links for 2010-04-10

  • Conservatives, led by Rep. Michele Bachmann and Rep. Ron Paul, are insisting that the census—utterly innocuous—is part of an evil one-world government plot to blah blah blah. Meaning that they'll be undercounted. Meaning that congressional representation will be affected. Meaning less Republicans in congress. Oh, irony.
  • The National Science Board intentionally omitted a key finding from their biennial survey of Americans' science knowledge, after the results found that we lag seriously behind the rest of the world in understanding of evolution and the Big Bang. Only 45% of Americans know that humans are the result of evolution, and only 33% know how the universe was formed. Twice as many Chinese know these things. This does not bode well for our country's dwindling lead in the sciences.
  • This article about the aging population is interesting for a bunch of reasons, but the one that stands out for me is the origin of the retirement age as 65. Where did this magic year come from? Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of Germany, who wanted to establish a pension for old soldiers, but didn't actually want to spend much money. Sixty five was the average age at which veterans died, so that seemed like a good age to go with. Another gem: "Of all the people in human history who ever reached the age of 65, half are alive now." Wow.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

11 replies on “links for 2010-04-10”

  1. In the second item you can safely say “believe” rather than “know” since cosmological theories like this come down to a matter of reasonable belief, given the weight of evidence.

  2. That’s actually the crux of the debate, Duane. The NSF says that they were accidentally measuring beliefs, while the White House says, no, they were measuring knowledge, and people’s knowledge is crap. But the same logic could apply to many topics. Was George Washington the first elected president of the United States? Well, nobody alive now was alive then, so we can’t say for sure. Am I to say that I “believe” that Washington was the first president, or that I “know” that he was the first president? What I know about epistemology could fill a teaspoon, but I spent enough time debating Descartes in philosophy class to know that there are accepted epistemological norms in society, and one of them is what constitutes “beliefs,” and what constitutes “knowledge.” I don’t believe (there’s that word again) that factual matters—such as whether gravity is what makes things fall, or whether life forms evolve over time—are a matter of “belief.” They’re subject to belief (isn’t everything?), but they’re premised on knowledge.

    While everybody has the right not to believe in anything they want, as a society, I don’t think we ought to accept that somehow it’s equally good, in terms of science education, to believe that things fall because of gravity as to believe that they fall because Xenu makes them.

  3. Well, I wouldn’t worry too much there on the science front. The fact that people don’t understand evolution or the Big Bang Theory doesn’t really put us at a disadvantage to China. The real question is whether we can continue to innovate in consumer products and that has little to do with those two things. In fact, you don’t need to know about either of those two things in order to invent the iPad or the Snuggie. I’d worry when China does more than just manufacture our products for us.

  4. tx2vadem,

    You’re certainly right that inventing the iPad or Snuggie don’t really require you to understand evolution or the big bang. Creating the process to make chips that allow us to fit all that power into the iPad certainly took a deep understanding of physics, but again, I don’t think the big bang really played into it much. Modern medicine and agriculture demand a thorough understanding of evolution, but it could be that people disbelieve evolution until it becomes useful and we don’t have to worry about it. I don’t know.

    If these just reflect a couple of politically charged hot-button topics that create beliefs in people for whom this stuff doesn’t matter and don’t reflect a deeper problem of science learning, then I don’t know that it’s all that meaningful. Still, I think basic science research powers long-term innovation, and if this reflects an unwillingness in people to learn real science, it would likely mean by the time we do start outsourcing more of our R&D and invention, we could find ourselves several decades behind the curve, with a population hostile to the sciences.

    I personally think the results on the big bang and evolution have more to say politically and socially than economically, but that’s just a guess.

  5. Complex, layered scientific Theories have challenged the faith-based community and their comfortable 4,000 year cocoon for hundreds of years. I suppose that this is the bookend to another poll finding Americans are the most religious people on earth. Believers carry other more dangerous baggage – a fetish for governance by black & white world view, ethnic-focused tribalism, sexual politics, and that draws America to confrontations with Evil while the Chinese take a softer, more profitable path to conquest.

  6. Waldo,

    I don’t have a claim in the big bang theory one way or the other, but even among adherents it is cited as an explanation for red shifting and other phenomena. An explosion sending everything apart explains several things but it is so far removed from knowable things that it seems safe to put it in the belief camp.

    The omission of the findings is peculiar though. I don’t see any reason not to publish it. We know that Americans are skeptical about these two scientific claims, so why not be up-front about it?

  7. On the first link re: undercounting – Can’t this play into the GOP’s hands? Redistricting happens, supposedly safe D seats suddenly face a phantom influx of R votes that weren’t considered when districts were written.

  8. I was wondering the same thing, Jason. I don’t know enough about these states, and I’m assuming that the concerned Republican congressman know more than I do, but it does seem like that should be possible, doesn’t it?

  9. Well over course Bachamnn’s constituents will be under counted. She just spent months railing against the census and telling her constituents not to fill it out. Never mind that her district has most likely had enough flight to reduce its quotient for a congressperson. Erick Erickson is on CNN stating he’ll pull a shotgun on census workers if they show up on his doorstep. And these people are worried they’ll be under counted? They do not operate in reality.

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