Unpopular science

July 1, 2016

Recently, I attended two public addresses. Neither of the speakers, I believe, are stupid. But neither (obviously) had a science background.

"Two things are infinite:  the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe."

- Albert Einstein

Recently, I attended two public addresses. The first speaker, a respected community leader, was making a point about times of hardship and the ability of people to weather difficult times (such as war or the economic recession that gripped the United States and other countries in recent years) and to emerge stronger afterwards. Making an analogy to the change of seasons, he said, "We are all familiar with how the sun tilts on its axis away from earth to cause winter, only to tilt back toward the earth to bring back warm weather and help the crops grow."  

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I found myself smiling at this explanation. Next to me, two of my children-disrespectful rascals they are-snickered quietly. The audience of a couple hundred of my fellow citizens didn't react to suggest that anyone disagreed with the speaker's theory. I found myself wondering if he had just expressed himself poorly or if he really thought the sun tilts back and forth. And today I don't recall anything else from his address.

The second talk, in a different city, was by another community leader. He started by announcing that there was an important fact that few people know. "95% of our bodies are water.  We are really just bags of water," he shared with his audience. 

"Well, that is a surprise!" I thought to myself.  

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As with the other speaker, I again found myself smiling. This time, my imagination began to imagine the speaker sloshing back and forth up at the podium, like a water balloon unable to maintain a stable shape. As I reflect back upon the speech today, I can't recall why the speaker raised this topic, nor can I remember almost anything else from the talk, which was obviously the result of a lot of preparation and delivered in a most heartfelt manner. 

Neither of the speakers, I believe, are stupid. But neither (obviously) had a science background.

According to Pew Research


According to a Pew Research Center report, 29% of Americans think our K-12 education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is above average compared to the rest of world. Members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science were less generous, with 16% ranking STEM education in this country as above average, and 46% saying (correctly) we are below average.

The data are clear. Amongst the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States ranks 20th in how our students perform in standardized science tests. The good news, I suppose, is that we do even worse (27th) when it comes to math. Students in Shanghai, China score two full grade equivalents higher than students in Massachusetts, a highly performing state in the United States. 

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We spend much more on education that most other countries, but the Slovak Republic, while spending about half of what we spend per student, scores the same as our country.

Perhaps the other audience members were simply being kind and respectful when they did not react to inaccurate statements by these two speakers, or (more worrisome to me) perhaps they did not know enough science to realize the statements were just silly. Or maybe I am in the minority when it comes to expecting that leaders giving speeches have some sort of duty to know what they are talking about.

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In my opinion, ophthalmologists should care about this for two reasons:

1. We need strong scientifically literate students to populate our medical schools and ophthalmology residencies in the future to keep us at the forefront of innovation.

2. If that sun tilts any further towards our 95%-water bodies, we may all just evaporate.