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Are US Voters Informed Enough About Science? 868

Posted by kdawson
from the stone-knives-and-bearskins dept.
Naturalist writes "For decades, educators and employers have worried that too few Americans are preparing for careers in science. But there's evidence to support a new, broader concern in this election year: Ordinary Americans may not know enough about science to make informed decisions on key questions."
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Are US Voters Informed Enough About Science?

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  • Re:Obviously not (Score:3, Interesting)

    by liquidpele (663430) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @07:12AM (#24580881) Journal
    First off, belief in something beyond understanding has nothing to do with understanding science. Sure there are nut-jobs that ignore facts, but most find no conflict between science and religion, so lets not get into an atheist rant okay?

    Science and math are always good to learn and understand, but so are music, art, literature, and anything else. I think the important thing is that people continue to learn over the course of their lives. I do think that if no one else, Congress should be briefed on scientific principals related to any bills they pass though.
  • by Moraelin (679338) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @07:22AM (#24580979) Journal

    What is it, 95% believe in a supreme being? Not that believing in a supreme being is compromised by understanding the results of science. Oh no.

    Actually, if they otherwise put their faith in double-blind tests or whatever sound methodology, I couldn't care less if they also believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Invisible Pink Unicorn or whatever.

    But the most worrisome phenomenon is the large mass of people believing in homeopathy, magic (as in, that you can actually change the universe by refusing to believe it's really like that), natural snake oils, conspiracy-theory science, and the like.

    I mean, seriously, there are people buying wooden volume knobs and $500 ethernet cables, believing that it makes their MP3s sound better. (I mean, an MP3 is already digital and a network cable transmits digital information. A 1 is a 1 is a 1, and 0 is a 0 is a 0. It doesn't sound "warmer" or "more natural".) At least one on the Hardware Central forums believed he can hear differences in how MP3's sound, based on the hard drive brand. And not because of hard drive noise or interference, but because the magnetic coating somehow makes a difference, like in old cassettes.

    There are people who believe that power lines cause brain cancer. Or that they can detect a turned on cell phone by getting a headache near one.

    There are people who think that "natural" minerals are healthier, and that, say, salt processed industrially has mollecules that are unnaturally round and regular, and can't be processed as well by the body.

    There are people who drink water with extra O2 in it and think it actually makes a difference in how well oxygenated their body is. As if would even make a difference. (No, seriously, calculate it.)

    Etc.

    And while I'd love to point fingers and laugh at the USA, trust me, it's no better in Europe.

    And anyway, that should already tell anyone all they need to know about voters and science. The above mentioned people have a right to vote too, you know.

  • Re:A Greater Truth (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jacquesm (154384) <j@wwPASCAL.com minus language> on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @07:23AM (#24580987) Homepage

    I used to think democracy was really great until I slowly became aware that it means that whoever controls the media controls the votes. Reading Noam Chomsky's "manufacturing consent" really opened my eyes to how big the problem really is.

    It's a typical case of gigo, if you can not trust the sources for the knowledge that you base your decisions on (and almost no single source available to the general public is without bias) then you will get really lousy decisions.

  • by suso (153703) * on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @07:24AM (#24580995) Homepage Journal

    You know its funny, I was watching President Bush during an interview in Beijing talk about how they are trying to cool over relations with China. One thing he said is that they need to convince China that religion isn't going to hurt them.

    Let me see, let's say you're a sane person with all their faculties in place. Someone comes along and tells you something that is just crazy, like there is a big flying spaghetti monster in the sky that you need to believe in and give 5% of your money to or you are going to spend an eternity in damnation. Are you going to just take his word for it or are you going to label that person as confused an deluded?

  • Re:A Greater Truth (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Bombula (670389) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @07:42AM (#24581185)

    You don't have to be qualified to have an opinion.

    It's funny how some of the most important decision-making roles in our society - the role of a voter, the role of a parent, the role of an elected official - require no formal qualifications. What if being a heart-surgeon required no qualifications? What if driving required no qualifications? You need a license to pitch a tent and catch a fish, but not to be a parent? You need a certification to cut people's hair or do their nails but not to be President?

    I'm not sure why we expect so little of ourselves, and then proceed bass-ackwards to address the problems that arise. To take the example of parenting, we let anyone no matter how irresponsible or unqualified have kids, and then punish them - and the kids - when they screw up the job of parenting. How stupid is that? We don't do that with dentists or doctors or any other role of responsibility.

  • by VdG (633317) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @07:53AM (#24581333)

    It occurs to me that if you asked a bunch of economists, they'd probably say that people don't know enough about economics. Same for any other field.

    That's not to say that people shouldn't know more about science. Though perhaps what we should really be seeking is a better performance from those we trust to guide our opionions, i.e. mainstream journalists.

    It's not just a problem for public opinion. Here in the UK, buisness leaders say there are not enough young people studying science at school.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/7553040.stm [bbc.co.uk]

    It seems absurd that in an age when science has more and more impact on our day to day lives fewer and fewer pupils want to study it. Part of the problem over here is with the education system, where science GCSEs are perceived as being more difficult than the hummanities. I don't know whether that's true or not; my recollection (pre-GCSEs) was that science was easier, but that was because it was vastly more interesting than English or history.

  • by txoof (553270) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:01AM (#24581463) Homepage

    By around age 5 I learned most (if not all) of these facts from watching TLC or Discovery.

    That we teach and test facts is part of the problem with science education in the US. I'm a science teacher at a public charter school and I struggle with this problem constantly. The comprehensive curriculum and Grade Level Expectations (standards) emphasize science as an inquiry skill. If I follow the GLEs, the most important skills I can teach are inquiry. That is to say, I should be teaching kids to ask questions, design experiments, do research, be curious and skeptical. This is a perfect science education. It doesn't matter if kids know exactly what the carbon cycle is, or if the sun is the center of our solar system. Instead, I'm giving them the skills to learn about these content knowledge areas.

    Unfortunately, when it comes time to take a standardized test, 20% of the test asks kids to call upon their ability to do science by making predictions, designing experiments or comparing data. The other 80% of the test actually tests content knowledge (facts).

    If you're familiar with blooms taxonomy [odu.edu], you know that regurgitating facts is the least mentally strenuous and intellectually challenging task. It's great if a kid knows that the earth orbits the sun and that sun orbits the center of the milky way and the milky way is part of a super cluster of galaxies, but isn't it more important that a kid knows how to do a good scientific experiment? That she knows what a control is, what a variable is and can shout, "BOGUS!" when an infomercial tells her that something--that clearly has not been--is scientifically proven.

    What we need to do, is push for teaching and assessment (standardized tests) that challenge kids to think. We want science fairs that don't just show what the solar system is, but rather show off quality experiments that kids did regarding the solar system. Every citizen would benefit from the ability to not just know what a neurotransmitter is (that's what teh intertubes and books are for), but rather how to use scientific reasoning in solving problems and learning.

    If you have kids, try encouraging your kid's teachers to try experiments in class. If you know what good science looks like, volunteer to help conduct a quality, rigorous experiment in your kid's school. Most of my colleagues at the elementary level are liberal arts majors that have NEVER been taught good science. They don't know what it looks like because their teachers failed them. If you sincerely care about your kid's education, help out the teacher. It has to start somewhere!

    Encourage your kids to ask questions and then help them find the answer. Don't just look the damn thing up, teach them how to create a test that will either answer the question or lead them to more questions. Science is beautiful and doesn't have to subtract from the natural beauty of the world, rather it adds to it and reveals the subtle beauty and elegance of everything.

    [Rant concluded.]

  • by Elemenope (905108) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:10AM (#24581545)

    1. Belief that it's all a metaphor doesn't necessarily make one any less religious. Saint Augustine argued exactly that: that the whole genesis is a metaphor and only an idiot would take it literally. He got sanctified by the Catholic Church. So...

    Agree wholeheartedly. But if you're gonna take the creation metaphorically, then why take the deity literally...

    2. (A possible) God doesn't have to obey his own rules, or exist _inside_ the universe he created. Think of (a possible) God in terms of, say, a game programmer. Let's say you're this uber genius nerd in a CS university, you're bored enough one week and write the uber-universe simulation...(etc.)

    The creator of a simulation is still restrained *as regards the simulation* by the parameters of that simulation. A human being, obviously, is not restrained literally by his or her creating an online avatar, but he or she *is* constrained in his or her ability to act with that avatar inside that particular virtual world by the rules governing avatars.

    And if we were to extend the programming metaphor, if a creator/designer were to write himself up a world, he or she is still constrained by the relative power, expressiveness, and syntax of the language by which the world is written.

    And, pointedly, this argument isn't happening in a vacuum (with hypothetical religions and hypothetical deities) but with actual posited deities of actual religions. Many of whom, I feel compelled to point out, argue that they are *consistent* and *do not alter their mind/decisions*. Which blows all to hell the fun intellectual exercise of a God who decides one day to change the rules.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:10AM (#24581551)
    Religion in america today? Where does one even start documenting the hate and intolerance that is american christianity? You seem to be very confused, as good people do great things to help one another. Good people would do good things whether there was a magical land in the sky or not. Religions build up walls to keep the "others" out while preaching hate. Here is a quick list for those keeping score at home:
    Gays = bad,
    muslims = bad,
    atheists = bad,
    jews= good but only because they're bringing the apocalypse, otherwise
    jews = bad,
    other denominations = bad,
    drinking = bad,
    sex = bad,
    deciding how others lead their lives = good

    When you build an entire organization based on the idea that if you don't do as commanded you'll face eternal damnation and then start excluding everyone who is a non-believer, VERY LITTLE GOOD WILL COME OF IT.
  • Re:A Greater Truth (Score:5, Interesting)

    by silentcoder (1241496) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:26AM (#24581759) Homepage

    Trouble is - kings breed kings, and sooner or later your philosopher-kingdom is a tyranny. Even if you can rule that out, power corrupts and nobody is incorruptible. Absolute power, corrupts absolutely. Philosopher kings become tyrants given enough time. Robert Mugabe was deemed a hero of freedom and democracy 30 years ago - now he is nothing short of a power-mad tyrant who will rather let his people starve than to let anybody else be in charge.
    Same person, only difference is too much power for too long.

    It took humanity at least 6 milenniums to figure this out - I am not, at all, sure that I would like to forget what we learned.

    I suggest the following excercise. Remind yourself that if YOU got enough power, you would start out the ultimate force for good in society -but one day, you WILL wake and discover you are a mad dictator.
    You won't be able to recognize it after the fact. You won't be able to stop it. The only way it could fail to happen is if your power is removed fast enough. That's why presidents in most free countries have term limits. The idea is to get them out before they get TOO badly corrupted.

  • by lp-habu (734825) * on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:34AM (#24581881)
    Voters aren't informed enough about anything. They can't be, and never will be. Voters will always make their choices based on irrelevant factors and misinformation. That's the way it is. No amount of education will ever change that.
  • by Weezul (52464) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:40AM (#24581997)

    See this is why you want deliberative democracy [wikipedia.org]. In practice this means replace the presidential veto with a large "jury trial", say 100 jurors (a large jury eliminates the need for jury selection). Congress critters would vote not just "yey" or "ney" but also for an "advocate". Any advocate receiving at least 5% or 10% from either the house or senate would have the right to argue in the trial. Mr. President could also name an advocate. In the trial, the advocates would try to convince randomly selected ordinary people that the law was good or bad, or to drop specific provisions, like pork. Advocates could also parade around expert witnesses, expose the biases of other witnesses, etc.

    Such a system is really the only way to bring more science into government because people can not be expected to know much. Such a system is also the best way to control government spending.

  • Re:Obviously not (Score:4, Interesting)

    by hey! (33014) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:41AM (#24582017) Homepage Journal

    Not science, but possibly philosophy.

    Philosophy has a lot to say (or perhaps better, ask) about whether assertions about the attributes of God are consistent with each other. One question I'd ask is whether an omniscient and omnipotent God be called, in any reasonable sense of the word, a person? Can an omniscient and omnipotent being have free will? If not, can that being be said to be good, or even rational?

    We can appeal to mathematics as well. If God is omnipotent -- that is to say he can do anything he pleases -- can he create a system of arithmetic where all true, and only true propositions can be proved? Mathematics tells us this is impossible, that any formal system will will either be unable to prove some truths, or will derive contradictions and thus prove anything. So is God omnipotent in a way that makes Him superior to logic?

    Let's presume that God is limited by logic. Theologians, after all, do this all the time when they explain why God does such and so.

    Science tells us precisely nothing about the means by which an omnipotent being could act. Science is based, ultimately, on observations, and inductions made from observations. It is therefore always possible to presume the existence of something which is outside of scientific experience.

    Science, in a sense, isn't about discovering Truth, but evaluating arguments. It's about generating evidence, and making inductions from that evidence, and making deductions from theories created from those inductions. Therefore, science doesn't pronounce something true or false, so much as pronouncing the arguments for or against it as well founded or ill founded. However, an invalid argument is not necessarily untrue, it just doesn't carry its point.

    Finally, it should be pointed out that most conceptions of God (or gods) don't posit omniscience or omnipotence. It isn't even in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, which clearly show a God who although mighty and wise, is sometimes unsure of what to do, makes mistakes (or at least does things He regrets) and learns from them, and who can actually, in the case of Abraham and Sodom and Gomorrah, be argued with, or in the case of Job, chastised. One can only suppose that the whole omnipotence thing arose over the centuries through a kind of theological one upmanship over who could flatter God the most. In an ironic way, this trivializes God. The Kabbalists, to avoid this pitfall in their quest for a direct experience of closeness to God, introduced a kind of dichotomy between the Shekinah, which is the manifestation of God in the world, and Ein Sof that which lies outside the Universe an therefore is forever beyond the reach of human understanding.

    Which brings us back to mathematics. In Kabbalistic numerology (gematria), the Hebrew letter aleph is assigned the value 1. However, Aleph is the the first letter of "Ein Sof", which means boundless, or infinite. Popular speculation attributes to this Georg Cantor's choice of aleph in designation of transfinite numbers: aleph-0, aleph-1 etc.

  • by suso (153703) * on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:50AM (#24582187) Homepage Journal

    Ok, so you're basically saying that religion is ok because it takes peoples money through deception and then puts it towards other things? Good or not, it doesn't matter, isn't that deception plain and simple?

  • Re:DEMOCRACY MANTRA (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hey! (33014) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:53AM (#24582227) Homepage Journal

    Actually, I prefer to think of it this way.

    It's not possible to combine the thought processes of tens or hundreds of millions of people into anything that resembles thinking or reasoning.

    On a large scale, democracy cannot make wise choices in governing, nor can representative democracy be counted on to make wise choices of governors.

    The one thing that makes democracy worthwhile is accountability. Democracy is no good at selecting good leaders, but it is better than any other kind of system at throwing bad ones out. Sometimes a bad leader might get lucky with the timing of an election of course, but in systems where opposition to the regime is a crime, a bad regime can always hang on until it's preferable to face jail or worse than tolerate for an instant longer.

    This, incidentally, is why I don't believe in term limits. I don't believe in democracy's ability to select good leaders. However, it can pressure incumbent leaders not to be as bad as they might be. I therefore favor a system without term limits, provided the machinery of accountability is healthy and intact: open government, an independent and confrontational free press, an intact and reliable voting system. It is critical that leaders fear the wrath of the people, otherwise there is no point.

  • Not to be bitter.... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by BitterOldGUy (1330491) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:54AM (#24582255)
    Here are my reasons why Americans are so science illiterate:
    1. Science isn't cool like it was in the 19th and early centuries.
    2. Sports, music, and other entertainers get the glory.
    3. Science teachers that make science boring. I've seen a tape of a teacher at MIT who made it exciting.
    4. Arrogance in the science community against non-scientific folks and treating folks who aren't as talented in the subject like retards.
    5. Anti-science in the religious arena.
    6. Anti-science among some sub-cultures (I was actually told by a minority that I read too much!)
    7. Certain groups thinking science is acting "White".
    8. Lack of media attention on minorities and women who excel at science.
    9. A cultural bias against women in science - girls aren't good at math - WTF!
    10. Schools treating science education like a burden and laying off science teachers whereas the football team gets all the money they want.
    11. Incompetent science teachers.
    12. Sucky textbooks.
    13. Sucky curriculums: Why does basic calculus have to be taught separately from physics? I didn't understand calc until I took physics and THEN it made sense. Otherwise, calc is just a wrote memorization and mechanical subject - BORING!
    14. The societal belief that you have to be born with the skills to be good at science and that hard work is futile. Maybe that's more Asians excel at science.
    15. Science is treated more like a stepping stone to more lucrative applied science fields: medicine and engineering.
  • by Moraelin (679338) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:54AM (#24582265) Journal

    Using this thought process though means god exists in a pre-existing universe in which he creates his own, which must be bound by laws and thus he is not really all powerful.

    Well, he won't be truly and literally omnipotent, that much is obvious.

    On the other hand, in his created universe, he can be very, extremely, incredibly, hideously powerful. He can annihilate the whole universe instantly, any time he wants to. (You know, "rm -rf".) That's pretty damned powerful, if you ask me. He can raise mountains by clicking and dragging a piece of terrain. He can boil the seas, turn off gravity, cover a whole world in trillions of tons of extra water out of nowhere, mess with the language code just because he was bored (see the Tower of Babel episode), or almost anything else he might ever wish. In fact, for a programmer, all those miracles are actually the _easy_ stuff. Changing the sea level is boringly trivial, compared to, say, programming the AI for those critters in the first place.

    Again, it won't be literally omnipotent. But it's as close to it as you can get. And it's actually a lot more powerful than most christians imagine their God to be, if you think about it. Most people have a much more limited understanding of what "omnipotent" really means.

    Of course a good developer of games would put rules in place to control what he can and can't do once the game has 'gone live'. So maybe god respects the laws of physics simply because he wants to.

    Well, in an ideal world that would be the case. But having played plenty of MUDs and MMOs, I also know that it can't really be taken for granted. Maybe the laws of physics stayed the same from day one. Or maybe what we see here is simply the result after a thousand patches, three expansion packs, and a dozen nerfs :P For all we know, there could be a few message boards out there where people whine about how the devs nerfed Earth Online in the Industrial Age expansion pack, and how they want the old game system back.

    Another thought is the first thing the christian god did was create light, he didn't create the rules to govern how light behaved, so maybe physics has always existed, even before god did anything.

    Well, you have to also think about how you'd explain it to a goat herdsman from the early Bronze Age. I mean, try explaining your old grandma how you programmed something. Now realize that she's _much_ more educated than said goat herdsman from the early Bronze Age.

    I mean, heh, I can imagine it:

    God: "So anyway, I say to myself, dude, nobody's going to be impressed by a black screen. You need to see something there. So I started by messing up with some old Transform And Lighting code."
    Moses: "Curse my feeble mortal mind, Lord, I didn't understand a word."
    God: "Uh, dude, you know, I needed to be able to see the world as I create it and stuff. 'Cause, you know, without it there was nothing to see."
    Moses: "Ah, that's why the lighting, Lord? And what was that other thing? Transform?"
    God: "Eh, let's leave it at light for now. You couldn't see anything before, right? I mean, without that, the whole thing doesn't even _have_ a shape."
    (Moses takes notes: "And the earth was without form, and void")
    Moses: "And you were saying something about code, my Lord? You mean, like when you write something on a strip of papyrus wrapped around a staff and..."
    God: "Uh, no, dude, like program code." (Gah, how do I explain it to this dude?) "Like, I told the computer... err... I told your _world_ what to do. It does exactly what I tell it to do. And I told it I wanted to see some lighting."
    (Moses takes notes: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.")
    Moses: "And did it please you, Lord?"
    God: "Heck yeah. Done myself proud, if I can say so myself."
    (Moses takes notes: "And God saw the light, that it was good")
    God: "So, anyway, then I added some shadows, just to make it pretty."
    (Moses takes notes: "and God divided the light from the darkness")

    Well, it's a possibility :P

  • by Paul Fernhout (109597) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @09:41AM (#24583243) Homepage

    "It takes quite a lot of effort to turn a naturally curious child into a mumbling, illiterate worker bee who lives to shop, but Americans are known for their can-do spirit."

    John Taylor Gatto makes exactly this point, suggesting schools were designed specifically to destroy curiousity and initiative so as to make people obedient workers, obedient soldiers, and compliant consumers. See:
        "The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher" by John Taylor Gatto - 1991 New York State Teacher of the Year
        http://hometown.aol.com/tma68/7lesson.htm [aol.com]
    And:
        "The Underground History of American Education"
        http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/underground/toc1.htm [johntaylorgatto.com]
    "The shocking possibility that dumb people don't exist in sufficient numbers to warrant the millions of careers devoted to tending them will seem incredible to you. Yet that is my central proposition: the mass dumbness which justifies official schooling first had to be dreamed of; it isn't real."
    And:
        http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/underground/prologue6.htm [johntaylorgatto.com]
    "Once the best children are broken to such a system, they disintegrate morally, becoming dependent on group approval. A National Merit Scholar in my own family once wrote that her dream was to be "a small part in a great machine." It broke my heart. What kids dumbed down by schooling can't do is to think for themselves or ever be at rest for very long without feeling crazy; stupefied boys and girls reveal dependence in many ways easily exploitable by their knowledgeable elders."
    And:
        http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/chapters/16a.htm [johntaylorgatto.com]
    "I'll bring this down to earth. Try to see that an intricately subordinated industrial/commercial system has only limited use for hundreds of millions of self-reliant, resourceful readers and critical thinkers. In an egalitarian, entrepreneurially based economy of confederated families like the one the Amish have or the Mondragon folk in the Basque region of Spain, any number of self-reliant people can be accommodated usefully, but not in a concentrated command-type economy like our own. Where on earth would they fit? In a great fanfare of moral fervor some years back, the Ford Motor Company opened the world's most productive auto engine plant in Chihuahua, Mexico. It insisted on hiring employees with 50 percent more school training than the Mexican norm of six years, but as time passed Ford removed its requirements and began to hire school dropouts, training them quite well in four to twelve weeks. The hype that education is essential to robot-like work was quietly abandoned. Our economy has no adequate outlet of expression for its artists, dancers, poets, painters, farmers, filmmakers, wildcat business people, handcraft workers, whiskey makers, intellectuals, or a thousand other useful human enterprises--no outlet except corporate work or fringe slots on the periphery of things. Unless you do "creative" work the company way, you run afoul of a host of laws and regulations put on the books to control the dangerous products of imagination which can never be safely tolerated by a centralized command system."

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @09:42AM (#24583267)

    Religions help people so that they may more easily be recruited. Period.

    "Salvation" implies membership.

    The more members, the more power.

    Religion is an old, outdated, corrupted "super adventure club" that needs to be marginalized and removed from HUMAN-Kind's view when major SPECIES-effecting decisions are made.

    Religions do nothing more today than divide the species, which is going no where fast without complete planetary unity.

  • by jc42 (318812) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @01:18PM (#24587323) Homepage Journal

    I'm more worried about the number of college graduates who can barely read and write than whether or not 8th graders know science.

    I saw some illustrations of this problem back in the 70s, when I was a grad student assistant working as the computer guru for several departments in a university that I won't name (but it's generally considered one of the top schools in the US). A big part of my job was to advise other students trying to use the equipment in the departments' joint computer lab.

    A recurring situation was: A student would ask for help on something that I knew was covered in the manual. I'd ask if they'd read the manual, and they'd say they had, but it hadn't helped. I'd pull out the manual and find the relevant section. It looked informative to me. After a bit of questioning, I'd try an experiment. I simply read the relevant passage out loud. The student would say something like "Oh, that's how it's supposed to work?" They'd proceed to do what they were trying to do, perhaps with a bit more consulting, but often not.

    Note two critical facts here: 1) I had simply read the passage from the manual, and 2) the student understood it when I read it.

    Conclusion: The student was illiterate.

    Granted, they could probably sound out the words. But they were illiterate in the important sense: They couldn't extract the meaning from the printed words. This wasn't because the printed words didn't explain the information. It was because they understood the words only when they were spoken, not when they were in print form. And this wasn't just a few students. It might even have been the majority, though of course I was in no situation to be performing the obvious systematic test on the departments' entire grad-student populations.

    I eventually mentioned this to a couple of the profs, and they invariably got a sad look on their faces. They understood the situation. One of them passed on a comment from someone else, which I've remembered ever since: The classroom lecture system is the best way known for teaching people who can't read. (I wonder who originated that one. Anyone know?)

    Also, I don't think this is just a problem in the US. I suspect that it's a generic problem with schools in most of the world. I wonder what the effect will be when some small nation finds a way to reverse this ...

  • Re:Obviously not (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DrgnDancer (137700) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @01:44PM (#24587765) Homepage

    Also a lot of the rules made sense in the context of how ancient people thought. Many of the Kosher dietary restrictions were created during the Babylonian captivity, as a way to keep the Hebrew National Identity alive. Many of them specifically forbid dietary practices common to Babylonian society of the time in order to limit the contact between Hebrews and Babylonians. Breaking bread and eating together have been symbols of friendship since time immemorial, limiting the ability of Hebrews to so so with their captors slowed assimilation (Ironically Kosher laws have performed similar duties many times since).

    Similarly, religious laws require sacrifice of food stuffs made great sense in the ancient world. Sure people thought the Gods wanted the stuff they were sacrificing (and why not when you have a very anthropomorphic concept of God), but since most of the food sacrificed was taken and stored by the priestly classes, it also conveniently provided food storage for emergency use and a way to feed and cloth such non-essential people as artists, scribes and administrators. It is arguable that sacrificing food to the Gods was the basis for civilizations (or at least one of them).

  • by magus_melchior (262681) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @02:10PM (#24588213) Journal

    Such a system also sounds nearly as complex and time-consuming as the impeachment process, and would be a prime first resort for someone wishing to delay passage of a bill or to grind the legislative process to a standstill-- in other words, an elaborate filibuster.
    For some, that might be a good thing, but if we want good things to get done in Washington, we have to allow them to pass bills within a matter of weeks, not months. If the President feels he's not getting his way with Congress, he might invoke this deliberative review every time they bring a bill to his desk to literally hold them hostage. In the scope of time, the veto/override system in place-- if it's used properly (the House and Senate are too wrapped up in their own power-grabbing to do it)-- is much more efficient.

    Like any organization of people, it works for all unless some players cheat or game the system. This system is vulnerable to cronyism-- if the President or Congress pick advocates with political goals instead of the greater good (see U.S. attorney hiring process under Bush II), they can mislead the jury with rhetoric over logic. The result is then determined by who is the better orator, not who has the better position argumentatively. Now if the rules required a true devil's advocate independent of the government, that might force the legislative/executive advocate to actually build his case rather than build a stump speech. The problem is, any "independent" advocate can be coerced and corrupted.

    A citizen ratification*, IMO, might be a better alternative. Say a generally harmless bill with one controversial provision is passed. A group of citizens issues a challenge to an oversight body (e.g. the Ninth District or the Supreme Court), who reviews the constitutionality of the bill. If they decide it to be unconstitutional, the bill is struck down; if not, the bill is submitted to a vote in the next general election cycle**. A supermajority (66%) of the voters is required for the bill to take effect.

    The advantages:
    - Any bill that is controversial and potentially harmful to citizens' rights (DMCA, Patriot Act, FISA) can be immediately subjected to judicial review, meaning that such bills do not get the effective grace period granted to them under the current system.
    - Even if all three branches of the government insist that the bill is good, they are subjected to the will of the voters, minimizing the threat of cronies. This may have the effect of forcing the government to represent the interests of the voters rather than that of the corporations (which don't get to vote) or PACs (likewise). Because the ultimate say is in the voters' hands, this system significantly raises the bar for passing unpopular bills.

    The disadvantages:
    - Circumvention. As mentioned above, it works until those involved decide to cheat. The way to cheat around this is for the judiciary to deliberately ignore challenges raised against unpopular bills in the same way Karl Rove ignores Congressional subpoenas. Or, those who wish to circumvent the process may obfuscate the fact that this recourse is available (assuming that it becomes law), or make the process as dull, tedious, and painful as possible.
    - Obfuscation. Another possible avenue for cheating is to hide the bill's controversial provisions in the guise of "national security". This is assuming that this review process can't/doesn't expose state secrets or the like, and that the initial judicial review deems it constitutional. Similarly, corporate interests can conceivably use this to strike down tax increases on business by spinning the bill as a tax increase on regular people (cf. McCain's campaign ads). This will depend on the nature of the initial challenge, specifically who can challenge and how many is needed.
    - An immediate judicial review may kill the bill before it has a chance to prove itself in the legal system. The review could be handled as a typical litigation process challenging the bill.
    - Striking down a bad law is f

  • by offrdbandit (1331649) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @05:29PM (#24591323)
    The real crime at the heart of this entire debate over Science, is the wholesale abandonment of Philosophy. Schools do not teach Science. Schools teach information deemed "fact" by scientific academia. The test is wrong, the schools are wrong, the scientists are wrong... Science is not writing an encyclopedia of "facts". Science is a process founded on a philosophically unsound foundation. Science as a process is perfectly reasonable, but the mechanist foundation scientific academia cling to is unreasonable. This article presupposes the validity of "Science", when this entire discussion should be "Are US Voters Informed Enough to Pursue Philosophy?"
  • Non Serviam (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Paua Fritter (448250) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @06:28PM (#24591983)

    The Polish SF writer Stanislaw Lem wrote a short story "Non Serviam" on this theme which is well worth a read.

    It takes the form of a review of a non-existent book by a computer scientist who creates an artificial universe populated with AIs, and studies them from outside their universe. Obviously they have no access to the "real" world at all; living entirely in a virtual space. After a long process of evolution he eavesdrops some of his AIs discussions of theology. He is logically and morally forced to agree with the atheists among them even though he knows in fact they are wrong.

    The story was published in "A Perfect Vacuuum", and also appeared in Hofstadter and Dennet's book "The Mind's I".

Blessed be those who initiate lively discussions with the hopelessly mute, for they shall be known as Dentists.

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