January 16th, 2011


Science literacy in America

I originally intended this blog to discuss mostly atheism, but it's become a lot about science as well. I considered whether or not to post this here, but I think it's important. Science literacy and religious affiliation are closely linked, in part because the religiously credulous also seem to be science denialists on a lot of issues. And while these factors need not go together, it is always jarring to me when someone who is generally pro-science messes up something big. It says a lot about the level of science literacy in this country.

Watch the video:

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Now, you know, I love Rachel Madddow. I think she's funny. She generally does her job well. Her research into news stories is generally spectacular. That Ph.D. in political science really shows. But... there is just so much wrong with this story. She and her entire staff dropped the ball on this one. There is nothing new about the story posted in the newspaper and no one in Minnesota discovered anything about the zodiac or the anything of the sort. The precession of the equinoxes was known to the Ancient Greeks. It was noted by Aristarchus, and he was from Samos, not Minnesota. And Ophiuchus was one of the 48 constellations of Ptolemy... again, Ancient Greek!!!!! The Greeks knew it was there, and in part on the zodiac, but it wasn't counted because they wanted to divide the sky evenly into 12 (it makes fractions easier). 360 degrees doesn't divide evenly by 13.

None of this is new. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I used to tell people this to debunk astrology when I was a teenager. And frankly, this goes through various spats of public exposure; think about "The Age of Aquarius"... that song is referring to this. The fact that this can blow up Twitter and end up on an otherwise respectable news program is a sign of just how bad science literacy is. Perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea to teach science by directly debunking nonsense like this.

However we do it, we need to do better.

Over the weekend, I've been watching the West Wing on video, and there are a couple places that jumped out at me there as well, where their science-related stories were just preposterous. It's like no one bothered to get a science consultant on their stories. I bet most science profs would do it for free, too.