Neil deGrasse Tyson Agrees With Me About The Innumeracy of Intellectuals

A great clip from his World Science Festival appearance the other night, especially the bit toward the end:

"One thing I think that as a nation we should be embarrassed by is that the scientists-- you can do this experiment yourself, I've done the experiment-- the scientists, by and large, know more liberal arts than the science that is known by liberal artists."

Or you can read my longer, less funny version from a couple of years ago. Either way, it's an important message: It should be exactly as embarrassing in educated company to say "I'm no good at math" as it would be to say "I'm no good at reading." The fact that it isn't-- that it's ok to laugh off innumeracy-- is a major problem for us as a society.

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I agree with the general sentiment, but I think it's unhelpful to frame it as a one-way problem. I get really uncomfortable whenever the conversation shifts to "those liberal arts guys..." or "those scientists...". Both camps have a tendency to be woefully uneducated in other disciplines, and both have a tendency to view their half as the better one.

While I have heard plenty of people with liberal arts degrees devalue science, I have heard at least as many people proudly say, "Man, that philosophy stuff makes no sense to me." Or worse, "Philosophers are just full of shit."

There are a lot of barriers to cross-disciplinary learning (ask anyone who studies History and Philosophy of Science what they think of Sociology of Science, and vice versa). It sucks whenever it happens, and blaming it on one particular discipline just worsens the problem.

By Peter Borah (not verified) on 06 Jun 2010 #permalink

"I was terrible at nouns and verbs!" The next time I have a reason to, I think I'll bust that one out. And I have practiced my dry-ice delivery through years and years of otherwise boring staff meetings.

And honestly, I'm not sure who, but either Peter or I are working in atypical technical environments. I can't recall any time any of my engineering co-workers outright derided, or gloried in their ignorance of, any field. And there have been... not frequent, but not rare conversations about art, politics, history, and yes, even philosophy. Not frequent, I suspect, because we're generally busy people. (I know one of my co-workers reads philosophy, because after I bought a philosophy book from our semi-annual used book sale at work, I left it on my desk. Conversations have been the result.)

If I hear any reflexive derision of anything, it's of one side of the political spectrum by members of the other. (Yes, both ways.)

By John Novak (not verified) on 06 Jun 2010 #permalink

"SE's don't write. Academs can't integrate."

When I was at Rice, the university was experimenting with required survey classes. The implementation of this included a mythology survey course for the Math/Physics/Engineer geeks.
Just as if those same students didn't already have 5 years of D&D under their belts.

The phrase "I'm no good at spelling" isn't so uncommon.

C.P. Snow said essentially the same thing in "Two Cultures" 60 years ago:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question â such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? â not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.


I'm actually not working in any technical environment. I'm currently attending a four-year college. It's a very well-regarded place, and I can speak from experience that most of the students here are very intelligent. Most of them are pretty open-minded about disciplinary boundaries, but certainly not all. I've heard plenty of people call history of science some variant on "the study of wrong things", just to take one example. For another, I was in a philosophy of science class with a kid who decided the whole project was worthless because it didn't reference the eternal truth of science often enough.

My personal anecdotes aren't going to be very meaningful to you, however, so I guess all I can do is appeal to shared experience. Have you seriously never heard people deride someone by saying they were "probably a gender studies major in college", or making fun of something for being aimed at "the IQ of your average English major"? Surely you witnessed the reaction to the Alan Sokal article, which many people lauded as exposing the irrelevancy of anything related to post-modernism?

I hear some of the other stuff too. Some people clearly have little interest in science, and make that obnoxiously clear. But it just doesn't jibe with anything I've experienced to say that the problem only goes one way.

By Peter Borah (not verified) on 06 Jun 2010 #permalink

I wonder if this isn't a little unfair, since a lot of the background knowledge in the arts and literature coincides with common middlebrow to highbrow entertainment options. And even a lot of scientists who weren't, as students, very interested in the arts will get forced into at least some basic knowledge in the course of social interactions. What do scientists do when they're gathered in an interesting city for a conference and they have some free time? They go to art museums, stroll around and check out the architecture, admire an old cathedral, maybe take in a concert in the evening. Pretty standard touristy stuff. Similarly, reading novels or watching films is a pretty common everyday way to enjoy some downtime. There's not really an analogous way for people to take in science as entertainment, aside from maybe the occasional science museum. You can easily imagine how some scientists could get into a conversation about commonalities in the art of Filippo Lippi and Botticelli in the course of a trip to Florence for a conference, even if they never formally studied art, because it's right there in front of them, and it's beautiful and can be appreciated in a way that's unmediated by formal learning. But you can't so easily imagine what would lead people studying literature to wonder about how Heisenberg and Schrödinger's perspectives on physics differed.

In looking at political and economic arguments from the OPs and the mostly science-literate commenters at e.g Pharyngula, they clearly are more on the ball than the general public in understanding economic and political issues. Certainly, more on the ball than the public and targets of criticism are about science and math. For example, skepticism about misleading conservative tropes (lowering taxes raises revenue, overall), and have good general reasoning skills about social issues (although I might disagree with ethical notions here and there.) BTW not to imply all conservative tropes are fallacious, but todays' movement is simply horrendous.

As most of us know, the worst innumeracy is about statistics, with many people easily fooled by statistics fallacies and misdirection. However, note that experts can be wrong as in the infamous case of Marilyn vos Savant and the "three door problem." (See Despite some pretensions that Marilyn didn't make the problem perfectly clear, it was quite clear to me about the framing of the choices and there was no ambiguity. I agreed with her but many of my intellectual friends did not.

Marilyn's proposal (better to change, since you had only 1/3 chance of being right the first time and therefore 2/3 chance of being right if you switch) was slammed by many experts who ridiculed it. One of my nuclear physicist friends thought she was wrong too. From the Wikipedia article:
Though vos Savant gave the correct answer that switching would win two-thirds of the time, she estimates the magazine received 10,000 letters including close to 1,000 signed by PhDs, many on letterheads of mathematics and science departments, declaring that her solution was wrong (Tierney 1991).
Eventually everyone had to admit MvS was correct, and only a few holdouts maintain she wasn't clear in formulation etc. This makes me wonder, if there are analogies to this confusion in science (like that infamous and inexplicably widely-touted proposal to solve the measurement problem; that will remain unnamed ...;-o)

However, I don't think scientists and techies are as "philosophically" literate as they think they are. They often work from a simplistic version of skeptical outlook etc. (no time here really, to elaborate, just an observation.)

I wonder if this isn't a little unfair, since a lot of the background knowledge in the arts and literature coincides with common middlebrow to highbrow entertainment options. And even a lot of scientists who weren't, as students, very interested in the arts will get forced into at least some basic knowledge in the course of social interactions. What do scientists do when they're gathered in an interesting city for a conference and they have some free time? They go to art museums, stroll around and check out the architecture, admire an old cathedral, maybe take in a concert in the evening. Pretty standard touristy stuff.

Absolutely. While I was in NYC this weekend for the World Science Festival, Kate and I spent Saturday wandering around the Met looking at fine art.

But there are also science-related touristy things to do in many major cities-- not as many as there are art museums and cathedrals, but Museums of Natural History and zoos and aquariums are common features. If I'm in a city with one or more of those, I usually take time to see it. I wonder how many liberal arts majors do the same when they're traveling without children.

(We didn't do the American Museum of Natural History this trip because the Japanese art exhibition at the Met looked more interesting to me than any of the special exhibits at the AMNH. We checked it first, though, where I suspect many of my friends and colleagues in the humanities would be deciding between art museums, without even looking at what AMNH has on offer.)

(And Kate's going to the Bronx Zoo today, while I drive out to pick up SteelyKid at my parents'. I'm jealous.)


As it happens, your personal anecdotes are meaningful to me, and I realize that my own experiences are just as anecdotal.

My situation is a member of the technical and design staff at a Really Honking Big defense engineering company. At our small outpost of the company, I am sitting in a room with more electrical engineers in it than the entire EE enrollment of my own small four year university back in the day. (Not larger than the graduating class; larger than all four classes and our negligible graduate student population of the EE department.)

One reason I don't hear too much derision of the humanities here might simply be that we're not in a target rich environment for that sort of thing-- there are no humanities lecturers on our staff, after all. They're not here to annoy us, they're not here to hear us, and they're not here to compete for our funding. We do deride the business decisions more than I think is healthy, but MBAs are no more humanities scholars than engineers are.

That said, I do recall much more open derision of that sort of thing back when I was in school myself, but those days are circa fifteen years ago so my memories (as NdGT himself points out) are a little suspect.

By John Novak (not verified) on 07 Jun 2010 #permalink

I agree that the level of innumeracy among liberal arts devotees is disturbing.

I was a student at Cornell, and in one of my courses we were taught that Creationism and Evolution are just the result of two different "ways of knowing", and that science is authoritarian, patriarchal and sexist. We used a textbook whose author relied upon Duane Gish as his major source.

I don't agree with the argument that "both sides do it" -- maybe individual scientists make disparaging remarks now and then about liberal arts students, but that's not even close to being equivalent to putting radically anti-science teachings in the classroom!

By Sam Weber (not verified) on 07 Jun 2010 #permalink

NJ, I looked at that post and the comments and there's no indication the MvS wasn't clear. First, the OP writes
... could it be that the best strategy in the long run, as shown by computing the relevant probabilities, is not the most advisable to adopt if you are only in for a single round of the game? Thankfully the answer is no, ...
So Rosenhouse is saying, there aren't two different good strategies for short and long term.

In comments, a person makes a good point about expectation value in general (but it doesn't impact the MHP and Marilyn's answer per se.) Basically, it's of the form someone offers you odds that are better than what you give up, like $1 bet to have .001 chance of winning $10 k etc. The expectation value ratio is 10:1, so it seems to make sense to take the bet. But that's based on long-term averaging, and not practical contingencies of life. If I bet 100k in this example, I will probably lose and be broke. It's a dumb thing to do if you're losing anything significant. But that has nothing to do with the form of the MHP or Marilyn's skill in posing it (she did well IMHO, I sure got it.)

BTW, here's another probability trick: if you have unlimited amounts to bet, you can mop up by betting amounts in a sequence like 1, 3, 9, 27, ... no matter how small the odds of winning. That's because the series always sums to less than what you win (assuming at least double return.) Hence you spend 1 + 3 + 9 = 13 and win back 18, and so on. It's risky with fixed amounts since in the long run, you'll lose enough complete runs not to have any net gains. But it's still IMHO a paradox since you're cheating the average expectation value.

Such is the danger of anecdotal data. I can try this experiment very easily, as I armed with an Bs E.E., B.A. (Art History) and M.A. (Interdisciplinary Studies) working in a Dev Bio lab in a very prestigious institution with many graduates of other prestigious institutions, can query my colleagues. (My pedigree is quite pedestrian - Cal State University) Since I've done this in an informal basis, I expect I will find I know more of European history than the French, Spanish, and Italian postdocs, know far more about Islamic culture than anyone (I centered on Islamic expansion last year of my B.A., and focused on 9th - 10th C Islamic agriculture in my M.A.) and run circles around the PI's in regards to American history - both political and sociological aspects. It's a shame because few understand how certain institutions on which they depend (NIH, NSF) came to be, or the role of "pork" in their funding mechanisms.
What I have found is most academics are idiot savants, focused solely on their field of interest. Few of my Art History professors understood my explanations of Wifi (my BA post dates my EE) but many easily grasped how GFP is important to my current position and as such offered cogent and valuable advice in color selection for graphics. To the contrary, the PI's here just say "whatever you think looks best," when I ask how do they want the data presented. The have little interest in cognition, and care not why something works or fails, they simply rely on my limited experience to provide an answer.
The problem as I see it is that the stupid have reached a critical mass. The malevolent intelligent can manipulate that population to their needs, and undo any progress the benevolent intelligent may achieve. It has very little to do with the knowledge or lack thereof among the "educated," and more to do with the inability of the educated to share their knowledge with the unlearned. I'm not talking about that silly "framing" crap, but the sheer inability of the "intelligent" to describe what they do. When I talk to others. I strive to describe my job in terms that my 80 year old mother-in-law understands. None of the PI's make the same effort when they talk to the outside community, and because of it, we all lose out.

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 07 Jun 2010 #permalink

Neil B. - that's the St. Petersburg Paradox.

Other than that, I just want to suggest that people read C.P. Snow's full Two Cultures lecture - he spends most time talking about the effects of scientific literacy on administration and development. It's a bit dated now, but still relevant.

Few of my Art History professors understood my explanations of Wifi (my BA post dates my EE) but many easily grasped how GFP is important to my current position and as such offered cogent and valuable advice in color selection for graphics. To the contrary, the PI's here just say "whatever you think looks best," when I ask how do they want the data presented.

I, too, have noticed that far too many scientists are incompetent at graphic arts. Color is one issue (and I don't claim to be an expert there), but there are other, more basic issues: many scientists simply don't grasp how big graphics labels need to be if you want people to be able to read your figures. There is a reason journals impose a minimum 9 point size on label text, and there is a reason PowerPoint's default font sizes are as large as they are. Too many scientists override these rules, with nasty results. I would argue that some rudimentary ability with graphic arts is a necessary part of being a scientist these days, especially since budget constraints may have eliminated your on-staff graphic artist.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 07 Jun 2010 #permalink

One point the commenters have not tackled: Tyson links the decline in science and engineering literacy to the loss of economic power by the nation on the world scene. This is especially important, and I think can be a very strong point to make when advocating for science literacy.

The decline of America's economic prominence as we lose our edge in science and technology is easily contrasted with the economic growth of China and India, nations which have committed themselves to producing new generations of scientists and technologists.

A corollary, which Tyson also touches on, is the loss of power in the aspect of capitalism where we "make stuff" - in other words, the decline of our national manufacturing base.

Instead of broadening and shoring up our manufacturing base, we have "eschewed" (Tyson's word) manufacturing because we all wanted careers where we don't have to dig in, get our hands dirty, and make stuff.

So, when Americans decide that science is not respect-worthy, and that manufacturing jobs are beneath our dignity, there's a direct effect on our power internationally. We forfeit the leadership in technology and manufacturing to other nations.

I think that's far more important than arguing about whether liberal artists visit science museums in their spare time.

Hooray! Let's bag on people with liberal arts degrees and tell them that their expertise is imaginary. That will TOTALLY get them interested in science.

The two cultures problem is real and pervasive. The tenure process makes it worse by promoting narrow specializations and effectively discouraging the life of the mind. A solution -- at least for the 4-year liberal arts colleges--would be to hire pedagogically-gifted generalists alongside the narrow specialists in every department. Have the generalists teach intro courses, writing, and research seminars that require integration of both cultural and scientific competence.