Is science too hard for normal people to understand?

Why is there such an anti-science backlash going on, especially in the U.S.?

I’ve been thinking that science has come to the point where normal people — people without any science education, people who dropped out of high school, people who work at the corner gas station, people who think “math is hard” — just can’t understand it, so they reject it out of hand or they think of it as some kind of mystical force, no different in substance than any superstition.

Imagining the earth revolving around the sun is no harder than imagining the sun revolving around the earth. Thinking of a moon made out of rock takes less imagination than thinking of a satellite made of green cheese. But going through Einstein’s thought experiments about time and relativity, trying to get a grip on string theory with its 11 (or 10 or 26) dimensions, and attempting to comprehend quantum mechanics can be mind boggling. Even Richard Feynman said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” If a brilliant scientist like Feynman says something like this, what hope is there for the rest of us?

In a recent discussion between the Four Horsemen* of atheism, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens talk about how it’s impossible to intuitively imagine some of the concepts of modern science, how you have to trust the math and the experimental evidence. But what good is that if you can’t understand the math or the experiments? And what does one do when one theory, like string theory, is not accepted by all scientists and mathematicians, while another, like evolution, is considered fact by all serious and credible biologists?

How does one know what — or whom — to believe? More importantly, how does one jump the gap between belief and understanding? Can normal people ever hope to understand science? Sometimes it seems impossible.

Here’s my problem with my own idea: I dropped out of high school and I have no formal science education. I graduated from Bible school instead of college and studied the five books of Moses instead of the books of Darwin. (To my credit, I never thought “math is hard” and I did eventually get a high school diploma, attend some college, and read voraciously about science on my own.) So if I can understand these scientific concepts with a bit of mental exercise, and accept that the scientific method is really the best way to understand the universe, what’s stopping others from doing the same?

* The Four Horsemen? Gag, puh-lease, I love these guys and I have enjoyed all of their books, but get a grip whiteys-with-penises — there are other kinds of unbelievers out here, too. And these guys don’t understand why so many people think they are arrogant? They aren’t if you hear them speak live, but some of the stuff that comes out of their pens and typewriters does sound about as arrogant as you can get. I thought this when reading Dawkins and Dennett in the early 1990s, and although I think they’ve improved over the years, they still let stuff slip through the cracks, apparently completely unconscious of how it sounds. OK, I’ll admit that I’m a little jealous of these guys with their best selling books and all the media attention they get. But still. I hope this little aside doesn’t derail the conversation but I really had to get it out of my system.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. I think the problem starts with a willingness to listen, period. It doesn't matter that modern biology has amassed a wealth of information to support evolution. What matters is who they are. Fundamentalist Christians only listen to people who are flying the right flag. If you are considered to be on the same team, then you can do just almost anything, and they will apologize for you and enthusiastically attack your detractors. If you aren't perceived as being on the same team, then they won't listen to you. Period. Why was it okay to impeach Bill Clinton for his improprieties in the White House, and it's not okay to discuss impeachment now? Because Bushie-poo flies the right flag. He's their guy. If Hillary gets elected, the clamor for an independent counsel will start all over again. The explanation that we should support the President no matter what will be considered in poor taste.

    It's got nothing to do with reasoning with them. You can't. It will take someone that they have unshakeable faith in telling them to change their ways before they will listen at all. And then, they won't be listening. They'll just drop in behind and support without critically examining the new position. If someone like a Billy Graham came out and said that evolution was not a threat to Christianity, then there would be a 50/50 shot it would work. There's just as much likelihood that people would say he was either senile or irrelevant or that he's weakened.

    I grew up in a really small town in Oklahoma. I've watched for the last seven years as the maddening attitudes and behaviors that I grew up with came into power in this country. The difference between reality and fantasy has nothing to do with the problem. The problem is social. You can argue and reason till you are blue in the face, and it will never sway the fundamentalist base in this country.

    They need to feel like you're on the same team.

  2. writerdd,

    While we all wait for Blake Stacey to chime in with something pithy and well thought out, let me just say that I think you underestimate the level of "mental exercise" that is required for people to understand, if even on a basic level, much of the science that is floating around out there right now. I don't think most people's thought processes are set up in a way that is conducive to that kind of understanding. And, from their perspective, why should they even try? For the most part, they can live their lives fairly successfully without understanding any of that stuff, so why should they make the (often significant) effort required?

    I think we scientists have to shoulder much of the blame for not making it more clear how rewarding it can be, both intellectually and spiritually, to understand the workings of the Universe on a deeper level. Until we can do a better job of conveying the kind of endorphin rush that comes from those "Aha!" or "Eureka!" moments, the non-scientist public is never going to see the point of going to all that effort in the first place!

    And in response to your comments about the "4 Horsemen", I would have to agree. Their arrogance can certainly be off-putting. They remind me of Harvard Physics professors, both in their obvious intelligence and in their lack of humility. But I have to give credit where it is due. Although I disagree strongly with much of what Hitchens has written, his recent article

    had tears rolling down my cheeks. Damn! That man can write!

  3. I'm not sure its realistic or necessary to expect every gas station attendant out there to understand or even to be aware of string theory or quantum mechanics. These are very complicated and in the case of string theory, possibly completely wrong.

    What I think you're really concerned about are Evolution, Global Warming, Stem Cells and the Paranormal (or lack of). These topics are probably within most peoples abilities to grasp. The problem is that each of these topics tend to undermine strongly held beliefs. These beliefs are exploited by the Republican party with great success.

    In my opinion the problem is not scientific education but fear. Fear of a world without god. Fear of the responsibility that places on us to take care of this world. Fear that we have one life and nobody is there to take care of us. Fear of people different from us.

    America is the land of the controlled and home of the afraid…

  4. I think the problem is that many of these people have non-scientists telling them the opposite, and sometimes even that scientists themselves are the problem.

    The question is who will the general person believe, a university scholar they have never met, or their local priest and their parents?

  5. The biggest problem with Fundamentalist Christians & right-wing nutjobs in the US is THAT THEY VOTE!

    So PLEASE get all of your not-nut-job friends and relatives to the polls.

  6. Honestly, I think the main reason people don't "get" science is because they absolutely no confidence in their own brains. You know what? Science IS hard. Math IS hard. I think most people just don't believe that they're smart enough to understand {evolution|quantum physics|a universe without gods} and so they cling to some other idea in its place, because it feels safe. Our education system seems to actively resist producing self-confident, questioning, independent, inquisitive minds by shoving grades and tests down their throats, leaving the majority of kids floundering to keep up with little straight-A Bobby.

  7. i think both awbranch and jrpowell are mostly right. most people, at least in my experience, don't want to put their beliefs, or what they were taught when younger by their parents, teachers, preachers to the test. they're afraid of the implications of the teachings being wrong. they seem to think that it's disrespectful to their authority figures to say, even in their heads, maybe they were wrong. many would probably be disowned if they were to vocalize such thoughts and are terrified of being ostracized by their loved ones/preachers. they believe they'll be punished forever by their god if they disobey their churches leaders. in short like awbranch said they're afraid.

    while it has inconsistencies, that my former "preachers" have been unable to sufficiently explain to me, if they'd really read the bible it would most likely put an end to most of their fears. most, if not all, of what scares people in xian religions are teachings of the religion and are not taught in the bible. at least in my readings of it.

    like jrpowell said they vote. i think that's not as much as a problem as the fact that the people who do exercise their ability to think don't vote. and that probably has something to do with the feelings of futility. none of the candidates seems much different from the other. plus even if a perfect candidate would happen to win they'd have to function with the existing extremely partisan system. to get something accomplished seems to necessitate backwater deals (if you scratch my back today, i'll scratch yours tomorrow).

    as far as the science stuff goes i'm with writerdd, i'm fascinated by it. i love reading about it. my problem is the math, as i've not had any complicated math (i've gotten only as far as trig classes and a discrete math class). what i've read about quantum physics fascinates me in a way i can't really explain. i think that your average person in the u.s. just doesn't see the point. i've had people basically say: "do i need to know this to live? then why waste my time learning it?". i can't fathom that attitude, but that's just the differences in peoples interests. the problem in the u.s. is that those type of people are running the government, or are listening to those type of people so they can get re-elected.

    at least this is my take on the subject.

  8. My own pet social theory has to do with expediency and the path of least resistance. I think that by in large populations don't take up science and math because it's not the fastest route to the "truth". Given a social environment where two different groups of people claim access to the "truth" about matters and one requires only the most minimal of mental effort and the other requires rigorous studies in multiple fields and where knowledge is constantly being churned under as new and better theories are posited; It's not surprising to me that a large number of people use religion to allow themselves to access "truth" quickly so they can get on with their normal lives.

    When you compare the theistic to the atheistic lifestyle atheists quite often have to spend a good deal of their spare time constantly informing themselves about our ever growing and changing understanding of the universe. By rejecting this in whole or in part theists are free to spend their time doing other things confident of their version of the universe.

    But, I'm no social biologist so please digest with the usual dose of salt.

  9. I think that you (skepchick) are addressing a much more important and fundamental issue than ideology.

    I think the root of many problems comes from this whole "Math is hard" mentality that permiates the culture. This attitude causes people not to try to understand which means they do not develop any curiousity or interest in the subject.

    In part I blame the education system. A lot of math and science are taught like people are dumb; hidding or delaying interesting topics. Many "advancent" subjects require little background knowledge and may just capture and hold the interest of someone falling asleep in the back of the room.

    I can remember taking physics in high school, anxious to learn about relativity or quantum theory but these topics weren't even mentioned. Now that I have a familiarality of them I can see no reason why they couldn't have been mentioned at least in passing. The mathematics required would not have been beyond anything we weren't already being taught.

    And look at math. Most people get a very limitied mathematical education; the emphasis being elementary algebra. You'll probably see some geometry in high school and maybe some trig too but that's just the tip of the iceberg. The field of mathematics is a lot wider. A smattering of abstract (or modern) algebra may enlighten a much wider audience.

    I'll get off the soap box now. :)

  10. Not to derail the conversation as writerdd feared, but how exactly are the Four Horsemen arrogant? First off, the title doesn't seem like anything more than a satirical poke at theistic and nontheistic critics who appear to believe they're the biggest threat to civilization since nuclear weapons. And on a personal level, I don't see them as arrogant at all. Sure, you can scrounge up sound bits once in a while that may offend people, but even those are mostly justified within the context of what they were saying at the time. Furthermore, their message is on the whole more moderate than most people would like to admit.

  11. @ mefron

    my discrete mathematics class was interesting, but no one i talked to before taking it was able to tell me exactly what it was. the class i took was basically a theoretical math class in that it was teaching logical concepts without attaching them to a specific type of math like (e.g. algebra). the hardest part of the class for me was trying to disassociate the generic logical concept from the math that introduced the concept to me and even that wasn't too hard once i figured out what was going on in the class. personally i think it would have been better to learn basic maths, then the logical concepts, then learn algebra/trig. etc. i think the other maths would have made so much more sense to me.

    oh, and i thought it was really, really cool the my discrete mathematics professor got (and gets) to "hang out" with Roger Penrose because his (my profs.) adviser knows Mr. Penrose. (six degrees in action…)

  12. @ OneLess:

    i've only read "The God Delusion" and there were bits in there that could be taken as Dawkins being arrogant. i think that was mostly from that fact that i had recently came out of a xian religious organization that had teachings that were at odds with the examples that Dawkins used to drive home his dislike (to put it mildly) of religion. what i mean is the examples he used to condemn religious teachings (e.g. eternal torment, everlasting soul…) were examples that i had been taught to be not truely based on the bible.

    just to clarify i currently to not subscribe to any religious doctrine, yet haven't quite come to the point where i call my self an atheist – though i'm close.

  13. My thoughts as a person who went on to get two advanced degrees in the field of history, but who also has a layperson's interest in science and who makes his living as a software developer:

    1. Yes, math and science are indeed hard, but not out of the realm of the basic understanding of anyone who comes from societies where math and science are better taught than they are here in the United States. I myself loved chemistry and could find physics interesting in high school, as well as something called "earth science" in junior high (basically, geology, meteorology, and the like), and have loved paleontology, astronomy, geology, and evolutionary biology since I was a kid. (Dinosaurs were big in the early 1970s, too.) The problem, I think, is the way the material is presented in public schools in America. I was actually quite bored with mathematics in junior high and high school, even though I was a year ahead of my grade level in math, so I stopped taking it after what was called "math analysis" (aka pre-calculus) in my junior year. Perhaps I was intimidated by being a year younger than most people in the class; perhaps it was the inadequate way that math concepts were explained; I don't really know for sure, but they did turn me off math at least, and of course I could not have pursued a hard-science degree without it.

    2. There is the stereotype of the bespectacled, white-lab-coated nerd confidently making pronouncements in a jargon few people understand about a subject even fewer people understand. This apparent certainty then gets contradicted by some other bespectacled, white-lab-coated nerd making pronouncements about the same subject using the same jargon but with different conclusions. (This apparent problem is not unique to the "hard" sciences; the social sciences have the same problem, too.) The nerd stereotype is pervasive in American culture, which does not value education in and of itself, and which reinforces the stereotypes of smart people as socially-maladjusted weirdos who do their own thing and damn the "normal" people.

    3. Going along with #2, the desire to appear authoritative about one's field because one has invested a lot of one's self psychologically as well as financially and other ways has led to a certain inability to appear human and admit that we don't know something yet or have an answer yet. This is true of the humanities/liberal arts as well as of the sciences.

    I have had a subscription to Scientific American for over ten years, and I enjoy reading it even when the articles are over my head. Could someone tell me if there is anything wrong with this magazine, and if so, why?

    Sorry for the ramble. It's a slow day at work.

  14. You're right, writerdd, it is very difficult for people to know what to believe about the world. And, as has often been said here, science and math education is extremely impoverished in this country. And I'll tell you why I think that is: despite our best intentions, despite compulsory education, despite "No Child Left Behind" and any sort of uniform standard, despite the ready availability of just about any kind of information on the internet…knowledge is STILL a luxury.

    Let's face it: as another commenter already said, it's kind of naive to think that everyone out there has either the capacity or the desire to understand high-level math and science. Heck, I consider myself something of a science hobbyist, but I lack education in the field and SORELY lack the upper-level math skills needed to parse much of, say, physics.

    The other day, my friend (who has a duel BA in Engineering Physics and Applied Mathmatics and is seeking a PhD in physics now) had a conversation with his younger brother (a freshman in an Engineering program at a pretty good school) about his first-semester, freshman-level math course. And you know what? I got NONE of it. Not a word. I'd maybe heard of perhaps one or two concepts throughout the course of that five minute conversation, but not much more than that. I'm no fool, myself, with a first-class (liberal arts) MA under my belt, but that conversation made me feel like one.

    My point is that, to an extent, most of that information is utilitarian to only a small group. Essentially only specialists ever NEED to know any of that. My daily life is not impacted by the fact that I don't know the Maxwell's Equations from Maxwell's Silver Hammer. I can't even remember the quadratic formula! Almost no one NEEDS to know deep science or math, and there's even less motivation to understand it if you're already being told that it's bunk by your family or community.

    I think the crux of the issue you're talking about here, really, isn't that most people don't know THAT sort of arcane information. Clearly, when you get to the level of concepts that can truly ONLY be described by formulas, you're well beyond any sort of daily use. At that point, for someone who doesn't NEED that information, it becomes a sort of luxury; an item one can splurge on (in time spent reading or money spent on books/lessons) at the expense of other areas of life. And many people simply do not have the time, money, or energy to go that extra step beyond and educate themselves.

    That said, there is NO reason why the mandatory education we already have cannot be expanded to emphasize concepts and descriptions of those things that CAN be described in words instead of solely equations. Amongst the hard-core science community, "popularizers" STILL get a bad name. But I don't believe they SHOULD. My purpose here is to say that, to an extent, knowing the actual ins and outs of string theory or economics or what have you is NOT as important to the majority of us as knowing ABOUT those ins and outs…as knowing of their existence or their implications on a conceptual level.

    To me, to look at the world and realize that all my eyes are doing is picking up on reflected light, not "seeing" any kind of accurate image of objects…to realize that binoculars are bending light in such a way as to move its focal point and make further away objects seem nearer…THAT changes my world view. I don't really NEED to get into optics and the equations surrounding light waves to have that "Holy Crap!" moment. And perhaps if early science education featured a better balance of "Holy Crap!" conceptual knowledge and the meat-and-potatoes mathmatical/logical underpinnings behind them, we would be in better shape.

  15. One of the problems that I see with the popular understanding of science is that the scientific method supports a cumulative, evolutionary process – where each new step builds on the step before it.

    Up until now there has been a bit of a race between the basic knowledge required to understand the science, and the information that schools are able to impart to students. We've reached a stage now where there the amount of information that can be presented before a student leaves school has reached a certain finite amount, and yet the base amount required to understand modern scientific concepts continues to grow.


    I would tend to agree – I also suspect that "the four horsemen" is a play on the way that critics of "new" or "militant" atheism (gah! What's so "new" about it anyway?) tend to lump the four of them together. To a certain extent they have become atheist figureheads because their *critics* have made them so.

  16. Whenever I use science or logic to explain why a concept is wrong, people get pissed and say, "You just take all the fun out of life".

    I explain things in a calm, polite, non-confrontational manner so it's not my deliver.

  17. Logic and critical thinking is not often taught in American Schools. And that is part of the problem. You don't need to know much about physics to suspect that ion-generating bracelets can't really realign your brain.

    A basic misunderstanding of how science works, andd the way science is distorted via the media, completes the public's alienation from science. (oat bran is good for you! No, now it isn't! Wait, it is again!)

    A great sociological study on this topic is Chris Toumey's "Conjuring Science."

  18. I think you've nailed it with the talk of string theory as an example. A lot of the stuff that Serious Physicists come up with makes less sense to me (and I minored in quantum physics) than astrology.

    Disclaimer: That's not to say that it's on par with astrology, of course. Even if string theory is disproven as an accurate picture of physics, I think it will be fondly remembered as a fascinating body of mathematics. But I digress.

    Physicists in particular are getting into areas that, truth be told, aren't that hard to understand. They're just hard to believe, because our intuitions break down.

    It is unfortunate that something so clear, simple, comprehensible and (in retrospect) obvious as evolution got thrown into the mix. Perhaps we should have never used the term "evolution", preferring Darwin's preferred term "descent with modifications". It's not as snappy, but it gets the point across.

  19. There's an important point to be made about string theory, actually, which may have some bearing on the larger issues raised in this discussion. To wit: it's impossible to get an accurate understanding of what the scientists are doing and what they want to accomplish from the popular media.

    Most of the controversy in the so-called "String Wars" is overblown or misdirected. We have a very hard problem on our hands — to reconcile quantum mechanics with general relativity, and to provide a unified description of the fundamental forces and particles — upon which many people have been working many years. Our ability to ask questions has far outstripped our ability to perform the experiments necessary to rule out the bad answers. Every theory which tries to plumb this territory suffers the same difficulties: string theory is the most popular, but loop quantum gravity (whose aims are, in some ways, more modest) isn't any closer to experimental verification.

    However, we don't have to give up, consoling ourselves with the thought, "At least we invented some pretty and interesting abstract mathematics." String theory started, back in the 1970s, with attempts to understand nuclear physics; features of the mathematics which made it awkward for that task turned out, quite by surprise, to make it a candidate theory of quantum gravity. (Is that part of the history mentioned in popular media? Often not.) Ideas developed in the course of quantum gravity research then turned around and gave us — just a few years ago — new tools for understanding nuclear physics!

    The history of string theory for the last thirty-odd years is a double "who'd've thunk it?" story.

    Now, there's always the chance that gauge-gravity duality won't help us understand the quark-gluon plasma as well as we hope; maybe this effort will be a wash-out, and we'll have to go back to consoling ourselves with the abstract mathematics. (People have won Fields Medals for the mathematical side of stringy business, which is not a small achievement.) But, to coin a phrase, we won't know until we try. More importantly, at least for folks who aren't professional physicists, you can't really appreciate what the physicists are doing without knowing that this kind of back-and-forth exchange of ideas is happening.

    Can we apply string theory math to superconductivity? Sure, why not! It won't directly help us unify the fundamental forces, but it might give our mathematics a workout and let us stress-test a few ideas.

    This whole aspect of physics research has not been popularized very well or seen a good journalistic treatment. Part of the reason is that you can't really understand what's going on unless you've had some mathematical experience; another part is that, hey, a David-and-Goliath story about heroic underdogs taking on the ossified String Theory Establishment is just an easier story to tell!

    One facet of the problem stands out as a reason for optimism. The reason that quantum gravity and super-duper unification theories are currently debated so heavily within the scientific community is, basically, that they are too far removed from easy experimental reach. This means that they are also unlikely to be the basis of technological change; consequently, out of all the scientific developments unfolding today, they are among the least likely to cause political turmoil. In the triage of education, we can elect to study them for their beauty and to exalt our own curiosity, rather than because understanding their effects is a civic necessity.

  20. Well for starters, Europe doesn't seem to have nearly as much of a problem here, nor does much of Asia. The anti-rationality that's take hold in America is the result of political manipulation — the ruling elite doesn't want the populace to understand these things, because an educated populace is much harder to manipulate.

    It's also worth noting that civilization is a fragile froth over our animal natures, and it can easily be disrupted or destroyed — especially by those who'd rather lead among animals than take orders from humans.

  21. Tell me when Dawkins becomes as arrogant as a person who thinks that they were especially created by god at the centre of the universe, and that all animals and plants were created for them to do with as they please.

    Math is not hard, it simply appears difficult until you start doing it. This applies to almost all things. Musical notation is very simple in it's application, but it scares the hell out of a lot of people when they see all the notes all squidged together.

    The problem is also one of interest. If i didn't take an interest in astronomy when i was younger, i won't be interested in anything related to that later. This is because it isn't relevant to me and also, because i didn't learn about the basics originally, i won't understand later comments on it that might go against my limited common sense. Whereas if i had studied it, i could then relate comments to my previous knowledge and see how everything fits together. In other words, we need to extend our common sense rather than saying that some things go "against" our common sense.. so just live with it.

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