I, Too, Will Defend Honest Scientific Ignorance

Over the weekend, as the tweets that only 18% in the U.S. could correctly define what a molecule is and less than a third could define DNA--and these were an open-ended questions--my first thought, after looking at the study (pdf, p. 48), was that all of the open-ended questions did worse than the multiple choice ones. (An aside: The DNA answer has improved over twenty years). It's much easier to answer a multiple choice question for something you might not have seriously thought about for decades, simply because you don't remember it. My second thought was that most people don't have to use this information in their daily lives (I'll return to this later in the post). Thankfully, Jennifer Rohn makes this point more elegantly than I could have:

I sometimes wonder if it is possible for a specialist to ever truly empathize what it feels like to walk in the shoes of the unindoctrinated - especially when it comes to the language. If you're an adult practitioner of a particular trade, you will have had decades of training and education under your belt, and the required vocabulary will constitute your own daily vernacular.

...Entire swathes of junior high and high-school lessons have long since been over-written in my memory. There was a time when I could ace tests in trigonometry, algebra and calculus, but if you asked me now to deal with a problem containing sines, cosines and tangents, or solve differential equations, I wouldn't know where to start. I am sure that many parents who struggle to help their kids with their homework have faced a similar wall of amnesia.

The problem, I think, is in the word 'acquire'. Initial mastery in childhood is not the same thing as day-to-day use over a lifetime. If my life had been different, and I'd gone into another field, would I still be so conversant with words such as molecules? Somehow, I'm not so sure.

And lest we scientists get too cocky, let me ask some open-ended questions:

What is a mortgage?

What is a note?

What is a mortgage trust? (this one is kind of hard)

Because recent events have shown that understanding the housing finance industry is kinda important.

And I'll follow up with another question: if you couldn't answer these correctly, are you paying a mortgage for a house? How could one possibly take out a mortgage and be so ignorant? From one perspective, a mortgage is a massively over-leveraged fixed, long-term investment. If you're going to make that investment, you should know the basics, shouldn't you?

I'm not defending scientific ignorance, but the brutal reality is that most people don't need to know this to get by on a daily basis, and spot-surveys with open-ended questions reflect that reality.

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Great points. It's so easy to get deluded into thinking that what you do is the most important thing and that everyone should know it.

It seems to me, the real problem is when ignorant people try to make policy about issues they know nothing about. I have a vague understanding of what a mortgage is (I'm young and don't have one), but I also wouldn't claim I'm qualified to make laws governing how people get mortgages.

Scientific literacy should at least be required of people making policy decisions that directly involve science.

Thanks for your kind words about my post, Mike. Your counter-example with the mortgage vocabulary was really illustrative - I appreciate this further fodder for the ongoing discussion!

By Jennifer Rohn (not verified) on 18 Oct 2010 #permalink

There's another kind of amnesia on the part of the expert, that affects their attempts to dispel the ignorance. I have been surfing the leading edge of computing since the mid 60's, so it is engraved on my DNA by now

I remember when I first saw the simple circuit consisting of two diodes and a resistor, accompanied by the assertion that I was looking at an implementation of an AND gate, and I remember the feel of the Eureka! moment about a year later when, after much reflection, I finally internalized why that was true and how A+B mapped 1-to-1 onto the electronic circuit.

BUT I have zero recollection of what it felt like to not know, or what it felt like to spend a good year of my life struggling (alone) to attain that knowledge, or even why I bothered. And that missing recollection is crucial to knowing how to teach somebody else, as I have found out most frustratingly when trying to teach non-computing folks computers. I just do not have available to me [any more] the steps connecting ignorance to enlightenment.

I mention this because I am certain this is not something peculiar to me, but likely common to most if not all established experts, whatever the field, to a greater or lesser extent.

By Gray Gaffer (not verified) on 18 Oct 2010 #permalink

I suppose it would just be crazy to live in a world where people knew not only what DNA is but also understood their mortgage. Some kind of crazy world where housing markets don't have epic crashes because only one class involved in a negotiation has the requisite knowledge.

For my part, I admit I don't understand what a mortgage trust is and I'm uncertain which of the many meanings of 'note' would apply to mortgages best. It seems at least plausible however that to lack this knowledge is a weakness, even if that implies that (gasp) I have weaknesses which need to be improved for the good of society.

Setting the bar to the lowest possible standard is the same as not having a bar, and there is a real difference between a layman not knowing the technical details of what I do as a scientist every day and not knowing what DNA is without the prompt from a multiple choice question. After all, when it's time to elect the school board they're gonna vote whether they need to know about DNA day-to-day or not.

By BaisBlackfingers (not verified) on 18 Oct 2010 #permalink

I took trig one time (actually twice) and I don't remember exactly what a cosine is. However, I knew at one time, and I know where my trig book is. Give me five minutes and I'll explain sine, cosine, etc. to you in an understandable way. That I once knew something means that I can know it again. Paid cash, so I don't have a mortgage, whatever that is. However, at one time I had a mortgage and at that time I thoroughly understood it.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 18 Oct 2010 #permalink

Most people don't understand the real difference between impedance and resistance ... yet still managed to function quite well in our entirely electric society!

The whole point of technology is to enable people to do things WITHOUT knowing the detailed science behind it.

Sherlock Holmes famously argued that it knowing that the earth went around the sun was useless information to him because it made no difference to his life or work. So he made a point of forgetting the information.

I know what a mortgage is because when I was eleven my school tried to teach me French with recorded lessons. I couldn't understand much, but I remembered the speaker kept saying something like eh-coot-a. So I asked my father what eh-coot-a meant. In response, my father, a lawyer and accountant, explained the legal principle of equity and what an equity was and how financial instruments work. That included equities, notes, and an awful lot more. He even explained fiduciaries and trusts, though not in every detail. (No one can.) It didn't enlighten me with regards to my French lessons, and it was only years later that I learned enough French to realize that the speaker was asking me to listen.

It may not have been helpful at the time, but I've found that little talk we had quite useful since.

It's one thing to be ignorant and know you're ignorant. I've yet to actually own my own house, so I'm quite ignorant of mortgages. I also -know- I'm ignorant about mortgages and would never dare to claim to understand them without seeking out the knowledge I need... or at least someone with that knowledge already.

On the other hand, I can think of a whole lot of people who are so grossly ignorant that they don't even know they're ignorant. They think they have it all figured out, evidence to the contrary be damned. (Especially when it comes to science, but this happens with just about any subject.) Therein lies the real problem: the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Problem is that those who do not know what a mortgage or note or mortgage trust is do not get to proclaim their assertions about housing equity trumpeted and promoted as "as valid a truth" as that of those who do know.

This is not, apparently, accepted in science.

And whilst that inequality maintains, the ignorance of science is damaging.

Not because of its ignorance, but that the ignorance is held in the case of science to be no impediment to being "right" on gainsaying the genuine scientists.

Financial wizards do get called names, asserted with conspiracies and with selfish persuit to the detriment of "the common man", but they don't get people writing in to the economist talking about how gold can be created from seawater and therefore you should bottle seawater and hoard the wealth.

That, and worse, gets trumpeted around in science.

It's OK to be ignorant.

As long as you accept the consequences.

Mike's post doesn't strike me as a paean to ignorance, so much as an acknowledgement of it. This is why I find it hard to get worked up about some of the things that exercise my colleagues at scienceblogs so much - it isn't that I don't think it would be a better world if everyone knew what a molecule is, but realistically, I don't anticipate ever living in the world, or believe humans ever have.


Or how about what a crankshaft is, or an alternator, or what the difference is between unleaded gasoline and diesel. People go around driving cars all day and don't know this information.

I guess I'd be in the 80% that can't correctly define a molecule or DNA(maybe with multiple choice...). I don't think it's important people know the information, so much as think it's important that SOMEONE knows the information. We all want our mechanics to know how to fix our cars and our engineers know how to make our stuff. You'd think it would be an obvious step that someone out there needs to understand DNA, that advances in medical science that may seem esoteric eventually come back and reward the average consumer. So I'd rather know "Do you think it's important we have specialists working in DNA..." rather than defining it accurately.

I agree with the general point here. The threat isn't really ignorance in itself - the threat is the Dunning-Krüger effect. Being ignorant about a subject matter, acknowledging it, suspending judgment and deferring judgment to those who know is fine, even respectable. It is when people start having strong opinions on things they really don't know very much about (which is usually a function of failing to realize that they don't even know the basics of the subject matter they are forming opinions about), that we get trouble.

The ignorant wise person asks questions. The ignorant fool makes statements.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 19 Oct 2010 #permalink

I think one of the goals of education should be to both give people a better sense of what they don't know and give them enough of a grounding in general knowledge to learn as necessary. Thus if people understand the basic ideas of a loan, of collateral, of contracts and of insurance, they are better prepared to understand, say, a credit default swap and why such things might be at the core of a financial collapse. With the advent of the internet such self-education becomes easier than ever, but you at least need a feel for the basic concepts of an area of knowledge to know where to look and to have a fighting chance of evaluating whether your sources are likely to be correct or not.

Willful ignorance. In my opinion this is the curse of modern man. I know what a mortgage is and a mortgage note. I also understand what a derivative is, in several senses of the word.

If one has a mortgage, one should understand them, even if one is a scientist. Ignorance of mortgages while doing real estate deals will lead to disaster JUST LIKE ignorance of basic sciences will lead to societal disaster.

Two ignorant people do not make an informed one.

Problem is that those who do not know what a mortgage or note or mortgage trust is do not get to proclaim their assertions about housing equity trumpeted and promoted as "as valid a truth" as that of those who do know.

Based on their "truths," they enter into stupid contracts, they encourage others to enter into stupid contracts, they drive huge corporations into the ground, and they create ridiculous legislation.

By highnumber (not verified) on 25 Oct 2010 #permalink

> Based on their "truths," they enter into stupid contracts, they encourage others to enter into stupid contracts, they drive huge corporations into the ground, and they create ridiculous legislation

Problem is, that there is an untruth.

The derivatives market killed the banks, not mortgages.

Go and check out the size of the derivatives market, kid and stop peddling your Nu-Con mantras.

The problem with open-ended questions may be a problem of expression rather than understanding. I can understand what various mortgage options will do to or for me, and how they compare with no mortgage. I've even had spreadsheets for working that out recently. But I'm not sure if I can sit down before breakfast and write you a watertight definition of a mortgage. I could probably do molecules, but I'd need a few coffees before attempting DNA even though I'm pretty certain I could do quite involved multiple choices on the subject.