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:
- Why is leaving the refrigerator door open a really bad strategy for cooling off the kitchen on a hot day?
- Why does taking your tea with lemon and milk result in chunky tea?
- Licking the spoon while you’re making the pudding makes it so the pudding doesn’t set properly. What’s up with that?
- 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)?
- Why are the days longer in the summer than in the winter?
- Why does ice float (and why is this probably a good thing for people living near big lakes)?
- 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?