Don’t know much about science
The scientific revolution is widely credited in our history and science classes to Nicolas Copernicus and his heliocentric model of the cosmos. But the way it is described, or the way that people remember hearing it in school is that the earth-centered Ptolemaic model was “disproved” and “replaced” by the correct heliocentric model of the cosmos. But the truth is that the scientific revolution came about not so much because people suddenly realized that the Copernican model was correct and the old Ptolemaic Earth-centered model was wrong, as because the Copernican model was easier and more convenient. Even a rapid paradigm shift takes more than a generation to complete as advocates of older models simply age and die out rather than abandon their old thinking. Then, they can be replaced by younger people raised and educated with different ideas. So just as with any topic under the sun today, at any given time there are many different views of a matter advocated by different people, even the‘experts.’
It is a fact that the Earth centered model of the cosmos never ceased working. It still works, even today. But a person has to engage really complex math to make it work in light of all the observations and discoveries made in the last five hundred years. The Copernican model simply became more functional and easier as telescopes revealed more of the operation of objects in space. It is amazing, though, how many people - even educated people - still think and say that the heliocentric model replaced the earth-centered model because people discovered, or realized that it was “right” and the latter was “wrong.” I have heard the same people talk about how the earth rotates around the sun, the moon about the earth, the galaxy rotates on its axis, etc. When I say that all motion in the universe isrelative motion - a key scientific concept - and that it is impossible to talk about any object in space moving, revolving, or rotating unless it is expressed relative to another object in space, they think I am both mad and an idiot. But I think they must not have been paying sufficient attention in their science classes. Either that, or everything they know they gleaned from a Public Broadcasting Network documentary, or the Discovery Channel.
In the modern world - even in societies like Japan and Canada that boast free, universal public education and near-universal adult literacy - most people still do not understand even the basics of the science of our modern lives. I have heard university educated adults ask, “What is DNA?” Weekly, I observe demonstrations that people do not understand gravitation. (In my own home my wife still does not understand that gravity pulls things downward and for that reason she should put wet cups and glasses in the
dish rack upside down in order for any remaining water in them to drain away. When I point it out to her she tells me to shut up and dismisses the importance - and the relevance - of my gravity comments.)
This year I caught out a Japanese high school science teacher with a question about acceleration. I was referring to the classic demonstration of the force of gravity attributed to Galileo Galilei who is said to have dropped heavy and light objects off a tower to test the Aristotelian predicate that the heavier object will fall to earth faster and hit first. The science teacher gave the wrong answer - that the heavier object would hit her desk first - so I demonstrated right then and there with a piece of paper and a ball point pen. The reason I asked her is because as I passed by her desk I stopped to say good morning and then asked her what she was teaching that day.
“Oh! The inclined slope of Galileo.”
“Yes.” (She probably did not understand what I said. But she recognized the name“Galileo” and the word “slope” and so gave an affirmative answer figuring that when in doubt, affirmation is the best chance for making progress.)
“Let me ask you, if I drop this paper and this pen at the same time, which do you think will hit your desk first?”
Of course, maybe she was distracted by nervousness because I was talking to her in English. I admit I have a penchant for talking to her. She was one of my own English students a decade ago. I myself taught her English from grade seven to grade ten, and last year she returned to the school as a science teacher (replacing Mr. Ota who is still taking a long - maybe permanent - leave due to cholesterol-induced heart trouble.) I can’t get over how neat it is for my old students to come back as adults. Where did the time go, and how did they fill it?
She immediately recognized her mistake and corrected herself, but I am confident that most people on the street, if asked, would give the same, Aristotelian answer. To me, it highlights the difference between common sense, and uncommon sense. It also shows just how precarious our modern achievement in civilization is.
One of the most common examples of scientific illiteracy is the mistake of being cold with catching a cold or having a cold. This is oh, so common in Japaneven among medical people who ought to know better. (I think that they do know better, but they still trade in this popular misconception in order to meet some mistaken notions and expectations held by the public.) While being cold can weaken your immune system and make it easier to contract a cold virus from someone, the fact remains that you catch a cold from a virus, not from a temperature. Sneezing is not a sign of a head cold so much as it is a sign of some obstruction tickling the inside of one’s nose, but the (incorrect) common interpretation is that sneezing signals the onset of a cold. That might be so, but the point is that there are many other things that can account for sneezing, and I do not see why the assumption of a cold should always be the first and normal conclusion. In fact, I know from personal experience that is can be a wrong conclusion. I have sneezed before because of dust and then been showered with queries about whether I have a cold (“catch a cold” as the Japanese always say), and admonitions to take care of my health.
It seems like I have wasted hours of my married life arguing with my wife that being cold does not give you a cold, and that the latter is caused by a virus, not a temperature. But she is impervious and constantly resetting the thermostat in the apartment that I
want to keep just the way I like it. I get the same thing at school where Japanese teachers are always setting the thermostats too high in the hot months. I have written about this before. They have a different idea than I do about what is comfortable, what is normal, and what is healthy.
Our modern civilization rests on a foundation of science that (almost) nobody understands and that everyone takes for granted. The advent of literacy has not ushered in an age of knowledge so much as an age of ignorance. Or, perhaps more correctly, it simply highlights more starkly the way things have always been: civilization advanced by the efforts of the thinnest and the most fragile, enlightened veneer of the population. Or, maybe not.