Click and weep

The dire state of scientific knowledge in America, from an article by Mark Roth in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

It’s stupefying that nearly half of Americans don’t think that regular tomatoes have genes!

Although scientific literacy is increasing, it’s still quite low.  Roth identifies several causes for this reprehensible state of affairs, but of course we know the real ones. They are:

  1. The stridency of Gnu Atheists, which makes Americans refuse to learn science and flee to religion instead
  2. The lack of scientific “rock stars” and cheerleaders to make science sexy for the average American

h/t: Hempenstein


  1. Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink


    Oh, wait. I’m Canadian. I’ll hold my weeping ’till I see some equivalent data for us.

    Probably not much better.

    • Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      I clearly remember people complaining about this same problem 20 years ago. They said something needed to be done about that problem, but of course nothing happened. If current trends continue, nothing will happen to deal with science illiteracy during the next 20 years. Ho ve!

      • Dominic
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink


      • Michael Kingsford Gray
        Posted March 21, 2011 at 12:25 am | Permalink

        Not in the USA, at least.
        Meanwhile, other countries forge ahead…

        • Jurgen
          Posted March 21, 2011 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

          …such as China…. !!

          • Michael Kingsford Gray
            Posted March 22, 2011 at 3:14 am | Permalink

            And India.

  2. Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    It’s stupefying that nearly half of Americans don’t think that regular tomatoes have genes!

    It’s why I don’t like stores or manufacturers labeling food products as “natural” or “biologic” – including fruit and vegetables. What does that make all our other food? Synthetic?

    • Wyrm
      Posted March 21, 2011 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      If it’s labeled “biologic”, then yes. It’s compared to all of our synthetic food.

      If it’s labeled as a “natural” alternative, then they don’t want it confused with the “supernatural” mainstream.

    • Jim Hillaker
      Posted April 9, 2011 at 5:22 am | Permalink

      Actually, the word “synthetic” means “of a synthesis”, in other words, it has a composite structure. So most things in nature are synthetic.

      But I think I would agree with the gist of what you’re saying: it would be like saying all our food is artificial, i.e., “manmade”.

  3. David
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    This does not really surprise me, when I was in high school even in an “advanced” curriculum the science class was like an unwanted step child. we were taught pretty much nothing in it, granted the school I was in sucked, but science class was treated as just a step above study hall and a couple steps below gym.

    For the four years I was in that school we had about 9 science teachers almost all of them temporary subs with no special knowledge of science just a basic teaching degree even the art teacher spent half a year teaching it.

  4. james
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Do seedless tomatoes that are in the grocery store have genes?

    • james
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      That was supposed to be slightly snarky, but I actually don’t know what happens to the cells of fruits after they are picked. Anyone?

      • Sven DiMilo
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        Seedless tomatoes lack embryos but still have plenty of genes. I’d bet you could extract sequenceable DNA from a sun-dried seedless tomato.

        • Posted March 20, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

          I have sequenced DNA from 80 yr old herbarium specimens (ie. pressed, dried and stuck to a sheet of paper). So yes, probably. You’d have better luck with fresh ones I think, depending how long they’d been kept.

      • Astrid_H
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        Every somatic cell (every cell apart from the ones that make up the seeds) possesses the full genome, usually. So yeah, seedless tomatoes definitely have genes.

        • Michael Kingsford Gray
          Posted March 21, 2011 at 12:29 am | Permalink

          Do not plants possess the equivalent of our red blood cells, sans nucleus?
          (A non-biologist mathematician asking this possibly stupid question)

          • SAWells
            Posted March 21, 2011 at 2:56 am | Permalink

            It’s a perfectly good question. I think the answer’s no.

            If any plant biologists know different, they will appear here by the power of SIWOTI.

          • Astrid_H
            Posted March 21, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

            Well that’s why I put the usually there but since I’m not a plant biologist I don’t know for sure. But you’re right in that in eucaryotic cells the determining factor is the presence or absence of a nucleus.

          • Sal Bro
            Posted March 21, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

            Mature red blood cells already lack nuclei.

            Are you asking whether similar molecules give erythrocytes and tomato cells their red color? The answer is no–hemoglobin and lycopene are responsible, respectively.

            • Kevin
              Posted March 21, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

              He was asking a more general question.

              Is there in plants a group of cells that do not have genetic material? In the way that red blood cells in animals do not have DNA?

              I would doubt it — and actually red blood cells start out with a nucleus, but this is ejected during development.

              What? What a lousy design that is…why not just build the cell without the nucleus in the first place? It’s almost like there was no design whatsoever and an unguided evolutionary process was at work…

              oh wait…


              Can’t answer the question, but can provide the snark.

              • Posted March 21, 2011 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

                And good snark it was, too;-)

              • Sal Bro
                Posted March 22, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

                Ah, I see. I missed the “not”. And Jebus ejected the nucleus to test your faith.

        • Alex Gonzalez
          Posted March 21, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

          Fruit, including tomatoes, has the DNA of its parent plant. The developing embryo is the sum of its two parental contributions, and the food store inside the seed is triploid, with two maternal and one paternal DNA share.

          Seedless fruit usually come from triploid varieties of plant, which typically cannot produce seeds because of their chromosomal abnormalities.

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 21, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

            Thank you–fascinating! I was a botany major but did not know this.

  5. Jacob Li
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    I saw this on Scientific American several weeks ago. It turned out that USA ranked 2nd in all countries surveyed, second only to Japan.

    For comparison, Chinese Association of Science and Technology recently conducted a survey and concluded that ~3.3% of Chinese citizens were scientifically literate. USA might well be the country that has the largest number of scientifically literate people….

    • Hempenstein
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      Careful of going from percentages to numbers. I remember reading years ago that there were more Lutherans in India than Sweden. They’re .03% of Indians, but multiply that by the population…

      • Scott near Berkeley
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

        And I read that India has the greatest number of professed atheists. A small percentage of the population, but again, the multiplier effect!!

        • Dominic
          Posted March 20, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

          Small or large, go India!

  6. MeAgain
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Was that a poll of our GOP political leaders? Bob the Tomato doesn’t need genes but he doesn’t have legs.

  7. Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink



    This doesn’t help matters.

    • Dominic
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      If we leave it to god we are totally f*%$£d as it doesn’t exist! Quick – we have to tell those idiots!

  8. Deepak Shetty
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    But this doesn’t have anything to do with evolution. Thats the only metric that matters.

  9. Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I’m curious about these new ‘antibotics’…

    • TreeRooster
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      You beat me to it! A nice example of
      Muphry’s law
      at work.

  10. abb3w
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Most of the values with GSS analogs (the sound/light question doesn’t that I can find) about correspond to GSS results. However, I’m a bit skeptical about the Tomato percentage; the GSS-2010 includes in the science questions “Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do. (Is that true or false?)” In that survey (N=937), only about 20% (incorrectly) said that was true, while about another 30% didn’t know.

    The 44% value in the above seems likely (despite the wording of the chart) to be lumping the misinformed with the ignorant; otherwise, it’s a heck of a sampling anomaly, or an astoundingly rapid decrease in a tiny part of American ignorance.

    • abb3w
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      As an aside, that 20% of the country not knowing that all tomatoes have genes is still a bit stupefying, but not quite as severe as the similar magnitude (but only partially overlapping) 20% of the country that said the Sun goes around the Earth.

    • abb3w
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

      Aha! Probable source [PDF] found.

      7% True, 41.9% Don’t Know, 51.1% (correctly) False. Presuming they added the ignorant and misinformed together, and presented the value as misinformed, the 49% value is explained.

      BAD science journalist. No cookie.

      • K
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know – not knowing IS the same as….well, not knowing. Meaning that if only 56% know the correct answer, only 56% know the correct answer. 44% don’t know the correct answer, whether they believe something that’s untrue or don’t know what’s actually true.

        If I were a teacher I would include, “not sure” and “true” both as wrong answers.

        • abb3w
          Posted March 21, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

          However, the two present different levels of obstacle for teaching. As Mark Twain put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

      • SAWells
        Posted March 21, 2011 at 3:00 am | Permalink

        I think cookies may still be in order. Somebody who doesn’t know that all tomatoes have genes is just as big a problem, in terms of science literacy, as somebody who thinks they know that some tomatoes don’t have genes.

        • abb3w
          Posted March 21, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

          No, someone who incorrectly thinks they know the answer is a bigger problem in terms of science literacy than someone who at least recognizes their own ignorance. The former requires the teacher spend a period of Yoda-esque persuasion that “You must unlearn what you have learned” before impressing the truth into their minds.

    • Literati
      Posted March 23, 2011 at 6:35 am | Permalink

      Wow! If that is the kind of questions we are dealing with, I am significantly less worried than the statistics alone would have me be. I would not be at all surprised if well over half of the “ignorant” and “misinformed” population actually just had a hard time parsing the question properly. Compare the two statements below:

      “Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do.”

      “Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes which genetically modified tomatoes do.”

      There is only one word changed between these two sentences (plus a punctuation mark), yet the meanings are entirely different. (Side note – if you put the comma back into that second sentence, it becomes false again! Such a small thing!) So, it’s entirely possible that reading (or listening) comprehension issues are confounding the results of this survey.

  11. lamacher
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    It’s March Madness right now, the annual collegiate adoration of sports over academics. The UCONN Huskies will graduate less than 50% of the team, contrary to NCAA rules, which the league ignores blatantly. My Bucknell Bison lost to those Huskies by 29, but if the results were decided by academic achievement, no contest. The MCAT scores of the Bison starting five exceed by a substantial margin that of the entire Husky team. Two Bison are graduating in bioengineering, one is an Academic All-American, all will graduate on time. But the glory goes to the rock-heads. Terrific!

    • kyle
      Posted March 21, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

      I’m pretty sure that no uconn huskies are going to med school any time soon, so I doubt kemba walker took the MCATs. I doubt many of the uconn huskies even know what the MCAT is. It doesnt really seem like you do either.

  12. Diane G.
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately, I’d say reason # 2, or some corollary thereof, probably holds some water. If there were a way to get solid science info into some suitably cheesy, titillating, innuendo-laden, t-&-a flashing “reality” show, the data might improve. “Faculty Housewives?” (GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!)

    • Matthew Cobb
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I’m not sure why Jerry pressed the irony button there. What *harm* would it do? And it might do some good, especially if one of those rock star scientists was J Coyne… In fact, I seem to remember one of Jerry’s pals cooking up a spoof Science magazine article about him coming over to France and giving rock-stadium talks about evolution. Do you still have that somewhere, Jerry? It was about 20 years ago, mind you…

      • Dominic
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

        I’d go to that gig in Paris!

      • SaintStephen
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

        Totally agree. Not one single thing wrong with the concept of Rock Star Scientists. Atheism needs to shed the coke-bottle glasses and pocket protectors and hire a Hollywood agent — PRONTO.

        (Err… I’m sure Professor Coyne’s glasses would work, though…sigh)

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

        What was wrong with the original attempt was that certain scientists were just dubbed rock stars and presented as such. That’s not how it works…:D

        When I went to see Dawkins speak at MI State during his last book tour, the atmosphere was getting close to rock-star territory. A few thousand mostly college kids looking star struck, SRO, signs & posters abounding…When the actual event started, it was a tad cognitively dissonant–I was in the nose-bleed section and way down on the stage there was a rather soft-spoken professor with a Power Point show. 😀

        Definitely coulda used at least some Bill Nye-ish production effects…(I was satisfied, mind you, but that’s called preaching to the choir…)

        • Filippo
          Posted March 21, 2011 at 3:12 am | Permalink

          A cartoon from “The New Yorker” some years ago: a couple is looking through the window of the hospital nursery. An infant is holding up a sign in large block letters: “ENTERTAIN ME.”

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 21, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

            LOL! So true!

  13. Sven DiMilo
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    What this country needs is more science rockstars and fewer gnuatheists, it’s totally true!
    But wait–science rockstars need only profess ‘spirituality’, though, right? Because most of the theists don’t rock very hard.

  14. GM
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    What is even worse about these polls is that they are usually True or False questions. Which means that while the ones that gave the wrong answer are certainly scientifically illiterate, it is likely that a good fraction of the ones that gave the right answer also had no clue and just guessed it right. Half of the people giving the right answer to a True or False question is what you would expect if everybody randomly guessed. And that’s true even when a third option (“Not Sure”) is given, in which case the ones that answered “Not Sure” are also illiterate but it likely that there is still some portion of the ones that answered correctly didn’t want to show how ignorant they are and guessed.

    And then there are “right for the wrong reasons” people, who answered correctly because they knew the answer, however lack any actual understanding of the underlying science, and my guess is that those are not an insignificant percentage.

    So it is actually even worse, much worse, than what these polls say

    • abb3w
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

      As I noted above, the Tomato value is actually a bit better than suggested – BECAUSE the value given apparently lumps “I don’t know” with the wrong answers.

      Similarly, the GSS also includes “Don’t Know” codes. The question on the earth going around the sun in a year is a combination of EARTHSUN and SOLARREV; others are HOTCORE, ASTROSCI, VIRUSES, and TOMATOES. The light/sound question doesn’t seem to be in the GSS; the closest would be STORMTXT, about whether you see lightning or hear thunder first.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted March 21, 2011 at 1:30 am | Permalink

        uh, how is “I don’t know” NOT a wrong answer, Abbey?

        if you asked me how long it takes the earth to complete an orbit of the sun, and I answer: “I don’t know”, sorry but that qualifies as being illiterate on this question.

        you are asking the wrong question here. You are asking, “who is deliberately misinformed?” when the question is “who doesn’t know the answer?”

        so, I have to entirely disagree with your very patient analysis, and say the results posted are accurate wrt to the question of science literacy.

        • abb3w
          Posted March 21, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

          “I don’t know” is (presumably) at least true. Also, it represents less of an obstacle to education; it’s easier to teach the ignorant than to correct a misperception. You might consider it the difference between a biology student with no understanding, and a creationist with an active misconception.

          And, as I noted, the wording of the chart is phrased to indicate who espouse the misconception.

  15. Ken Pidcock
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    The Pittsburgh schools also are using an “inquiry-based” curriculum, known as Full Option Science System, which emphasizes hands-on experiments and getting students to solve problems rather than memorize facts.

    Results of decades of educational research demonstrate that inquiry-based science curricula are superior for instruction of hypothetical students.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      My wife, who works at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, sits next door to the main office of FOSS (Full Option Science System). I have known Co-Directors Linda De Lucchi and Larry Malone for many years. However, I did stump Linda ten years ago with the question “On which date is it twelve hours of light, and twelve hours of darkness, everywhere on the planet Earth?” She thought it was a “trick question” and it was not possible. I told her it was a “trick” in that there are -two- dates, the Spring Equinox and the Fall Equinox.
      It shook my confidence in FOSS somewhat. Also that they didn’t include Mohs Scale of Hardness in their curriculum.

      • Peter Carlton
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

        Well, a cursory reading of the equinox Wikipedia page shows it’s not quite as simple as 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness everywhere on the planet, due among other things to the Sun’s radius not being zero.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

        From Wikipedia:

        Sunrise and sunset are commonly defined for the upper limb of the solar disk, rather than its center. The upper limb is already up for at least one minute before the center appears, and likewise, the upper limb sets one minute later than the center of the solar disk. Due to atmospheric refraction, the Sun, when near the horizon, appears a little more than its own diameter above the position than where it is in reality. This makes sunrise more than another two minutes earlier and sunset the equal amount later. These two effects add up to almost seven minutes, making the equinox day 12 h 7 min long and the night only 11 h 53 min. In addition to that, the night includes twilight. When dawn and dusk are added to the daytime instead, the day would be almost 13 hours.
        The above numbers are only true for the tropics. For moderate latitudes, this discrepancy increases (for example, 12 minutes in London) and closer to the Poles it gets very large. Up to about 100 km from either Pole, the Sun is up for a full 24 hours on an equinox day.

  16. Posted March 20, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Of course tomatoes have genes. Anything sitting out in the open at the store is going to be covered in DNA.

    • Dave
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for that!

  17. Posted March 20, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    The bar chart would be more truthy if the gaps between the bars corresponded to the timespans – 7, 2, 2, 5, 1 and 3 years. There’s a bit of a spurt in illiteracy between 2004 and 2005. I wonder why?

    And I’d put the astrology answer into a different category from the others which are just ignorance. It’s more like “false knowledge”. You could tell anyone the true answers to the others and they’s say “Oh yeah, okay,” but they’d go “Nyah nyah” to the astrology one.

  18. Insightful Ape
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Dr Coyne, I have a complaint. This post should have come with a warning. When I read about “the stridency of the gnus”, I almost threw up. I was in public place and it would have been very embarrassing.

    • noah gnorl
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

      ‘The Stridency Of The Gnus’ = The Silence Of The Lambs sequel that never happened?

      • Michael Kingsford Gray
        Posted March 21, 2011 at 12:43 am | Permalink

        Colour me a “Bewildebeest”

  19. Dominic
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    It is sad but really not a phenomenon unique to the US of that I am certain. The ignorance extends to all fields (particularly history & geography) in all lands – perhaps excepting Iceland & Scandinavia? It is why I have so little time for toleration of religion – they do not get it because the cannot get it.Oh dear – how shrill & strident of me.

  20. Patrick
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Alright, here’s my quick take on these questions.

    1. No matter what you ask, there’s an error percentage on any public knowledge test. This is because people say things wrong, hear things wrong, misunderstand what’s happening, etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if this question is fairly close to the standard rate of mistakes on surveys, so this question doesn’t bother me.

    2. This is pushing it a little, but its still not far off from the “oops, bubbled in the wrong circle” rate.

    3. These results should bother us.

    4. Astrology looks/sounds a lot like astronomy. I wouldn’t take this question to actually mean that this percentage of people think that the actual thing that is astrology is scientific. I’d instead take it to mean some combination of that and some amount of people who understand the difference between scientific study of space and magical interpretation of shapes in the sky, but who don’t care much about it and couldn’t remember which name was which.

    5. Again, they may understand that there are some drugs that do some things, and others that do other things, but not understand the naming conventions. I don’t feel like this is actually testing scientific knowledge rather than familiarity with terminology. Terminology is important, but not that important for lay persons.

    6. These results should bother us.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

      5. Again, they may understand that there are some drugs that do some things, and others that do other things, but not understand the naming conventions. I don’t feel like this is actually testing scientific knowledge rather than familiarity with terminology. Terminology is important, but not that important for lay persons.

      Definitely. Virus, to most people, means anything infectious, and is not distinguished from bacteria. Back when people were freaking about biological weapons, I read a George Will column where he made reference to “smallpox spores”. I know, Will is not currently the best representative of a reasonably scientificly literate person, but still, the editor didn’t catch it.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted March 21, 2011 at 1:36 am | Permalink

        but still, the editor didn’t catch it.

        who, judging by the survey data for the last 20 years, has a good chance of ALSO being scientifically illiterate.

        Definitely. Virus, to most people, means anything infectious, and is not distinguished from bacteria.

        so long as we’re clear that this still means that someone saying that is dead wrong.

        • Patrick
          Posted March 21, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

          Right, I’m just trying to make the point that there are different levels of knowledge, and getting a question wrong doesn’t mean that the problem goes all the way to the bottom.

          For example, if someone tell you the difference between the 3rd and 4th amendment in the Bill of Rights, that doesn’t mean they’re clueless about the legal issues involved in those clauses.

  21. Patrick
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Regarding number 3: lacking a privileged reference frame, it is equally reasonable to say that the sun orbits the earth or that the earth orbits the sun. The motion is relative, not absolute.

    I don’t suppose that excuses simple ignorance, though.

    • SLC
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      This statement is highly misleading. The sun and the earth revolve around a common center of mass, which is interior to the sun, but not quite at its center. Any corrections due to relativistic effects are very small, so that appeals to general relativity are irrelevant.

      • Patrick
        Posted March 21, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

        Do we have to view that common center of mass as a fixed point when interpreting motion in the system? Nope. It’s just the most obvious and intuitive choice.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 21, 2011 at 2:19 am | Permalink

      This may be unfair, if you are new to the web, but *every time* this is discussed someone wants to Save The World™.

      If you are suggesting that a disputable question can result in lower precision of response because people misunderstand and/or get provoked to mess with it, fair enough. Though I would suggest that the effect is a) minute b) can be controlled for (dunno if it was done here though) c) will be found in other questions too.

      As for physics, we do have privileged frames here, if not absolute. SLC notes the natural one as soon as we recognize that it is a gravitational problem; putting Earth as reference will make describing the Moon’s movements trivial, but the Sun and planets fubar. The commonly used one is a good approximation.

      We can also consider the local neighborhood, the galaxy and the universal CMB rest frame (resulting in having CMB photons reaching the observer isotropically), but none of those privileged frames will help with the local description.

      An analogy, perhaps, is that if you know of parkour you would like to suggest calling up “up-down” and down “down-up” to recognize the need for acknowledging that hand traverse is as possible as feet when moving over the city. That will surely Save The World™!

      Btw, on absolute vs relative reference frames, I don’t think they are tied to relativity as such. It is possible to use relative frames in classical mechanics, in fact Lagrange and Hamiltonian descriptions rely on it IIRC. The problem comes when you consider fields with their finite interaction speeds (either quantum or by way of observation of light behavior).

      It is difficult to put yourself in the cultural reference frame of Newton, but it seems he could have been aware of the possibility. However, he struggled with the problem that people of that day had no concept of an abstract room; space was in relation to objects. When he abstracted the room, it became tied to “absolute” as in having an existence, at all.

      • Patrick
        Posted March 21, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

        I’m not trying to save the world, and my last sentence was meant to indicate that I doubt the concerns I expressed had anything to do with response rates on the poll. However, what we’re doing in interpreting question 3 is taking a view to indicate scientific literacy not because it is *correct*, but because it is common among the scientifically literate. That may be an unimportant point, but I at least find it interesting.

  22. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    I object to the idea that “ordinary” tomatoes are not genetically modified. They’re as artificial as anything produced in a lab; it just took longer to do it.

    • Marella
      Posted March 21, 2011 at 12:09 am | Permalink

      I wonder what the ancestral tomato was like? Small, green and sour I expect.

      • SAWells
        Posted March 21, 2011 at 3:04 am | Permalink

        Green and sour wouldn’t do much to attract fruit-eating animals, which are the primary vector for seed distribution for fruit plants. Smaller and less glossy, probably, but not sour.

  23. blah
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Can you give some examples of atheist stridency?

    • nick bobick
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

      Easy. Any atheist who doesn’t quietly sit in a corner with mouth firmly shut is, according to some people, guilty of being strident.

      • Tim
        Posted March 23, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

        Seriously. I’m kind of sick of “spiritual but not religious” crowd turning up their nose at atheists who express cogent arguments for their (non)beliefs. This XKCD strip sums it up well:

      • Tim
        Posted March 23, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

        Seriously. I’m kind of sick of “spiritual but not religious” crowd turning up their nose at atheists who express cogent arguments for their (non)beliefs. This XKCD strip sums it up well:

  24. Helen Wise
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Truth is, it’s hardly better in other disciplines. I helped a young woman at the library today to find a book because she didn’t know how to use the library. (The whole card catalog thing–just a mystery.)

    She teaches 5th grade at a public school.

    • Andrew
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      Actually your example is completely irrelevant, I haven’t been to a library since high-school because libraries are completely redundant and should die off already along with paper books.

      I am reading 2-3 books per weak, all in digital format and all from my ebook reader.

      Get on with the program already.

      • Posted March 20, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

        Your comment is snarky and, to be frank, dumb. I go to the library ALL THE TIME to get books, many of which aren’t available on e-readers. Libraries are by no means redundant. Many is the time I’ve gone to the stacks to look for a book and found something nearby that was interesting.

        If you can’t contribute anything useful to a thread, don’t post. This is not a useful contribution, just a bit of chest-beating.

        p.s. You spelled “week” wrong.

        • libratheist
          Posted March 21, 2011 at 2:29 am | Permalink

          As a librarian, I second Jerry’s comment, well said!

        • Diane G.
          Posted March 21, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

          Many is the time I’ve gone to the stacks to look for a book and found something nearby that was interesting.

          Oh, absolutely! Heck, I’ve even done that flipping through one of the old card catalogs. That happens much less frequently with computerized searches IME, alas.

          • Posted March 21, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

            Reminds me of Erin McKean’s TED talk where she defines “serendipity” as “finding what you weren’t looking for because finding what you *are* looking for is so damn difficult.” (said in reference to paper dictionaries and what’s good about them). One of my favorite TED talks:-))

            • Diane G.
              Posted March 22, 2011 at 1:02 am | Permalink

              That does sound good.

              And put that way, it applies to the internet as much as if not more than brick & mortar libraries. I guess the difference is in the degree of relation of what you find. The internet goes orthogonal a lot quicker!

      • Filippo
        Posted March 21, 2011 at 3:09 am | Permalink

        Once observed a male teen go into a Barnes & Noble. Easily enough inferred he needed help from his overheard comment to a staffer, “I’ve never bought a book before.”

        2-3 books a week? How long are these books you read? How deeply do you read – how easy is it to “write” comments in the margins of your e-reader?

        • Diane G.
          Posted March 21, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

          Careful–they not only have ways to similate that, they also let you “share” your own and other people’s margin notes. Can you imagine?

    • Posted March 20, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      … and then there the delicious irony of the school which now uses its craftsman-built wooden catalog card cabinets as storage/charging stations for its e-reader collection.

      (Sadly the linked-picture in this article has overloaded the school’s server.)

    • astrokid.nj
      Posted March 21, 2011 at 7:52 am | Permalink

      In the past, libraries would display large charts with the Dewey Decimal numbering scheme. I dont find them anymore.. and I miss them. I like to browse through the shelves.

  25. Posted March 20, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    People, teach your children science!

    Our species is doomed if we cannot get off this rock before the Andromeda galaxy collides with ours – in only 20 billion years. You have been warned.

    • Posted March 20, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

      Correction: Make that 4 billion years. It’s sooner than you think!

      • Posted March 21, 2011 at 3:22 am | Permalink

        Andromeda is not necessarily our long-term problem, since galatic collisions don’t necessarily affect individual star systems. However, our Sun running out of hydrogen and becoming a red giant would be major problem for anyone still around then.

        Of course, it’s not very likely that the human species would still be around after 4 billion years.

    • J.J.E.
      Posted March 21, 2011 at 2:58 am | Permalink

      Except the distances between stars are so enormous that the probability that a given star is involved in a collision with another is quite small. The two galaxies will however change shape…

  26. still learning
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    When I was an RN, patients’ lack of knowledge of their own bodies was jaw-dropping. Eyes are removed for surgery, swallowing phlegm sends it to the lungs, the gall bladder and urinary bladder are the same organ, the liver isn’t necessary for life, etc. And many women don’t know squat about their reproductive organs.


  27. Posted March 20, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    If I may comment. I disagree with statement 1. You site a philosophical motive as the cause, in the lack of scientific literacy. Could this have cultural cause unrelated to philosophy or religion? I partially agree with statement 2. In that you and I are failing if we do not make scientific literacy appealing to the young people around us.
    I admit I am confounded by your “un”scientific pursuit of religion as a root cause, in the lack of advancing the goal of your work. Would it not be more efficient to, res ipsa loquitur? Concentrate on the work, make it more appealing to the lay public.
    Or maybe I am confused. Should the blog be named Why Religion Is False?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 21, 2011 at 3:02 am | Permalink

      Those “reasons” were a JOKE! I guess people who weren’t familiar with discussions on this website might not know that.

      • Posted March 21, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for the clarification. Indeed I am not familiar with the site. I was referred by an APP called Zite. It showed your blog entry header. I thought it would be interesting, it was.
        With the posiblity of a broader exposure to your blog, you could add to scientific literacy. If that is part of your goal. Again if I may,what is the purpose of your blog? As you can tell I am not familiar with discussions here. Thanks for respondin.

    • CanadianChick
      Posted March 21, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

      Y’know, back in the old days, way back in the late 90s, early 00s, people would actually read a few pages of a site to get the feel of it before making comments.

      They didn’t chastise the author of the content and then say “fine, tell me about your site”. Read a few dozen articles and comments yourself, my dear. Don’t ask the writer to do your homework.

  28. K
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    This doesn’t surprise me, especially number 6. I teach college biology. At week three we start discussing cells. We say the nucleus contains DNA. All eukaryotes have a nucleus. Plants are eukaryotes. Do they have a nucleus? Yes. Do they have DNA? Yes. This is the level I have to reduce it to in COLLEGE.

    Worse still, the quiz the following week includes a simple true/false question = “T/F: Do plants have DNA”. About half my students get it wrong. We discuss it again. I discuss DNA synthesis and cell replication, always, “this is the same for our cells AND plant cells”. After 7 weeks of this we do a lab experiment extracting DNA from strawberries. What do I get from (unfortunately) the brightest student in my class?

    “Is this the DNA? Cool! Where did this DNA come from? Wait – strawberries have DNA?”

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 21, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for persevering, anyway!!

      (You could be a real stinker and ask “Do fungi have DNA?” on the final…)

      • Posted March 22, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink

        Oh–Cruel! They should be relieved that Diane is not their prof ;-))

  29. Diane G.
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    Life at some colleges today:

  30. Orson Zedd
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    Apparently it didn’t post my post, but here goes again.

    It’s stupid to think atheism is responsible for scientific illiteracy. That’s like blaming a deer for getting shot. The religious are going to be against science no matter what, because they’ll associate it with atheism anyway because, it IS.

    Atheism isn’t a movement, it’s the default answer, and when you employ a method of observing the universe that is contrary to preconceived belief, the problem will arise.

    The problem isn’t that “New Atheists” as you prefer to call them, exist and are proscience. It’s that science is, at its core, anti-religion. People can make them work together, but they’re not the kinds of people who’ll fight against science anyway, you dig?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 21, 2011 at 3:07 am | Permalink

      Those “reasons” were pure jokes, of course. People following this website would know that.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted March 21, 2011 at 3:22 am | Permalink

        More than that Jerry, they were rather obvious satire.

        Even out of context, I’m surprised there are people thinking you meant them!

        Poe’s corollary, perhaps?

        • Orson Zedd
          Posted March 21, 2011 at 5:40 am | Permalink

          Very much so. This isn’t an argument I’ve never encountered before. Incidentally, I don’t follow the website. Sorry.

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 21, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

            Well, I hope you’ll stick around a bit! Your first post above is absolutely on target.

            (Wait; you don’t follow WEIT and yet you knew to say “website” instead of blog? What are the odds?!)

            • Orson Zedd
              Posted March 21, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

              Roughly 1 to 2 against.

              That and blog sounds like a funny word.

              • Diane G.
                Posted March 22, 2011 at 12:39 am | Permalink

                You’re gonna love it here! 😀

    • Posted March 21, 2011 at 3:26 am | Permalink

      Orson, the joke comes from the mindblowing fact that some people, including some atheists, blame Dr. Coyne and other “new atheists” (a term that’s a sad joke in itself) for these very things.

  31. BilBy
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Some of those answers are due to that fact that many people are hugely uninterested in the world around them. Walking the dog on the night of the ‘supermoon’ I passed the time of day with several neighbours out watching it rise: one gentleman, when holding forth on the increased apparent size and brightness of the moon to me added ‘and it’s rising in the east!’ When I seemed confused, he explained, ‘well, that’s different, it doesn’t normally…er…does it?…I mean…’ and trailed off. How do you get to 40+ and not ever think about where and when the moon rises and sets?

  32. Posted March 21, 2011 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    At times like these I always have to mention my “20% theory”. The idea is that any question that involves memory recall and/or information synthesis, about 1 in 5 people can be expected to get it wrong, pretty much universally. This is partly because of the abundance of idiots, partly because of moronic ideologies, and partly because of people just randomly misunderstanding the question or having a brain fart.

    So the first two items in that list don’t bother me in the slightest. #3 is somewhat troubling, but I suspect a non-trivial number of those people just misunderstood the question. (I’m sure most of it was plain ignorance, too) The remaining items, the ones with >40% incorrect, those are deeply troubling.

  33. Posted March 21, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    I can remember that, when I was studying at the Uni in Cologne, some of us went to the shopping zone and asked the people there if they think, that normal, non-modified food had genes, a majority answered with “no”, too.
    While this was certainly not a statistically well-done study, I believe it shows, that this kind of ignorance is rather human than American.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 21, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      The strange thing is that due to forensic science TV shows, the same people have no problem with DNA evidence of many types…

      I guess we need a plant crime spree. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, anyone?

      • Posted March 21, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        I, for one, will welcome our new Solanaceae overlords.

  34. Rob
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    But the earth DOESN’T go around the sun once a year.

    See: leap year, leap second.

  35. JohnnieCanuck
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Even better, see Sidereal Year.

  36. Craig
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    Doesn’t anyone care about how these questions were asked? The answer should have been somewhat obvious, but who knows. I have seen loaded questions cause smart and intelligent people fail to answer a question of simple logic appropriately.

  37. asdf
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    I’d be interested in knowing the number of and the demographics of people surveyed. Results obviously vary in different populations. I’m not at all convinced those stats are not skewed.

  38. Zod
    Posted March 25, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Three words…the movie “Idiocracy”…Watch it and weep…that’s where we are going. It seemed unlikely when it came out, but it is seeming to be more and more true as the years go by….
    Oh, and I saw this ad the other day on TV:

    it really made me sit up with a surprised look on my face!

  39. Posted March 25, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    wait a minute, is that not true????? oh i get it, its reverse psychology to make the reader think it is not true but it is true and force them to say it is not true, do you think? ok never mind then i am autistic.

  40. Jen
    Posted March 29, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    You are right on target with this one.

    I was just thinking about why the only term used to describe atheists by religious people is “strident.” I wait for the term every time there is a discussion about atheists…and I never have to wait long.

    I have also heard our best known scientific rock star, Dr. Collins, describe atheists as “strident” in response to a question about his own religious views–right after he busted out his guitar and sang a song for everyone about Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-DNA! It was catchy!

  41. Posted November 30, 2012 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Evolution is tricky subject given the religious indoctrination of america’s youth.

    Besides ignorance – I have yet to see the harm in it.

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