Friday, August 19, 2011

The Writing on the Wall

Well, the local news has done it again.

I know I have railed before, in this venue, about the sad state of news coverage in general in the U.S., and on the woeful
approach to news coverage in local news. I guess I shouldn't be surprised when a local television news station leads off its nightly news with an absurd story.

So, here's what the local CBS affiliate
led with last night: "3 deaths reported from brain-eating water amoeba." (As a side note, when they promo'd the news earlier in the evening, with that headline, they showed a graphic of a euglena! So, big deal, you say--amoeba, euglena, what's the diff?)

Never mind the wrong graphic, I have so many OTHER problems with this story. First, the deaths that were reported occurred in Louisiana, Virginia and Florida. Huh? Three places that are MILES (make that states) away from our city. Second, our city is located along a river--the Susquehanna--and people do use it as an entertainment source--a place to swim if there isn't a community pool nearby...i.e. much of the inner city. And yet, one visual point after another featured our river. In fact, the local reporter was STANDING in the river (wearing waders). I am certain there are some viewers who thought--YIKES, can't swim in the river anymore. Third, the reporter went on to say--the one victim even contracted his amoeba from TAP WATER. Oh, no. Not even tap water is safe.

Fourth, when the local reporter talked to someone knowledgeable in the area--a physician--the physician stated point blank--such a condition is EXTREMELY rare. (Something like 1 chance in 10 million!) Got that--extremely. Yet, the local news led with this story.

Sadly, science knowledge and comprehension continues to decline in the U.S. I suspect too many viewers won't exercise their healthy skepticism. Instead, they will go--oh dear, there's a flesh eating amoeba in our river, and we're all going to die! And even if you do an Internet search on the topic, you don't find much help out there. The first story that popped up in my search was from an
NPR blog. NPR? Really!


What to do? It certainly doesn't help that we have, among the dominant forces in our country, destructive pressures on the reason to have any science knowledge. Of course, it's too simple to blame television, but I can't help but wonder what all the exposure to "reality" shows is doing to our thinking powers. There are many reasons why people might like reality shows: the chance to root for the underdog; the "at least it's not me" syndrome; the freak show appeal. But advancing knowledge is not one of those reasons. And yet, these shows dominate television, driving out quality drama, and killing informative shows in general.

Another culprit to this decline in scientific knowledge, in my opinion, is the disdain that is heaped on long-held scientific views. Take Rick Perry, for example. Seriously, take him. OK-sorry, old joke (thank you, Henny Youngman). Anyway, Perry made news recently when
he opined that evolution is "a theory that's out there...and it has some gaps in it." He went on to say that in Texas (Lord, deliver us from another Texan) they teach both evolution and creationism*, and he guesses the students are smart enough to figure it out.

When I was most recently teaching, I encountered students who had been schooled in a such a way. One earnest young man even brought his science text books in from a private religious school (complete with artistic renderings of Adam and Eve). This dismissive tendency--to say evolution is a theory (implying that as such it is not reliable, much less proven)--in part draws on a common misunderstanding of how science uses the term "theory."
Wikipedia does a nice job of explaining the word's meaning in a scientific context: "A common distinction sometimes made in science is between theories and hypotheses, with the former being considered as satisfactorily tested or proven and the latter used to denote conjectures or proposed descriptions or models which have not yet been tested or proven to the same standard." So, where the average person in public hears "theory," thinks "unproven," the scientist says "theory," and means "demonstrates by data over time."

So, saying something is a theory does not mean it is unproven. It means that it has been satisfactorily tested and proven.

I shudder when I think how the dismissive approach to science is affecting our country. I read a recent
New York Times article that put things into stunning context. Herewith the gist: Grinell College in Iowa markets itself to students in China, which has resulted in 1 in 10 applicants to Grinell come from China (about 200 students). Of those 200 Chinese applicants, half have perfect scores in the math SAT. HALF. Perfect scores.


So, while Rick Perry disparages evolution, while local news scares people to death with stories of flesh eating amoebae, while U.S. citizens wile away the hours watching reality shows on TV, the students in China are studying math. I don't know about you--folks--but I see the writing on the wall, and it doesn't say USA.

Texas Tribune notes the following:
In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that teaching creationism in public schools was unconstitutional. In the case Edwards v. Aguillard, the court ruled that teaching creationism in Louisiana public schools was the equivalent of teaching religion — and violated the Constitution because it advanced a particular religion.


Nance said...

And this post speaks to our immigration policy, too. We've got a lot to work on.

Anvilcloud said...

Yes, that theory thing really throws people. Only mathematics is truly provable if people really want to get right down to it.

Philip sent me a scary expose of Perry and his cohorts. But this is probably pretty old news to you.

NCmountainwoman said...

I can't comment because I get so frustrated all over again. So many things to worry about, not the least being, "Who ARE these people who are suckered in by all the rhetoric?"

KGMom said...

@Nance--there are so many threads that I could pick up and follow. I just wanted to write an entry that wouldn't lose readers in its length.

@AC--we watch Rachel Maddow quite a bit, and had seen that report.

@NCMnWn--I understand completely. I can't answer your question.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

Your rant is a losing battle, sadly. To say more would end up a long rant of my own.

Climenheise said...

Agreed wholeheartedly that the anti-science viewpoint of some in the US is disturbing. The usual charge is that scientists fudge their results to get grant money, but when one actually looks at specific examples the scientific consensus weeds out that kind of research. The knock-on unintended consequence is to foster a public square in which no expert can speak with authority. Each individual is his/her own authority. Have you seen "Generation Me" by Jean Twenge? She gets at this dynamic quite nicely.