I’ve had this post sitting around for a while as a draft and finally have a few minutes to develop it into a full post. So, here goes…
Periodically you hear about how scientifically illiterate Americans are. A recent Harris Poll found the following:
- Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
- Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
- Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water.
- Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly. (correct answers at the bottom)
So, we have scientific literacy problems in the US. This was confirmed as I was flying into Hartford, CT over my winter break. As we began our descent to land in Hartford, a kid across the aisle from me, probably 10 years old, began to whine about how his ears were not popping. Now, the kid was whining the whole flight to begin with (and there may have been an organic problem with the kid, not just poor behavior; he was a bit dysmorphic), but what happened next shocked me.
The parents, rather than give the kid some gum or have him yawn or swallow something (all known to help ears pop) pushed the button for help from the flight attendants. The flight attendant, a young woman, showed up and asked what the problem was. The parents requested some cups to put over the kids ears. I almost said, “Are you retarded? How is that going to help?” but I held back and just watched.
The flight attendant returned with two styrofoam cups and proceeded to explain to the parents that she had put damp tissues in the cups to help his ears pop. Apparently the damp tissues would help balance the pressure in his ears through some magical means of water evaporation in an enclosed space (a.k.a. “I’m totally making this shit up as I go.”). The kid was whining quite loudly at this point, but put the cups over his ears. He did quiet down a bit, probably due to the placebo effect (someone was doing something for him, so it must help in some way!). His ears didn’t clear right away, but they did before we landed. Even so, the kid kept complaining. After we landed, they took the cups off and thanked the flight attendant on the way out.
I’m pretty sure what I watched was a very unfortunate incident of confirmation bias. There were very high odds that the kid’s ears would pop if he did nothing, just because ears will do that. But because the parents did “something” (despite that something being utterly retarded and useless), that “something” (styrofoam cups filled with damp tissues over the ears), they will now believe that this is a solution to pop ears. I’m still shaking my head as I write this.
So, here’s the question: Should I have said something to the parents and the flight attendant? Or was I right to let them continue in their bias confirming ignorance?
- 365 days; ergo, the length of a year (technically 365.25 days)
- yeah, um, no humans when there were dinosaurs (unless you include extent bird species, which is a bit misleading)
- correct answer is 70%, but the researchers would accept anything between 65% and 75%