Sunday, July 01, 2007

Ignorance is not bliss

CP Snow questioned parties of the literati about the Second Law of Thermodynamics and got looks of disdain in response.

Natalie Angier, the science editor of the New York Times, has written a book, 'The Canon - A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science', as a minimum requirement of an educated person. Steven Pinker reviews Angier's Whirligig Tour in the NY Times (registration required).
The costs of an ignorance of science are not just practical ones like misbegotten policies, forgone cures and a unilateral disarmament in national competitiveness. There is a moral cost as well. It is an astonishing fact about our species that we understand so much about the history of the universe, the forces that make it tick, the stuff it’s made of, the origin of living things and the machinery of life. A failure to nurture this knowledge shows a philistine indifference to the magnificent achievements humanity is capable of, like allowing a great work of art to molder in a warehouse.

In “The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science,” Natalie Angier aims to do her part for scientific literacy. Though Angier is a regular contributor to the Science Times section of this newspaper, “The Canon” departs from the usual treatment of science by journalists, who typically cover the “news,” the finding that upsets the apple cart, rather than the consensus. Though one can understand why journalists tend to report the latest word from the front — editors’ demand for news rather than pedagogy, and the desire to show that science is a fractious human activity rather than priestly revelation — this approach doesn’t always serve a widespread understanding of science. The results of isolated experiments are more ephemeral than conclusions from literature reviews (which usually don’t fit into a press release), and the discovery-du-jour approach can whipsaw readers between contradictory claims and leave them thinking, “Whatever.”
In today's Observer Angier's Whirligig Tour is reviewed by Tim Adams. According to Adams the book has been snapped up at auction by publishers all over Eastern Europe and Asia but there has been no interest in the UK - "a place, we might remember, where 20 per cent of people still believe that the Sun revolves around Earth".

It's time to consider that finding stuff out is inocculation against stupidity. And who could be agin that?

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