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
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
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
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
The bioilogists reasoned that fruit flies must contain this gene,
because virtually all of them (the fruit flies) (also the biologists)
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
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
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.
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