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By Jack Ganssle

The Descent of Man

Published 6/18/2007

<i>And all of science I don't understand.
It's just a job five days a week.</i>
- Elton John, Rocketman

Steven Pinker reviewed Natalie Angier's "The Canon" for the NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/27/books/review/Pinker-t.html?ex=1181880000&en=81979c2a1b9f49b3&ei=5070). Though the book sounds interesting, Pinker's review starts with a near-diatribe against what he sees as a growing scientific illiteracy in the USA. He believes that our aversion to learning science boosts "New Age nostrums, psychic hot lines, creationist textbook stickers and other flimflam."

He goes on: "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."

We engineers tend to stay reasonably current with technology and science. It seems that engineers have an inherent curiosity in many subjects, plus the mental discipline ingrained by rigorous college classes to read widely. But what about non-techies? Is Pinker right? Does it even matter?

Taking the second question first, of course it matters. We're embedded in a world that is defined by and constantly reshaped by science. No aspect of our lives hasn't been revolutionized by it, from the food we eat, medicines we take, understanding of infection, waste management and cleanliness, to the fruits of technology that enhance, and sometimes frustrate, billions of us. It matters more today than in years past, when science almost seems to outrun our understanding of the ethical implications. In vitro DNA testing. Global warming. Genetic engineering. Stem cells. A hundred other issues clamor for our attention, our votes and critical analysis.

Incendiary columnists and blogs (both on the left and the right) substitute ad hominem attacks for reason. Sophistry abounds; logic is scarce.

Yet there have never been so many books about scientific subjects that are so accessible to so many. Bookstores are awash in titles that explain the latest ideas in physics, biology, math and more. Any literate teen or adult can, with little effort, get a pretty good sense of how the universe works. Some of these texts are so current that the interested amateur can stay nearly in lockstep with the very latest developments in the scientific world.

Presumably these books have a healthy market, so is Pinker right? Have intelligent, educated people abdicated their right to staying educated? How many people feel schooling ends with school?

Sometimes I think TV has obliterated the world of ideas, whether the subject is dialectical materialism or special relativity. There was a time when it was common to have discussion salons. Now American Idol or the latest celebrity excess gets splashed across page 1; the Shuttle makes news only when something goes wrong, and progress on the Webb telescope is left to specialty magazines like Sky & Telescope or Aviation Week.

Till fairly recently educated people were expected to have a wide knowledge of, and corresponding interest in, <i>all</i> subjects. Are we intellectually devolving? I sure hope not, and remain encouraged by the young folks I see who do chose to pursue the difficult fields science and engineering, when other, much less demanding areas can be so much more financially rewarding.

But it sure seems that a great number of educated adults have abandoned any attempt to stay scientifically literate. There's no way to stop a conversation faster than to tell a new acquaintance you're an engineer. How many non-techies have any sense of what engineers do? (Hint: it has nothing to do with driving a train).

What do you think? Is Homo Sapiens giving way to Homo Hollywood?