22 November 2011

Science and what we need to know ...

The late George Carlin was one of my favorite comics.  His observation about how we view people who drive either faster or slower than we drive is fantastic (click here for a video clip).  Basically, those who drive slower than us are "idiots," and those who drive faster than us are "maniacs."  What's great about Carlin's observation is that those labels for "other" people are relative to a given person driving a car.  In other words, each of us sets his or her "standard" for something, and then we perceive the different "standards" of other people as strange, annoying, bizarre, perplexing, etc.  Essentially any difference we meet in another person is subject to criticism, scorn, laughter, or any other response that suggests that we are bothered in some way by the difference.  Racism, homophobia, and other forms of hate are born of this idea.  Think about this idea in terms of how a person holding certain religious beliefs views others who hold different religious beliefs.  Carlin's observation applies to much more than driving.

Apply Carlin's idea to what people know and what people "should" know.  What is "common knowledge," and who defines it?  Should a person in a given country know the current president of that country?  What about the number of hours in a day?  What about the time needed for the Earth to make one complete trip around the sun?  Should a person know at least one Biblical story?  What about a story from the Quran?  Should people know world capitals?  What about dates of the two world wars?  Should people be able to speak intelligently about Darwin's theory of natural selection?  What about Einstein's theories of special and general relativities?  Should people know about entropy and the second law of thermodynamics?  Is the name of at least one play by Shakespeare something a person should know?  What about a play by Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo?  Are Newton's laws of motion to be considered as "common knowledge" or only for those erudite few?  Should a person be able to say something intelligent about Kant's categorical imperative?  Given the world's financial problems in recent years, should a person be able to say something of substance about Keynesian economics?

I could obviously go on.  My question to you is how many of the questions in the previous paragraph do you answer, "Of course someone should know that!" and how many do you answer "That's a bit too esoteric for common knowledge!"?  Did you ever learn something in grade school, find out a friend didn't know that thing you just learned, and then tease your friend for not knowing it?  Maybe you said, "I can't believe you don't know that!" or perhaps, "Yeah, everyone knows that!"  I believe we all like to think we know enough not be on the end of someone asking us, "You don't know that?"  Do we apply Carlin's comedy to knowledge?  Do we think those who know less than us to be "idiots" and those who know more to be "know-it-alls" or "show offs"?

Each of us surely draws his or her own line through what's knowable, one side being the "everyone should know that" side and the other being the "we can get by without knowing that" side.  Because everyone puts the line through knowledge in different places, it's a challenge for a government to set any kind of educational standard that will make most people happy.

I love discussions on "what should be known" outside the sciences.  Because this is a blog devoted mostly to sports science, however, let me stick with science.  I have met people who believe that the Earth takes a month to orbit the sun.  I have met people, two who actually teach science in high schools, who think that the phases of the moon are due to the Earth's shadow on the moon.  I have met people who think that summer and winter are explained by the "fact" that the Earth is closer to the sun in summer and farther away in winter.  On this last item, I asked one of those people how it is that we in the US are enjoying summer while someone in, say, Australia is enjoying winter.  On the issue of the moon's phases, I remember pointing to the moon and the sun, which happen to be visible at the same time, to someone of the "Earth's shadow" belief.  When I first talked about moon's phases to my young daughters, I used a basketball, a ping pong ball, and a flashlight.  That's all it takes to dispel the "Earth's shadow" idea.

Regarding the time it takes Earth to orbit the sun, ask yourself the following question.  How often in your daily life, or entire life, for that matter, do you actually need to make use of the fact that the Earth orbits the sun in one year?  I've used that fact in calculations I've done, but I suspect most people never actually need to use that fact in any practical application.  People can go through an entire fulfilling lifetime without ever putting that fact to use.  So, should people know how long it takes for the Earth to orbit the sun, at least to the nearest day?  Is that "fact" on your "everyone should know that" side or your "that's not really necessary to know" side?

Am I crazy to even ask the question that ends the previous paragraph?  There is a nontrivial number of people who don't know how long it takes Earth to go around the sun or why we have summer and winter.  Is it haughty to think of those people as "idiots," or is there not such a cause for alarm?

I suppose I have my own idea of "what people should know" when it comes to science.  My list is not important.  What is important is why people should know some facts that science provides.  Note that science seeks truth about how the natural world works.  We in science "seek" truth, even if we never attain "absolute" truth because of experimental uncertainty.  There are many "facts" that we believe to be "true" because of all the data and evidence acquired to support those "facts."  Recent experiments that suggest a certain type of neutrino might be traveling faster than light remind us that our models of the world can always be challenged and perhaps changed.  That's okay!  We in science relish the opportunity to gain deeper understanding of how the universe actually works, even if means giving up a previously-held "fact."  Science is about seeking knowledge through the accumulation of data and evidence, and testing models put forth to explain how the universe works.  Science is NOT a belief system like, for example, one's religious beliefs.  We do not believe in how long it takes the Earth to orbit the sun, we know how long it takes within the uncertainties of measurement.

Understanding how science works is the basis for the "why" in why I think people should know some scientific facts.  If people know, for example, that the Earth takes a year to orbit the sun, and they know that "fact" because they understand how scientists came to define a "year" and how measurements are used to give us the "numbers" we use as "facts," they are far better off than simply believing in what a year is.  Through an understanding of how science goes about its business, people are more likely to think critically about what science has to say on issues like energy usage, global warming, nuclear weapons, and so forth.  We can appreciate how difficult the science associated with, say, global warming is, and what kinds of error bars there are.  We can see data on that issue and begin to make political choices.  There is no need to "believe" in global warming; there is, however, a need to understand how science in that field is done, even if we don't understand all the details.

Teaching sports physics allows me the opportunity to replace myths ("hanging in the air," "curve balls that drop off the table," etc.) with scientific understanding.  I find much more elegance and beauty in what is real than I do in fantastical myths used to "explain" phenomena.  Baseballs curve through the air because of an asymmetrical separation in the boundary layer of air around the balls.  That's much cooler to me than thinking of balls falling off invisible tables!

To anyone reading this long-winded blog post, learn about how scientists do their work.  You don't need to be a scientist do that!  Learn a few "facts" that we get from science, and how those "facts" became "facts" in the first place.  Just learning about a few "facts" will be sufficient.  When science has something to say about global warming, for example, you won't simply need to "believe" or "not believe" what is reported.  You can think critically about what results have large uncertainties and what results are fairly well established as "facts."  Hey, knowledge is power, right?  I've certainly got a lot more to learn about how the universe works.  Right now, I happen to be thinking about those glorious cricket balls and the "reverse swing" that only a few, elite bowlers have mastered.  I can't wait for what I'll be trying to learn after getting a better understanding of cricket balls in flight!


  1. My brother stumbled upon the Wes Welker article on Yahoo! Sports and showed it to me, which led me here to your blog. I just wanted to say I'm really enjoying reading all the posts, and particularly liked the one about Tim Tebow!

    Hope all is well,

    Steve Brooks

    1. Is this the same Steve Brooks I had in my intro physics course a few years ago? The same Steve Brooks who had the great deflection in the national semifinal game against Bowdoin? Yes, I watched both the national semifinal and the title game, and, yes, I felt sick over the "no call" near the end of the title game! (If this isn't the same Steve Brooks, my apologies!)

      Thanks for your interest in my blog!