Simpletons Of Science


June 05, 1994|By DAVE BARRY

What is your "Science IQ"? To find out, take this multiple-choice quiz:

1. Tides are caused by:

(a) Gravity leaking out of the moon.

(b) Clams burping in unison.

(c) Sen. Howell Heflin.

2. What is magnetism?

(a) Invisible rays that shoot out of a compass.

(b) The force that causes dogs to bark when you ring the doorbell.

(c) The molecular attraction that forms between refrigerators and little ceramic vegetables.

3. The Earth rotates:

(a) Around the cosine.

(b) At night.

(c) In a direction away from Cleveland.

Answers: The correct scientific answer to all three questions is: "d. No Opinion."

If you did poorly on this quiz, do not feel bad: When it comes to scientific knowledge, a great many Americans are every bit as stupid as you are. This was the conclusion of a recent nationwide survey reported in the New York Times, which showed that Americans had the same basic level of scientific literacy as road salt.

This does not surprise me. I constantly see evidence that Americans do not understand basic scientific principles. For example, the great mathematician and dead person Sir Isaac Newton (who also invented gravity) proved in 1583 that, no matter how hard you push, you cannot fit an object into an airplane overhead storage compartment if the object is way bigger than the compartment. Americans still do not understand this.

I am writing these words on a flight from Miami to San Francisco, a flight that I frankly thought was never going to leave the gate because the aisle seemed to be permanently blocked by a man and a woman who -- after taking approximately 15 minutes to figure out that row 19 was the one between row 18 and row 20 -- attempted to stow a wicker basket that, to judge from its size and weight, contained an elk. I can personally vouch for the weight, because at one point in their struggle the couple dropped the basket on my head.

These Americans would definitely benefit from better science training, similar to what I received in Mrs. West's eighth-grade science class at Harold C. Crittenden Junior High School in Armonk, N.Y. I vividly remember Mrs. West standing at the blackboard, drawing a diagram to illustrate the electron, while the entire class stared with rapt attention at Tom Parker, who was listening to a concealed earphone attached to a transistor radio tuned to a critical World Series game between the Yankees and the Pirates.

Mrs. West, diagramming away, would tell us an important fact about electrons, and Tom would signal that, say, Bobby Richardson had singled, and the classroom would erupt with muffled cheers, and Mrs. West would turn around, startled, thinking these young people are into electricity.

Tragically, many Americans did not receive this caliber of science training, which is why they did so poorly in the survey. According to the Times story, one of the questions that most people answered incorrectly was:

"Which of these is the nearest living relative of the dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus rex? (a) a chicken; (b) a crocodile; (c) a lizard; (d) an elephant."

The correct answer, of course, is: Sen. Howell Heflin.

No, seriously, the correct answer, according to the New York Times, is: a chicken. I'm serious. Your immediate reaction to this is: "Wait a minute. The giant fearsome creature that ate a car and a lawyer in 'Jurassic Park' is related to a chicken?"

Yes. By studying the bones of dinosaurs, scientists have been able to determine that Tyrannosaurus rex used to stride through the prehistoric jungle, its massive weight causing the Earth to tremble with each step, until it located its prey; and then, with a horrifying roar ("cock-a-doodle-doooo"), it would lunge downward and administer the awesome Peck of Death to a kernel of prehistoric corn.

But the point is that we need to improve our scientific literacy, and the place to start is with our young people. I think we should have a program wherein our top scientific minds go into the public schools and lecture to the students, and if the students fool around, our top scientific minds should whack them on the head with slide rules.

Speaking of which, I want to stress that my mental faculties were in no way affected by the elk-basket blow to my head head head head head hey look there are big spiders on the airplane wing.

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