The Importance of Being Wrong

by Steve Jenkins

Here’s a scientific fact I find fascinating: there is a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, four million times as massive as our own sun. Our sun rotates on its axis about once a month. This black hole rotates every eleven minutes. We can’t see it, because its gravitational field is so strong that light can’t escape. We know it’s there because we can detect radio waves emitted by superheated matter as it falls into the black hole.

Some more facts:
  • When the cable is unplugged and a TV is tuned to no station, some of the “snow” that appears on the screen is caused by radiation left over from the big bang, the moment when all the matter and energy in the universe came into being some 14 billion years ago.
  • To the best of our knowledge, only 4% of the universe is composed of matter and energy as we experience them. Some 23% seems to be composed of dark matter. The remaining 73% is dark energy. At this point, the best we can say about dark energy is that it is a hypothetical force that we don’t understand.
  • Iridium is an element that is found in relatively high concentrations in some asteroids. In many parts of the world, we’ve found a thin layer of iridium in strata laid down 65 million years ago. This layer indicates that an asteroid some ten kilometers in diameter hit the earth with incredible force, causing a worldwide firestorm and sending up clouds of debris that may have been partly or largely responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.
  • 55 million years ago the Indian subcontinent, moving north on the Indian continental plate, rammed into Asia. It’s still moving north at a rate of two and a half inches a year. This slow-motion crash created the Himalayas, which continue to rise at a rate of almost two feet every 100 years.
  • There are superheated geothermal vents on the deep sea floor. Living there, in water that can reach hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit, is an entire ecosystem based on sulfur-loving bacteria and completely independent of solar energy.
  • Life is digital. Four letters, AGCT, encode our genome as a sequence of some three billion base pairs on strands of DNA. It would be possible to convert this sequence to zeros and ones, put it on a disk, and at some point in the future, when the technology becomes available, use it to create a genetically identical individual.

I think it ’s extraordinary that just by using our brains, we humans, stuck on a speck of a planet near the edge of one of 100 billion galaxies, are now able to understand what happened a trillionth of a second after the creation of the universe, what may be happening right now at the center of our galaxy, 25,000 light years away, and how to decipher the molecular code by which information is passed from a living organism to its offspring.

And here are a few findings from recent polls of American adults:

  • 40% believe that astrology is “very” or “somewhat” scientifically valid.
  • 41% believe dinosaurs and humans occupied the earth simultaneously.
  • 47% don’t know how long it takes Earth to orbit the sun.
  • 54% believe in psychic healing.

Finally , in 2010, a Gallup poll found that 40% of adult Americans agree with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.”

This means that almost half the country’s adult population is convinced that humans came into existence at some point after the invention of agriculture. This belief necessitates a rejection of many of the basic principles of biology, geology, physics, archaeology, chemistry—essentially every branch of contemporary science.

There is a real disconnect here. Most members of our society interact regularly with computers, television, antibiotics, and heavier-than-air flying machines. Most experience firsthand, on a daily basis, the products of a scientifically advanced technology. At the same time, their understanding of the physical world is essentially the same as that of someone living in the Middle Ages. They are living in an intellectual alternate reality.

What’s going on?

Ignorance of science is nothing new. For most of human history, only a highly educated elite had interest in and access to contemporary scientific knowledge. Two things are different now. One is the way the specific language of science has been appropriated by various constituencies to promote some particular self-interested point of view. The other is that the stakes are much higher—this kind of ignorance will have increasingly serious consequences.

It’s not possible to discuss this subject without acknowledging the influence that advocates of creationism and intelligent design have had on our educational and political systems. And certainly the anti-evolution movement deserves its share of credit for its energetic misuse of scientific language and for helping to create confusion about what science is and how it works.

But creationism is an easy target. I find the cynical corporate manipulation of scientific methodology more disturbing. American tobacco companies raised misinformation to an art form in the fifties and sixties. Scientists had known for years that a strong connection exists between smoking and lung disease, but these companies spent decades arguing about the definition of “proof,” knowing that very little— perhaps nothing—can be absolutely “proven.” More recently, Exxon Mobil undertook a major initiative to confuse and suppress data supporting the existence of global warming, again by using intentionally confusing language and data. This oil company and others have spent millions of dollars supporting advocacy organizations that dispute the impact—or existence—of global warming.

Of course, it didn’t take politicians long to figure out that taking scientific data out of context or using it in a deliberately confusing way is an effective way to validate whatever positions they hold. Until recently we had a president who advocated equal time for teaching intelligent design in public school science classes. It’s hard to say whether this represents ignorance or cynicism, but it doesn’t really matter. The effect is the same.

It’s an unfortunate fact that many current scientific subjects have become political litmus tests. Automatic positions on evolution, global warming, stem cell research, and other topics are most often associated with the political right, but the fact is that many people on the left are equally dogmatic. A very significant percentage of people who say they “believe in” evolution haven’t the slightest idea how it works. It’s simply the correct viewpoint to advocate if one holds certain other positions. “Believing in evolution,” by the way, is an unfortunate phrase, since science is about evidence rather than belief.

There are other factors at work as well. Popular media regularly presents programs about legitimate scientific research and pseudo-scientific subjects such as ESP, crop circles, and nonexistent ancient civilizations—all with the same earnestness. The problem is compounded by the fact that so much of modern science is done at great extremes of scale and deals with things that are counterintuitive or difficult to grasp: parallel universes, flavors of quarks, an explosion of life forms 500 million years ago. I think one of the main reasons many people have trouble accepting the idea that life gradually evolved is that they don’t have a sense of the immense period of time that it took to do so.

Finally, there are the challenges presented to science by our educational system, including the exaggerated emphasis on writing and math to improve scores on standardized tests and the shortage of teachers qualified to teach science in secondary school. Far too often, science is taught as a collection of facts to be memorized rather than as a process.

Understanding that science is a way of thinking rather than a set of data is at the crux of the issue. Each of the seven examples at the beginning of this article illustrates a theory that has been generally accepted only within the last fifty years or so. Each of these new theories displaced a previously accepted view, one with many adherents that surely represented the life’s work of many scientists. The process was sometimes painful and confrontational. But when enough evidence accumulated, a new explanation was accepted. This illuminates the real weakness of creationism and other dogmatic ideas that pretend to be science: the conclusion can’t change. The answer is known before the question is asked—exactly the opposite of how science actually works.

So what’s the good news?

The children. They’re the best thing we’ve got going. Kids are naturally curious, fascinated with the physical world, and excited about learning new things. If we can only get their attention and give them a few tools for making sense of the world, they’ll take it from there. Nonfiction books are one of the most helpful tools we can give kids. I believe that a cross-curriculum approach to science education incorporating a variety of nonfiction literature is one of the best ways to help children understand what science is and how it works.

Books can encourage asking questions. They can show that by observing and measuring the natural world we are taking the first steps toward understanding it.

Most importantly, they can show that the conclusions of science are supposed to be questioned. Understanding how science works means that we know how to think critically about things—that we can observe things as they really appear to be, rather than as we are told they are, formulate new ideas about those things, and test them against what we already know. This kind of thinking is essential if we want to preserve some sort of control over our lives and our culture.

Steve Jenkins’s newest books Time to Eat, Time for a Bath, and Time to Sleep (Houghton), written with Robin Page, will be published this May. His article is adapted from a speech he delivered at Vermont’s Red Clover Awards conference in September 2007.
From the March/April 2011 issue of
The Horn Book Magazine.

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