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The Frustrations of Being Scientifically Literate

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Editors note: Craig Fay will be appearing live at the Laughing Devil Comedy Festival in New York City May 14-18.

Here’s a theory for you: ignorance is bliss. If that’s true then being scientifically literate has got to be one of the most miserable and frustrating things possible. And when you think about it that does go a long way in explaining the old trope of the mad scientist.

Oh sure, there are benefits to having an intimate knowledge about the world around you. There is the thrill of discovery, the deep intellectual satisfaction that comes with knowing and the ever expanding appreciation and reverence for the complexities of the universe. There’s all that good stuff, and then there is the comments section of the Internet.

Life's dirty little secret. (Credit: Debaird via Flickr)

Spend a few minutes browsing that treasure trove of humanity’s best and brightest and your intellectual satisfaction will degrade into rage faster than the decay of element 117. There are only so many times you can say things like, “Science doesn’t work that way,” “Yes, microwaves use radiation but not THAT kind of radiation,” or “Fool! You’ll kill us all!” before all those mad scientists from the movies start looking pretty relatable. None of them started off pointing a death-ray at the moon. They were probably just marine biologists who had to explain one too many times that whales aren’t fish.

But maybe you’ve tactfully avoided all that Internet frustration. You know the rules—energy is conserved, entropy increases, you can’t win an argument on the Internet—and you live your life accordingly. Great, but sooner or later you’re going to be face to face with a real person and nothing on Earth will stop that real person from sharing their cunning plan for winning the lottery. Yup, this guy’s got it all figured out. He should have won already but he’s starting to suspect that they “make it difficult to win on purpose.” It may sound crazy to you but I think he may be on to something… if only there was some way to use math to figure out how probable winning was.

Scientifically frustrated? (Credit: Glen Edelson via Flickr)

But maybe you decide to double down on the frustration and try and explain the basics of statistics. You’re going to spread knowledge and understanding! You’re a regular Carl Sagan! You’re going to be met with an open mind that accepts new information with excitement and gratitude. Well, you just doubled your frustration, my friend, because you and I both know that’s not how people respond to being told they’re wrong. Humans are pretty perfect that way. Sadly your best option is just to bite your tongue, push that annoyance down deep into your developing ulcer and move on with your life. After all, math may be the language of the universe, but it’s not the language of ordering a cheeseburger.

The ignorance of others isn’t even the worst part about being scientifically literate. No, the worst part is that you have a never-ending thirst for knowledge, a curiosity that can’t be satisfied. There will always be that one question science won’t have the answer for yet.

It’s a bit like binge watching TV shows called Physics, Chemistry and Biology. You can sit there in your pajamas catching up on all the past seasons totally engrossed in it. Every episode is interesting and compelling and drives you to watch the next and the next. You’re sitting there screaming, “Light is a wave and a particle? I did not see that coming!” or “I can’t believe they killed off Hypatia!” (Spoiler alert.) Then suddenly you watch the last episode and it ends in a cliffhanger. And there you are with your craving for what comes next and you realize they’re not making another episode for a whole year. You have to wait. All you have to sustain you are little teasers of what’s to come.

“Coming this fall, audiences were shocked that Pluto was no longer a planet, but now astronomy has its most shocking twist yet: Saturn’s moon has…WATER!” And now you’re wondering if they’re going to do a crossover episode with biology and how amazing that would be. But you won’t know until you tune-in in 10 to 15 years when they finally send a probe there. The whole time science just strings you along and never finishes the story. It’s great for ratings but it sure is frustrating.

With all the frustrations that come with being scientifically literate, it’s a wonder we haven’t all gone “mad scientist”. Oh sure, there are probably one or two of us with a spare lab coat, a maniacal laugh and a Van de Graaff generator hidden away in our garage, but that’s still a far cry from creating an army of nuclear powered spider robots. So maybe we’re dealing with these frustrations in a good way by sharing them with other like-minded people, and having a good laugh about it. And if that fails we’ve always got some guaranteed strategies to win the lottery.

Craig Fay About the Author: Craig Fay is a Toronto based stand-up comedian whose unique ability to make science funny has seen him perform at the world famous Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal. Check out his website Follow on Twitter @CraigFayComedy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 22 Comments

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  1. 1. ironjustice 2:24 pm 05/13/2014

    I wonder if all those doctors who thought a plant birthed lambs thought they too were science literate?

    Link to this
  2. 2. SAULT18 3:22 pm 05/13/2014

    Re ironjustice:

    That was in the time before modern Science existed.

    Link to this
  3. 3. DMA12 6:21 pm 05/13/2014

    @ ironjustice and SAULT18

    The lamb your referring to is the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary. That wasn’t really something believed by scientist so much as a myth found in religious bestiaries. It may have been inspired by the real plant species Cibotium barometz

    Link to this
  4. 4. SJCrum 7:17 pm 05/13/2014

    By the way, the decay of element 117, is that it simply occurs because the temporary formation of the assumed atom is done totally wrong, and not in agreement with real atom formation at all.
    The point is that the real combining of two atoms requires enormous heat, and that heat then pulling all of the electrons and protons in the two cores to be in one core. The heat is heat-attraction that is the same as all atoms have occur in their formation.
    By the way, gold is a perfect example of this also, and because every single bit of gold that is on earth was actually another type of atoms before those atoms got changed into gold. No kidding.
    As for that, during the enormously hot event that killed all of the dinosaurs, and where a huge amount of earth’s surface was turned into liquefied soil, the dinosaur MANURE fell down into that bubbling soil, and the atoms of digested wheat got strongly pulled together to where they ended up as gold atoms.
    So, this is a good example of what it takes to combine other atoms.
    Another example is inside the human body’s pancreas, and where all of the insulin strings of atoms are linked together for them to be taken later to where new cell growth is occurring.
    As far as the linked atoms, there are four of them that are used in the DNA ladder structure inside cells. By the way, the fairly short insulin strings of atoms are delivered by red blood cells in the outer loops to the new cell locations, and form there they are used to make the entire ladder-shaped structure.
    In the pancreas though, while oxygen, nitrogen and carbon atoms are plentiful in what we eat, phosphorus is not at all, unless it is taken as a supplement. The point of this is that the pancreas needs to take one oxygen atom and another nitrogen one to then make a single phosphorus one. Oxygen has an atomic weight of 8, nitrogen 7, and phosphorus 15.
    In the pancreas though it takes quite a lot of energy to make each one of the 15′s. But, it is taking two smaller atoms to make one larger combined one. And, the body uses a whole lot of body heat. The difference is that each atom is extremely small, and on the large scale it doesn’t seem possible.
    By the way, diabetes is caused by the body not being able to make its own atom strings, and always because it cannot get enough of the phosphorus atoms either from food, or in making them. Preventing diabetes can be accomplished by just taking a good supplement that has the missing 15 atom.
    Anyway, this gives a little insight into why the atom 117 doesn’t stay stuck together. By the way, in real atom formation, after the extreme heat pulls all of the protons and electrons into the core, when it finally cools down, all of the magnetic attraction charges in the protons and electrons keeps it bonded together. And, way beyond just a few seconds like their 117.

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  5. 5. SJCrum 7:28 pm 05/13/2014

    By the way, in the article it said that there might be something that science couldn’t explain, or something similar to that. In truth, there is factually a science that totally does explain every single thing that exists. Even every thought a person has, anything they do at all, or anything that exists in reality. EVERYTHING.
    And, that is because every single thing totally exists because of a science reason, and other science facts that actually created the “whatever” to exist at all.
    So, no, there will actually never be a day in so many zillions of years that cannot factually be described and analyzed by real science truth. The situation instead, even though web opinion debates are laughably endless, the real truth is that truth can totally be found by just searching for the totally right science involved. And, science that is totally undeniable with its supporting truth.
    So, science truth is totally out-of-this-world as far as fantastically great in every single way. It’s a total winner.

    Link to this
  6. 6. SJCrum 7:35 pm 05/13/2014

    As far as real science, Pluto is a planet, and because it orbits around the sun, and moons orbit around planets.
    As for Saturn having water on it, that is absurd because water in that location in the solar system is way too cold for water to even have any chance at all to form. let alone to be wet in any way. What is there is liquid methane, and it just looks like water even though it is frozen ice instead. The event that caused the liquid methane was the heat even that killed the dinosaurs, and that wet methane gas got frizzed when the heat went away.
    As for the frustration described in the article, yes, there certainly is, huh?

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  7. 7. SJCrum 7:40 pm 05/13/2014

    Hee, hee. In the end, I see that he is a stand-up comedian. I am surprised he didn’t mention little squirrels running around in the drawing’s circular exerciser, and in little pink frog bloomers.

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  8. 8. Brennoncsk95 10:14 am 05/14/2014

    I was hoping I wouldn’t have to tediously register an account and give you my e-mail address just so that I could make a simple comment. It would help your credibility as an author and as a science author particularly (since scientific literacy ironically begets a lack of writing skills) if you were to use the proper form of, “than,” and, “then.” This is what I consider, in this day and age, a second grade mistake. In addition, you start one of your sentences with, “And,” and we all know that’s a no-no unless you know-know what you’re doing (you don’t, and it’s obvious).

    Please correct some of your mistakes before I shit my own pants trying to figure out how that edit was not discovered, even after a day of having been posted online.. This is not Buzzfeed.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Flattery 10:47 am 05/14/2014

    Right in the first paragraph, second sentence, you incorrectly used the word “than” instead of then. Most people at least proof read through the first few sentences before posting something.

    But interesting post anyway.

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  10. 10. Britty5096 11:05 am 05/14/2014

    But stress does not cause ulcers!! For the love of all things science!

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  11. 11. FAmeduri 11:25 am 05/14/2014

    Dude. You put the spoiler alert AFTER revealing the fate of Hypatia! Thanks a lot!

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  12. 12. bumluck 11:49 am 05/14/2014

    What pedants like Brennoncsk and Flattery never seem to grasp is that language is not written in stone, so to speak, but evolves through usage. If not, the entire world would speak one language. And, there is no hard and fast rule against beginning a sentence with “and.” It’s usually not a good idea, but mostly a matter of style and context.

    I often wonder if pedants ever actually read anything, or simply analyze text for grammatical errors? It’s actually pretty sad.

    I imagine that is why the word “analyze” begins with anal.

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  13. 13. SJCrum 1:29 pm 05/14/2014

    Britty5096 – As far as your comment about stress not causing ulcers, it is a fact that it does. The real science is that stress causes excessive acid going into the stomach and that excess, which is more than the stomach uses for normal food amounts, the end result is that it starts eating at the stomach lining.
    As for the other writers here, I find it funny about your only comments being about a mistype of “than” instead of “then”. I suppose finding that was the ultra-high point of your day. Since the writer of the article was a stand-up comedian, I suppose he might even have done that on purpose to make it fgunnier. More funny, sorry aboutr that.
    Maybe you should focus on science instead of totally trivial items.

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  14. 14. clcecil 10:15 pm 05/14/2014

    You got that right.. They just discovered proof of the Higgs Boson, and then SA tells me the whole damn, standard model may go out the window because they can’t find the particles to prove super symmetry. The cliffhangers never end.

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  15. 15. karl 11:33 pm 05/14/2014

    I still cringe when I hear dumb talk like “but this peas are organic… AND free of chemicals”… well, if they weren’t organic, they would be marbles or ball bearings, organic doesn’t ensure health, DDT and Anthrax were organic the last time I checked and if you hold up to such nonsense you should make yourself free of chemicals and clean the gene pool of humanity!
    that’s the reason Lex Luthor is my role model…

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  16. 16. Barfbagger 8:42 am 05/15/2014

    SJCrum – Saturn’s moon Enceladus is covered in ice and erupts water.

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  17. 17. RobFromLoveland 2:43 pm 05/15/2014

    Winning the Lotto is easy – you just buy tickets covering every possible combination. In Colorado, that only amounts to 42 x 41 x 40 x 39 x 38 x 37 = 3,776,965, 920 tickets.
    Of course you have to fill out all forms for those tickets and get them processed by the friendly clerk at your local Safeway store, but you will win. Guaranteed.

    Link to this
  18. 18. SJCrum 4:56 pm 05/15/2014

    Barfbagger – As far as Enceladus, it isn’t water in either thing you mentioned, but instead, liquid methane gas, which only appears to be water-like. As for water, it REQUIRES temperatures below to even be formed and then exist.
    On earth, in the beginning before humans were even on this planet, there were the gases in the atmosphere of oxygen and hydrogen, and also enormous storms that provided lightning.And, all three of these, along with a non-freezing temperature are totally required to make it.
    The actual process of making water, is that lightning streaks through helium trails that are escaping through the surface of earth, and then are rising upward into the sky. For a bit of likely needed information at this point, helium is nothing more than four atoms of hydrogen. So, hydrogen is still totally involved, but just bound in the helium atom structure.
    In this situation, earth has a negative electrical charge and the sky during storms has a built-up positive charge also. This strong charge difference then causes lightning to streak upward through the helium trails.
    As it does so, the high heat of the lightning causes two oxygen atoms to be strongly pulled toward a single oxygen atom that is also in the atmosphere.
    In the end, a single, very highly packed water molecule is formed.
    THIS is the ONLT way water can be made and it REQUIRES ALL of these items, and also a HIGH ENOUGH temperature for the water droplets to form.
    On the moon of Enceladus, that is another gas type that can have a water-like formation, and in this case, a far lower temperature. The temperature on Enceladus is close to 300 degrees below zero, and totally impossible for it to form.
    As for why that moon even had the gas of methane on it, that science requires an enormous amount of heat to get the hydrocarbon formation of atoms to link together also. AFTER forming, the gas form of methane can easily change into the liquid form by simply having the enormously cold temperatures for that.
    As for the science, the heat needed came from the ultra-high temperatures of the heat explosion that killed, on earth, all of the dinosaurs. After that heat dissipated, the enormous cold returned.
    By the way, images of Enceadus on the web, show huge water-like horizontal streaks going from the left side toward the right. It looks a lot like icing on a ball-shaped cake that had streaks made in it with strokes of an icing type of object.
    The point of this is that the ultra-huge heat hit Enceladus from that left side and totally liquefied the entire surface. And, the blast caused all of that liquid to blast toward the right. In the end, the cold of space caused all of that liquid appearance of the surface to be frozen in place.
    So, Enceladus has LOTS of science revealed in its non-furry selfless self.

    Link to this
  19. 19. SJCrum 5:15 pm 05/15/2014

    Barfbagger – As for more truly terrific science about supposed water in the solar system, Neptune has a pale blue color radiating from it that has the same exact color as we can all see as we look up into the sky on a sunny, cloudless day on earth.
    The science of Neptune’s surface is, that not only is it NOT water, it is instead, because Neptune is far further out in space than even Enceladus, methane ice. And, you might not that the water form of methane gas, has to be even far colder to change that watered methane into the icy type.
    For another item, why do you think that Neptune has such an extremely bright color of sky-blue coming from it? It totally glows with it.
    The science is that the electrons in the ice are pointing outward away from the surface, and then the electrons radiate the pale blue color. Pale, because just like on earth, two different atoms are involved to get that pale color. On earth, it is nitrogen atoms that radiate white, and even make clouds too when the cloud conditions are right, and the blue color comes entirely from the oxygen atoms, together, they mix to bet sky blue. by the way, clouds are not separate gases that just poof into the sky under certain conditions, but instead, are just the normal nitrogen atoms that get turned-on to radiate white. So, it’s the same gas that just changes.
    As for Neptune’s sky-blue color, and the brilliance of it, the color comes from something other than nitrogen and oxygen because neither of those tow gases are there obviously. Instead, it is a methane version of the two, and with one of the atom types having one more proton than the other, and therefore being very much like oxygen having one more proton that nitrogen.
    So, the two gases on Neptune do the same exact thing to make the colors. As for causing the atoms to have their electrons radiate the light colors, the causing energy comes from the sun, and because it is so enormously cold, the sun’s energy there is an extreme difference which than causes not only the color, but the brilliance also.

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  20. 20. SJCrum 5:25 pm 05/15/2014

    To RobFromLoveland – As for your comment about winning the lottery, there is another far easier way. (Hee, hee) No kidding, but it’s a bit cheating also.
    Anyway, the totally winning way, and also despicably as ornery as orneryish things can get is to have a computer-like system that actually goes through all of the totally correct number combinations that you described. HOWEVER, you also have a totally-possible, and actually already-exists time travel device that has the computer streak through the combinations like wildfire, and while it goes back in time to check if each combination wins, it just keeps going back to the beginning to use the next one. Obviously, and as simple as pie you get out of a supermarket freezer, it keeps running through the whole thing until it wallahs with a totally winning, but cheating, success.
    For information, God has used time travel like this to send angels into the past ENDLESSLY, in work that has involved changing many event things in the past into far greater total success. So, the time travel device has been used by God since well before the dinosaurs were on earth.

    Link to this
  21. 21. SJCrum 5:29 pm 05/15/2014

    To RobFromLoveland – AS far as that totally cheating thing again, by doing it right by going back to the exact time each time, the end time of winning that lottery is in an instant. that is less time than it takes to blink an eye.
    Not bad for billions of combinations likely to get the right one, huh?

    Link to this
  22. 22. SJCrum 5:34 pm 05/15/2014

    To cicecil – AS far as your “will cliffhangers never end”, think of a feathery, totally despicable pigeon up on the cliff there, and his non-furry tushed self backs up to the edge with its posterior and plops a full load of pigeon dooie. AS is totally right. The last load of it just went over the egde, and that pigeon’s totally empty all the way up to its gills.

    Link to this

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