Blinded by science

Published 11:06 am Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Leave it to the hard-boiled government reporter to look past last week’s sorry soap opera of athletes gone bad and point out the real scandal of the week.

As the NFL and a top college football program struggled to justify the actions of key players, I spied the results of a survey from the nonprofit Center for Accountability in Science. The findings weren’t too pretty.

More than three-quarters of 1,015 respondents polled by phone Sept. 4-7 failed to identify the most common gas in Earth’s atmosphere. The same measure of people surveyed struggled the grasp the concept of that popular topic of junior-high physical science class, the simple machine. Only about half of respondents knew the three classifications of rocks. The lone piece of knowledge that seemed to stick with people through adulthood — at a 58 percent clip in the survey — was that an electron is smaller than an atom. I chalk that up to the way the words are used in pop culture.

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The Washington, D.C.-based center proclaimed a disaster, with the headline on a news release accompanying the results saying “Americans Flunk Fifth Grade Science Questions” and “Knowledge Gap Leaves Public Susceptible to Junk Science.”

“Most Americans are not armed with the basic facts about science,” said Dr. Joseph Perrone, chief science officer at the nonprofit, in a statement. “This alarming lack of scientific literacy makes it easier for the public to be duped by the scary headlines and junk science being pushed by activist groups, bloggers, and TV doctors.”

A basis exists for his emotions on the issue of junk science. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, a then-respected medical researcher in England, wrote a seemingly well-schooled paper on a possible link between vaccines for children and a rise in autism diagnoses in children worldwide. It’s since been discredited, as his research was later found to be financed by parents recruited by lawyers who planned to sue certain vaccine manufacturers, among other financial conflicts of interests discovered.

More recently, Dr. Mehmet Cengiz Oz — or “Dr. Oz”, as he’s known to his TV audience — got in hot water this summer with fans and a Senate subcommittee when his name was linked to green tea extract as a sure-fire weight loss supplement. That hasn’t been proven scientifically. It does prove, however, that combining science and entertainment has changed for the worse since the days of Mr. Wizard and Carl Sagan.

What was obvious about the CAS science test is that average Americans don’t retain much science knowledge into adulthood. It clashes too much with the pace of everyday life. Much of our daily functions don’t prompt a math formula like what our teachers wanted us to do (remember the phrase “justify your answer”?). We whip out our smartphones, we tap an app, and we get what we want. If only real life worked that way — do the barest of physical or mental work, then you get what you want. Wow.

I’ll admit I only answered four of the eight questions correctly when I took the test myself. The word “correct” signifying the right answer was covered by my hand each time, I assure you. Guessing igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary came as easy as rocks to me. I was always too impatient for things that required complex algebraic formulas. Give me some good ol’ rocks and I’m a happy guy.

Nitrogen is the most common gas on Earth, by the way, just ahead of helium and oxygen. A hammer, unlike a pulley, screw or wedge, is not a simple machine. It’s merely a tool. And with that, I finally found something in common between physical science and the NFL’s current leadership.

Danny Barrett is a reporter and can be reached by email at or by phone at 601-636-4545.