BLINDED BY SCIENCE….I read two posts today about the (generally poor) state of scientific knowledge of the masses. First, Megan McArdle:

It’s dangerous that our humanities students are so alienated from the scientific way of thought that they can’t evaluate science on its own terms. You don’t need to be able to run a study yourself — but you should understand the limits of experimental design, how data is used to build a case, and the frameworks of almost-sciences like economics that will let you understand where economists pronouncements are likely to be pretty solid (rent control) and where they’re likely to be personal opinions dressed up as facts (tax policy).

We can’t all be scientists, but we can, most of us, understand the scientific way of thinking. And since the scientific way of thinking is what’s building most of the science that’s building our world, and should be constructing the economic thought we expect to make us all richer, we’d better be able to follow it or we risk being led around by the nose.

I’m pretty sympathetic to this thought, but even so I can’t help but wonder: is the “scientific way” of thinking really as important as she suggests? On the one hand, my experience in business leads me to think that it is: an inability to seriously analyze a set of numbers ? and understand their limitations ? is a real problem for an awful lot of people.

But it can cripple you as well. Libertarians, for example, frequently espouse the peculiar notion that their philosophy is somehow more “scientific” than others, failing to understand that (a) it isn’t, and (b) deciding how society should be structured isn’t a scientific question anyway. A scientific mindset is an excellent thing to have if you are addressing a problem susceptible to numerical analysis, but it’s an albatross if you use it to analyze everything that comes across your plate.

There’s another problem here as well: the level of discourse on topics like economics or environmental science is carried on at such a high level that it’s simply impossible for laymen to evaluate the evidence and the models themselves. We have to rely on experts, and so we end up making decisions based not so much on the evidence as on which experts we trust. There may be some level of analytic ability that’s useful in distinguishing real experts from bullshit experts, but there’s also a distinct limit to how far that gets you.

The second post is from David Appell’s Quark Soup, where he complains about a science writer who didn’t understand a simple concept from physics:

It’s far too acceptable in our society to profess ignorance of even basic scientific concepts (and this one is taught the first week of high school physics). Yet no person would be considered educated if they did not recognize certain key passages from Shakespeare, if they knew nothing of the Russian Revolution, or understood the concept of, say, supply and demand. Understanding the basic concept of gravitational acceleration falls into the same category–and one can’t make a utilitarian argument, since they all have about the same degree of usefulness.

I’m not sure what to think of this. Once again my inclination is to agree, but when I step back I find myself wondering if this is really right. There are hundreds of important disciplines around, and it’s unrealistic to expect most people to have more than a passing familiarity with anything but a handful of them. I know about gravitational acceleration, but I know nothing about ballet or opera. My sister is the opposite. Which one of us is a moron?

Still, from a “cultural literacy” point of view you could argue that there are certain key aspects of science that everyone should know about. But which ones? A knowledge of Shakespeare is helpful because allusions to Shakespeare are all around us, and you miss out on a lot if you don’t understand them. Which scientific concepts have the same utility in helping us understand normal public discourse? Any ideas?

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