sea level change on a direct linear scale or it’s not true.

xkcd with an example of linear projections based on past data.

So that’s one embarrassment for our nation this week. Want another? How about a new Gallup poll showing that 46% of Americans believe, in the survey choice’s wording, “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”

We know this isn’t true. It’s really basic, really provable fact (or really disprovable fact, I suppose I should say; there are lots of questions about human origin, but whether or not it happened instantly 10,000 years ago is not one of them).

But more people believe total gibberish now than they did a few years ago. We’re getting stupider. If we use North Carolina’s approved projection methods and keep extending that line upward, we’ll be 100% young-earth creationists by around 2021.

This is pretty bad for the country. Admittedly, you don’t need a strong scientific grounding in the origin of the human species to, say, become an engineer and build bridges, or to run a financial business. But you do need to be able to read and understand facts and data, and this poll says that about half our country can’t or won’t do that.

There’s a healthy fear of American decline out there right now. I suggest people concerned about it look to our educational system as a good starting point.

    • Tafacory
    • June 1st, 2012

    I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one abhorred by these circumstances and occurrences.

    • guyintheblackhat
    • June 1st, 2012

    It remains far safer to be ignorant and keep your head down, than to know things and have to stand up for that knowledge.

    Welcome to what a dictatorship looks like.

    • I never really thought of “we weren’t created instantly on Earth 10,000 years ago” as one of those noble truths that required standing up for. It’s just not the kind of hill that needs dying on. Or if it does, things have gotten worse than even I thought.

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