Total Drek

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Nobel Prize mystery

With this week's announcement of the Nobel Prize in Economics, the U.S. has completed a sweep of all the science prizes. Four prizes went to six people, all six Americans by birth, working in America. The prizes were:

Medicine: Andrew Fire and Craig Mello, for discovering how to turn genes on and off using RNA
Physics: John Mather and George Smoot, for discovering the variations in the cosmic microwave background radiation
Chemistry: Roger Kornberg, for studying the basis of transcription (how RNA passes genetic information in cells)
Economics: Edmund Phelps, for reinterpreting the relationship between inflation and unemployment in macroeconomic policy

This completes the first American sweep of the science prizes since 1983. The Literature prize will be announced tomorrow at 7 A.M. Eastern time; the Peace prize will be announced on Friday at 5 A.M. Eastern time. You can follow the announcements live on

Congratulations to all the prize recipients. Congratulations also to U.S. science funding agencies (especially the National Science Foundation), which must be enjoying seeing the work they funded and the nation they work for receive so much global recognition.

The thing that bothers me is this, though: how is it that a nation that sweeps all four Nobel Prize categories can have a public that knows so little about science? Why do almost half of people claim not to believe in evolution (as if evolution were something to be believed in, rather than something to be discovered and understood)? Why do a great number of Americans not know that the seasons are caused by the tilt of the Earth, and not by varying distances from the Sun?

Is American scientific knowledge and understanding really the province of a few highly trained specialists, and not reaching the majority of the population? That would be sad. It doesn't help that there are powerful institutions in religion, government, and industry that want people not to understand science, but that doesn't seem like a fully satisfying explanation. Any other ideas?


Blogger Plain(s)feminist said...

I heard a student say that it wasn't fair for the schools not to teach creationism along with evolution because the students should get both sides of the story. I wanted to explain, but then I started to go slightly insane and had to stop.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 10:40:00 AM  
Blogger TDEC said...

Grrr. The computer just ate my elaborate response.

The gist of it was that I think at least part of the problem is that in American education students specialise very early on, and based only on preference and talent. This cuts out any contact with disciplines they have not chosed, thereby reducing even their most basic knowledge of science and other subject not in their scope.

I do believe that the educational system would work better is it delivered a somewhat broader knowledge, and coerced students just a tad more, mthereby making sure that they are at least familiar with basic concepts of different disciplines.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 11:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two words: American Idol.

Seriously, though, anti-intellectualism is rampant in America, far more than in [most? all?] other Western industrialized nations. This doesn't answer the question, just broadens it a bit ("why are we so anti-intellectual?"), but it's all part and parcel of the same set of foundational American beliefs: anti-elitism, populism, valorization of physical labor/masculinity -- that devalues book larnin. Well, unless it's the Good Book.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 11:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

American Idol may be closer to the answer than you realize. The fascination in this country with movie stars and famous wannabees shows what's important to many people. Shallow, but that seems to be a priority to many. Such a shame that the media creates our focus.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 1:04:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

I think I have to agree about the need for a little more coercion in schooling. Choice is good and all, but one needs to be adequately informed in order to make a choice. Compulsory schooling is supposed to accomplish that for us, but a lot of people are opposed to it. Moves for 'academic freedom' just show how facts themselves are becoming a battleground. I'm a big fan of free speech and academic integrity, but this "Student bill of rights" is a trojan horse.

I agree as well that a lot of what drives this is an anti-authoritarian bias. Sadly, few seem to grasp that it isn't authority that is bad, but arbitrary authority.

Finally, I think scientists themselves are partly to blame. We are often discouraged from engaging with the public. Well, guess what? If we never take our case to the public, why should we be shocked that they don't agree with us?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 2:43:00 PM  

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