Guest Blog

Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

The Frustrations of Being Scientifically Literate


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.

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

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