Science knowledge in US (humor)

Joseph E. Laferriere josephl at CCIT.ARIZONA.EDU
Tue Jul 9 08:17:20 CDT 1996

I recently read this column by Dave Barry and could not resist the
temptaion to share it. Dave Barry writes for the Miami Herald newspaper
and has written several books containing his humorous observations of
American life. His humor technique is to say totally preposterous things,
but with some truth lying beneath his exaggerated statements.

              Scientific illiteracy in U.S.? Well, duh!
                            by Dave Barry

   You don't realize it, but you are constantly enjoying the benefits
of science.
   For example,  when you  turn on the radio, you take it for granted
that music  will come  out, but  do you  ever stop to think that this
miracle would not be possible without the work of scientists?
   That's right.  There are  tiny scientists inside the radio playing
   A similar  principle is  used in  automatic bank-teller  machines,
which is  why they  frequently say,  "Sorry, out of service." They're
too  embarrassed   to  say,  "Sorry,  tiny  scientist  going  to  the
   Yes, science plays a vital role in your life, but when it comes to
scientific knowledge,  there's an  excellent  chance  that  you're  a
   I base this statement on a recent survey conducted by the National
Science Foundation,  which showed  that the average American does not
understand basic scientific principles.
   Naturally, the  news media reported this finding as though it were
shocking, which is silly.
   This is,  after all,  a nation  that has  produced tournament bass
fishing and  the Home Shopping Channel; we should be shocked that the
average American still knkows how to walk erect.
   But the  point is  that we have a scientific illiteracy problem in
this nation, and you could be part of it.
   To find  out, see  if you  can answer these three actual questions
from the National Science Foundation survey:

   1. True or False: The earliest human beings lived at the same time
as the dinosaurs.

   2. Which travels faster, light or sound?

   3. Explain in your own words, what is DNA?

   All finished? Now let's look at the correct answers.

   1. FALSE! The truth is that the dinosaurs had been dead for over a
week before  the first  human came along, probably in the form of Bob
Dole. Yet  most Americans  firmly believe  that humans  and dinosaurs
   This  misconception   arose  from  the  many  absurdly  inaccurate
fictional depictions  of caveman  life, such  as the  TV cartoon show
"The Flintstones,"  in which the Flintstones own a pet dinosaur named
   But paleontologists,  who can  determine the age of fossils with a
high degree  of accuracy  using a  technique called  "carbon-dating,"
have known  for many  years that  Dino is  actually another character
wearing a costume.
   "We think it's Barney,"  the paleontologists announced recently,"But we
can't say for sure until we get another grant."
   2. To  answer the  light-vs.-sound  question,  consider  what  you
observe when  a thunderstorm  is approaching and a bolt of lightening
   First you see the lightening bolt; then you hear the thunder; then
you hear a scream if the lightening bolt has stuck a person; then you
hear  a   loud  cheer  from  bystanders  if  the  person  was  George
   This tells  us that light travels faster than sound, because light
goes straight  down from  the  sky  and  is  therefore  attracted  by
gravity, whereas  sound goes  sideways and is slowed down by friction
with the  Earth's rotation,  also known  as  "peristalsis,"  or  "The
Greenhouse effect."
   3.        DNA         is        an         abbreviation        for
"deoxyribonucleicantidisestablishmentarianism," a  complex string  of
syllables that  is found inside your body in tiny little genes called
   Biologists often  refer to  DNA as  "The Body's  Secret Handshake"
because the  information encoded  in you  DNA determines  your unique
biological characteristics  such as  sex, eye  color, age  and Social
Security number.
   There is  surprizingly little  difference between the DNA found in
humans and that found in other species such as H. Ross Perot.
   This fact  has led  to research  that could  benefit mankind, most
notably a  series  of  experiments  in  which  biologists  chemically
altered the  DNA in fruit flies in an effort to isolate the gene that
causes baldness.
   The bioilogists  reasoned that fruit flies must contain this gene,
because virtually all of them (the fruit flies) (also the biologists)
are bald.
   This work  took nine  years and  $31 million, but the results were
impressive. When  fruit flies  with normal  DNA were  compared with a
group with  altered DNA,  both groups were found to consist of little
random black  smears, because  the only  way the biologists could get
them to  hold still  was to  whack  them  with  rolled-up  copies  of
Scientific American.
   Nevertheless, the biologists believe they are on the right track.
   "We think  it's Barney  wearing a  Dino costume,"  they  announced
recently at  a press  conference that led to allegations of plagarism
from angry  paleontologists, "But  we can't say for sure until we get
another grant."
   So, those are your correct answers.
   If  you  did  poorly,  you're  not  alone.  The  National  Science
Foundation reports  that only  25% of  the people surveyed, or one in
six, passed the quiz.
   And if  you think  that's a  pathetic commentary  on our  national
intelligence, you  should see  all the mail I'm going to get in which
people will send me this column with the words "25%" and "one in six"
circled and a snotty note informing me that this is incorrect.
   So, there's no question about it.  Scientific illiteracy isdefinitely a
major problem in America. As the saying goes, "If you're not part of the
solution, you're a newspaper columnist." So, I feel I've done my part.
And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go shake my radio.

More information about the Taxacom mailing list