Saturday, February 24, 2007

I'm Merely Confused

Even Charles Darwin was initially skeptical when he first read about the views of James Hutton in the 1830's: The Earth might be millions of years old--possibly older! (We know today that the Earth is more than 4.5 billion years old.) It's hard to believe that less than 200 years ago, even among the educated, the Earth was unquestionably thought to be only some 6,000 years old, as was stated in the Book of Genesis, a collection of stories from the Iron Age.

Although far less well known than figures like Galileo, Newton and Darwin himself, the Scotsman James Hutton in discovering Earth's "antiquity" in the late 18th century, then forgotten about for some 20 years before being rediscovered, deserves to be placed alongside the greatest scientists in human history.

How far have we traveled in the past 200 years? Well, according to a Michigan State University professor ( Jon D. Miller), who conducted a study on science literacy in the United States, about 20 percent of Americans--at least 40 million--think the sun travels around the Earth. Does anyone recall what Galileo almost got burned at the stake for in the 17th century? But if it is of any consolation to American "patriots," Europe and Japan are only marginally better informed according to the report.

But is there a point to any of this? Well if one believes, for example, that global warming might not be an environmental "conspiracy," but a potentially very serious problem for all of us, then there may be an important point to be made.

A joint poll last year conducted by ABC News, Time and two universities learned that less than 40% of Americans think global warming is a serious problem and only 3 out of 10 feel humans have caused it. Americans also are under the impression that there is considerable disagreement among scientists as to whether or not the Earth is heating up.

While the success of industry front groups has something to do with the confusion of many Americans, coupled with the media's misunderstanding of so-called "balanced" news, the profound lack of basic scientific literacy among the majority of people is by far the essential problem, it seems to me. It remains to be seen what we are willing to do to change this. Of course, we first have to realize there is a problem. The late Carl Sagan once said, "Ignorance feeds on ignorance."

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