Adventures in Ethics and Science

Over at Evolgen, RPM links to an article that lists ten “basic questions” to which ten different scientists think high school graduates should know the answers. (It was one question from each scientist, so it’s unclear whether all ten would agree that they are the ten most important questions, or even that all ten of these scientists could answer all ten to the others’ satisfaction.) RPM opines that the list seems heavy on trivia (or at least seemingly random facts) and light on really helpful scientific knowledge. He writes:

Let’s focus on two things: the hypothetical deductive method and essential information that you must know to be able to read the science section of a newspaper.

Well, I’m a bandwagon jumper-upon of long standing, so let me add some items I’d like the masses to be able to take on:

Useful concepts for getting along in the world:

  1. Why is leaving the refrigerator door open a really bad strategy for cooling off the kitchen on a hot day?
  2. Why does taking your tea with lemon and milk result in chunky tea?
  3. Licking the spoon while you’re making the pudding makes it so the pudding doesn’t set properly. What’s up with that?
  4. When you’re prescribed antibiotics, why should you take the whole course of them even if you feel better sooner (and why won’t antibiotics do jack for the common cold)?
  5. Why are the days longer in the summer than in the winter?
  6. Why does ice float (and why is this probably a good thing for people living near big lakes)?
  7. Why shouldn’t you use a blow-dryer/curling iron/paper shredder/electric carving knife while soaking in the bath tub?

There are plenty more, of course.

In terms of “big ideas”, I second RPM’s suggestion that knowing something about how scientists draw inferences from data and test their hypotheses would be a very good thing. I think it would also be good to have some understanding of how scientists can piece together a reasonable understanding of phenomena, events, or entities no one has ever seen (like the Big Bang, or electrons). As well, some clue about how scientists settle their disagreements would be handy.

What do you want lay people to have as part of their store of scientific knowledge? What piece of scientific knowledge have you found especially useful, or would you like to have if you don’t already?


  1. #1 igor eduardo kupfer
    April 26, 2006

    How about:

    What is the difference between a false positive and a false negative?

  2. #2 monkey
    April 26, 2006

    Wait…why does licking the spoon cause pudding not to set?

  3. #3 dave
    April 26, 2006

    And evidence of absence vs absence of evidence?

    All of which, including the scientific process, derives from a habit of thinking that can be learned, but which is not taught; the nearest I have come to describing it is knowing how to prove propositions the world presents to you, using (or based on?) evidentiary rules. As a practical matter, what characterizes such a habit is that it can successfully be applied to itself as way of improving its own performance.

    <gratuitous personal experience follows: skip at will>
    I was exceptionally lucky in this: my high school dedicated an entire semester, at my tender age of 12, to Propositional Calculus, and how to work and present a formal proof. What I learned there has found application in my entire life, mundane to sublime, daily to intense theoreticality. AFAICR, the only little gem I had brought into this with me was an understanding of how x = y + 5 worked. Here I cannot help with what to teach. I picked that one up in one of those extremely rare moments of illumination – at 9, I caught a glimpse of a 10-yr old’s algebra book as he was about to close it. That was 50 years ago, and I still remember its intensity. I knew what it meant immediately. “Oooh! you don’t have to use numbers!” was how I expressed it at the time. How can you teach that?
    </gratuitous personal experience>
    <and apologies, but the subject fascinates me, and this seems like a forum to find others with whom to explore it better>

  4. #4 potentilla
    April 26, 2006

    An understanding of the nature of a normal distribution, and the related point that statements of the form “on average women are shorter than men” does not logically lead to “this is a woman so she must be shorter than all the men”.

    An understanding that a 100% increase in x might mean that there used to be one and now there are two, or that there used to be 0.000000001% chance of something and now there is 0.000000002% chance (assuming I typed that right).

    BTW, shouldn’t “deductive” read “inductive” in the quote from Evolgen above?

  5. #5 Mike Peel
    April 26, 2006

    I’ve got to ask. Why on earth would you want to use a paper shredder or an electric carving knife while you’re in the bath?

  6. #6 Dave S.
    April 26, 2006

    A few things I would want lay-people to know about science:

    … that science is a method invented by humans to understand the natural world using natural methodology. It is not meant to reveal all knowledge about every aspect of existance.

    … that due to the above, science is limited. But in this limitation lies its strength. The proof of this is the great success science has had.

    … that science is not about truth, it’s about evidence.

    … that evidence is empirical, which means we need to be to observe it with our senses.

    … that just because we don’t know everything about a process doesn’t mean we don’t know anything.

    … that science is tentative doesn’t mean we can’t ever be confident in it. Science is stable, but it never stands still.

    … that rejecting some arguments doesn’t mean scientists are dogmatic and will reject every argument. Similarly, that science is tentative doesn’t mean that all arguments have equal validity.

    … that science is not democratic. We don’t decide what is or isn’t a scientifically valid explanation based on what is popular, but based on evidence.

    … that reproducibility means that we can reproduce observations of the evidence, not that the process itself has to be repeatable.

    … that observing something doesn’t mean we have to be able to observe it directly – it’s also OK to observe the evidence left behind from that somethings existance (as an example, noboby has ever directly observed an electron or the core of the Earth, but these things have effects which can be observed.) Similarly, even if the event itself is no longer operative (or not operating on a scale that humans can obseve directly), the evidence it left behind can still be studied scientifically to infer that event.

    … that theories are the endpoints of science and not a lesser version of a ‘fact’ or a ‘law’.

    … that theories are confirmed or falsified by constructing predictions that flow from the theory which are testable using empirical evidence. A test will differentiate the theory being tested from other possibly competing theories.

    … that scientists are responsible for supporting their own arguments, publishing their data in peer reviewed scientific literature, and defending their positions by making and testing more predictions based on their argument. It’s not the responsibility of other scientists to prove them wrong, even though in some cases this can be done.

  7. #7 outeast
    April 26, 2006

    I second monkey. Why does licking the spoon cause pudding not to set? It’s not a phenomenon of which I was previously aware (not beinfg much of a pudding maker).

  8. #8 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 26, 2006

    Short answer on licking the spoon: You’re introducing spit (and enzymes that digest starches) into the pudding bowl.

    But, there may be a market for pred-digested pudding somewhere.

  9. #9 Thomas Winwood
    April 26, 2006

    I hear it’s a lucrative Ferengi business.

  10. #10 D.B. Light
    April 26, 2006

    Does scientific literacy really matter much for most people? Does it matter if the man or woman in the street really knows about wavelengths and scattering and why the sky is blue?

    I am reminded of Isaac Asimov’s take on the old folk song:

    Tell me why the sun does shine,
    Tell me why the i-vy climbs,
    Tell me why the sky’s so blue,
    And I will tell you just why I love you.

    The traditional form goes:

    Because God made, the sun does shine,
    Because God made, the ivy climbs,
    Because God made, the sky so blue,
    Because God made you is why I love you.

    Asimov’s version:

    Nuclear fusion, it makes sun shine,
    Phototropism makes ivy climb,
    Rayleigh scattering, it makes skies blue,
    Hormone imbalances make me love you.

    Asimov’s point, and it is a good one, is that whatever the gain in understanding, something wonderful is lost when you engage in scientific reductionism.

  11. #11 tbell1
    April 26, 2006

    I’m usually just a lurker here on science blogs, but I have a pet peeve about the use of the terms ‘lay’ or ‘lay people’ in reference to nonprofessionals in science. Doesn’t it just stink of religion? Am I the only one who hates the term? Can we generate an alternative? ‘non-professional’ is a mouthful, but can’t we just say ‘people’ or ‘the public’ or educated citizens or something?

    Love the blogs here by the way, and as far as this discussion goes, I’d say I’d rate the importance of understanding the processes/methodologies of science far higher than most specific findings.

  12. #12 Jess
    April 26, 2006

    Isn’t something wonderful also gained when you understand the scientific explanations for things? I don’t find anything “reductive” about understanding why and how plants orient and move towards the sun, for instance. In fact, it’s cumulative — there’s nothing that says you have to find the sight of ivy boring and unbeautiful just because you know about phototropism, so you get to admire it and understand it (or be closer to understanding it, anyway).

    And I like pudding way better now that I know it won’t set if you put a licked spoon in the bowl. I want to make some pudding now.

  13. #13 SteveG
    April 26, 2006

    I love that you draw from both the content and method side of science in setting out what ought to be known. The folks who play the “things you need to know” game are often those pushing the testing line. My fear is that this leads to neglecting the methodological questions and by taking out the play from science, this too often leads to the damping of enthusiasm for budding minds. It is true that there needs to be a widespread, fundamental understanding of the basic results of science, but what the ID debates have shown, if nothing else, is that a lack of understanding of science as a process is extremely dangerous. To that end, I would put up as question #1, “Can you spot an empirical from a non-empirical claim?”

  14. #14 Thomas Winwood
    April 26, 2006

    I’d argue that it makes my appreciation of (say) a rainbow that much greater if I know about the refraction of light inside a raindrop which causes its existence. To argue that the rainbow loses beauty because it can be explained implies you don’t want to learn about things; if you have no drive to discover the unknown, why are you bothering to live?

  15. #15 Lab Cat
    April 26, 2006

    I’m interested that all your questions are practical/applied with many of them having relevance to my own field of food science.

    It would be useful if people realised that science is neutral and merely a way of observing the world. It is the way that scientific results are used that makes it political. This kind of fits with the questions Dave S. was asking.

    The spoon question also raises the follow up question:
    Why shouldn’t we double dip the pudding?

  16. #16 Mark
    April 26, 2006

    1. Why is leaving the refrigerator door open a really bad strategy for cooling off the kitchen on a hot day?

    This reminds me of a thermodynamics lab I was the TA for. We had a demonstration a/c unit with all the components exposed, including the condensing and evaporating coils side by side blowing hot and cold air, respectively. One student asked me to turn it off because he was cold.

    7. Why shouldn’t you use a blow-dryer/curling iron/paper shredder/electric carving knife while soaking in the bath tub?

    There may be sanitary issues if the carving knife is used for its intended purpose. Also, it’s generally a bad idea to handle power cutting tools in the nude.

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