What’s Your Attitude Towards Science?

Word cloud based on question

3M, the US-based conglomerate probably best known for their Post-It notes, recently released a report called the State of Science Index. They call it “one of the largest, most global studies” done in recent years to gain some understanding of the public attitude towards scientists and their work, surveying more than 14,000 people in 14 countries.

Overall, the general attitudes expressed were positive:

  • 87% said that their general attitude towards science was one of fascination, rather than boring.
  • The same percentage thought “the world is a better place today because of science” and were “hopeful” when they heard the word mentioned.
  • Two-thirds said they were “excited when thinking about the future impact of science on society” and that “science is very important to society in general”.

However, when you dig down into the responses, there is much to be worried about.

I don’t mind the 32% who said they were “skeptical” of science. Questioning claims made in scientific reports is a healthy approach to understanding complex ideas. Especially since most people get their science news from a TV news reader who likely doesn’t understand beyond the summary statement in their script.

Far more troubling than skeptics is the 27% of respondents who “do not see the point of needing to understand science as adults”. Plus the relatively large percentage of people who agree with statements like “If science didn’t exist, my everyday life would not be all that different.” and who fail to see a link between scientific research and “technology”.

In the US, these numbers parallel the around-30% in political poll after poll who refuse to accept basic scientific findings like the existence of climate change as major problem facing society. Or who believe that childhood vaccinations are some kind of conspiracy between doctors and drug companies.

These kinds of attitude surveys can be interesting, although they should also be read with some skepticism. But if you teach middle or high school students, you may want to give them the executive summary and ask them to reflect on the findings. How do their attitudes compare to those of the adults in this survey?

Of course, the 3M Index is looking at current opinions and only tangentially addresses the state of science education. However, how children are taught science during their years in K12 directly affects their understanding of science as adults.

There is a direct link between classroom science instruction that involves memorizing lots of facts and little direct interaction with scientific concepts and the 86% of respondents who say they know “little or nothing” about science. And the large percentage of those people who have no interest in learning more as adults.

Unfortunately, we tend to elect far too many of those people to leadership positions.


I learned of this survey through a discussion with former astronaut Scott Kelly on Marketplace Tech, a daily podcast about how technology affects our lives.

The image is from the executive summary of this report and shows the word cloud created when people were asked to complete this task: “Please fill in what you think science is in no more than two to three sentences. Science is…”.

Why is This Stereotyping of People Acceptable?

Sorting Hat

Last week, the Pew Research Center decided to alter the definition of a Millennial. The all-powerful Pew declared that hence forth people born between 1981 and 1996 would now be called members of the millennial generation. Instead of whatever the period was one day earlier.

An economist and college professor calls this the “‘generation game’ — the insistence on dividing society into groups based on birth year and imputing different characteristics to each group”.

To see what’s wrong with the idea, take a look at American millennials. In seemingly endless essays in recent years, they’ve been derided as lazy and narcissistic or defended as creative and committed to social change. But these all sound like characteristics that the old have ascribed to the young since the dawn of time. Similar terms were applied to the “slacker” Generation X and before that, the baby boomers.

Yep. When I was in high school, the news media called us lazy and spoiled many, many times. When I was teaching high school, they called my Gen X students the exact same thing. I wouldn’t be at all surprised newspapers in 17th century London assigned the same faults to kids of that era.

So why do we accept and spread classification schemes that try to stuff millions of people into the same box? We are often reminded that it’s not fair to stereotype a whole group of people based on arbitrary characteristics. But what could be more arbitrary than the date of your birth?

As the writer reminds us, the practice is not only lazy, it also diverts attention from some real and damaging divisions.

Some may argue that the generation game, if intellectually vacuous, is basically harmless. But dividing society by generation obscures the real and enduring lines of race, class and gender. When, for example, baby boomers are blamed for “ruining America,” the argument lumps together Donald Trump and a 60-year-old black woman who works for minimum wage cleaning one of his hotels.

I certainly hope that the high school students from Parkland, Florida and other areas of the country – who carry the label “Gen Z” or “iGen” – can use their activism to draw attention to aspects of American society that are horribly wrong.

However, declaring that millions of kids who happen to have been born during one arbitrary period of history will “fix” our current mess, and blaming that mess on yet another group of people who happen to have been born during an earlier arbitrary period of history (those newly reclassified Millennials), is just dumb.


The sorting hat was far more discriminating in the classification of Hogwarts students than Pew is with generations. I know, that’s a stretch but I needed an image for this post that was at least tenuously related. :-)

Help The Children Lead, Instead of Telling Them Where to Go

From Alexandra Petri, one of the smartest, and often funniest, writers at the Washington Post, some (satirical) thoughts about the students now speaking up against the American love affair with guns.

Now, if you don’t want to hear from any more high schoolers traumatized by gun violence, then you either decide to try to create a world where high schoolers are not traumatized by gun violence, or decide to create a world where you do not have to listen to the high schoolers. It looks like we’re picking the latter!

We are not monsters. This burning shame that keeps us awake is their fault. If they were not there pointing the finger at us — We are being personally victimized! We are the real victims here! They have the audacity to point fingers at people for doing nothing! We haven’t done anything!

You can almost hear that coming out of the mouth of some “regressive”1 commentator on one of the talking heads channels in response to the raw and honest reaction coming from the children.

What these analysts and spokespeople seem to ignore is that the First Amendment doesn’t specify a minimum age and that the right to petition the government belongs to everyone, not just their friends with big bank accounts.

Anyway, I hope that the students from Parkland, now loudly speaking against our absurdly loose gun laws, continue to ignore those calls to shut up and sit down. Even more, I really hope that they, joined by protesting young people from all over the country, have started a movement that can affect major changes.

The adults of my generation have created many, many problems with our current government, and American society in general. Problems that are already severely impacting the lives of these kids beyond the almost-daily gun violence. From climate change to economic disparity and poverty to an increasingly unstable world, they need to be more than just aware. Students must be leaders in the work to the solutions.

But those solutions will not come easily. I agree with a post from a wise friend who writes that such a process will be “incredibly long” and will include many setbacks.

Sustaining the passion for the work is really hard, and you’ll need trusted friends and allies who will listen to you vent and strategize with you and privately call you on your mistakes and tell you when you need to go get some sleep. You will need those people, and I am sure you will be those people for each other as well.

Some of those “trusted friends and allies” must be their teachers.

However, instead of telling them to stay in the classroom, we must listen to our students, to both their concerns and ideas. We, as in all adults who support children, must help them learn how to use their authentic voices and to effectively direct the power of responsible civic engagement.

Guide them into adulthood, instead of always telling them what we think they need to know, what to say, and how to act.


Image is of an editorial cartoon by the wonderful Steve Benson, whose liberal-leaning work always seemed a little out of place at the conservative (but generally responsible) Arizona Republic newspaper (known online as AZCentral).

1. Since “progressive” is often used as an alternate for liberal on the political spectrum, I think we should use a far more accurate synonym for conservative, “regressive”.

Questioning Dubious Statistics

BBC More or Less Postcard

More or Less is a radio programme1 and podcast produced by the BBC World Service. The weekly show tries to make sense of the statistics presented in popular media (including the broadcasts of their own organisation1) in a way the average educated listener can understand.

As you might expect, a common thread in the podcast is whether the numbers reported in stories about studies, polls, and surveys are accurate and used appropriately. Spoiler alert: they often are not.

In a recent “bonus” podcast, the host offers a short debunking guide that would fit on a post card2 from his holiday at the shore. “How to question dubious statistics in just a few short steps.”

The whole thing is worth ten minutes of your time. If you teach math to high school students, you may even want to play it for them.

However, if you’re very short of time, the final step is, for me, the most important idea presented.

Number 6: Be Curious.

If a statistic is worth sharing, isn’t it worth understanding first?

Forget that nagging feeling that says you might just be spoiling a good story. Facts matter… but facts are also fascinating.

Treat them as puzzles. Treat surprising or counterintuitive claims, not with suspicion nor open arms but as mysteries to be solved. It’s fun.

And they close with this reminder.

Hopefully, with this postcard as your guide, you can step into a world of statistical adventure. Because it’s not just about winning arguments, it’s about being curious. The world, after all, is a fascinating place.

Whether you consider statistics “fun” or an “adventure”, the advice is solid. Be curious, some would say skeptical, about the numbers constantly being thrown at you in the news and your social media feed. Very often the story behind them is far more interesting, and different, from what has been presented in the headline.


If you listen to podcasts, More or Less is a good one to add to your playlist. I would have embedded a player here for the episode but the BBC doesn’t allow those of us outside the UK to do that kind of thing.

1. British show, British spelling. :)

2. For you kids out there, postcards were something your parents (maybe grandparents) sent from locations where they were on vacation in the days before Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the rest. It was a slower method of trying to impress their friends and relatives. Or maybe make them jealous.

My Conspiracy Theory Theory

X files the lone gunment

Frohike, Byers, and Langly are skeptical of this rant.

I grew up with some of the classics. Unique gems like aliens hidden at Area 51, dozens of variations on the JFK assassination (aliens did that too), faked moon landing, Watergate. Today it seems as everything in the news is automatically attributed to some kind of conspiracy.

Well, I have a theory about that.

For each additional person who knows the details of a particular conspiracy, the likelihood of it being successful and secret declines by 5%. As the odds approach zero, the plan is either revealed or falls apart.

Let me explain.

Any conspiracy, by definition, begins with at least two people. A one-person plot is in the realm of lone-wolf, evil genius territory, and talking to yourself (or the fourth wall) doesn’t apply.

Every time you add a co-conspirator, henchman, girl friend1, lacky, nerd hacker, or janitor to the mix, the chance of someone making a mistake or becoming a disgruntled whistleblower increases. If the plan is hot enough, the temptation of book deals and screenplays gradually appear in the distance.

So, if you assume the beginning odds of success for any conspiracy at close to 100%, it only takes the involvement of twenty people to drive the chances to zero. I figure most of these things probably start far below 100% and thus require far fewer people to fall apart.

And of course, every theory needs a corollary…

As the odds of a conspiracy in some way related to President Obama, Hillary Clinton, or the New York Times approaches zero, the chances that it will be adopted by a Fox “news” host, continuously flogged on air, and believed by their viewers approaches 100%.

Yes, the truth is out there. Just not on Fox.


Ultimate conspiracy theorists, The Lone Gunmen were one of the best parts of the X-Files. Sometimes their stories made a whole lot more sense than the main narrative.

1. I’m not being sexist. Conspiracies are almost always a guy thing. Most women I know are too smart to get involved in this crap.