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?

*correct answers:

  • 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%

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8 Replies to “scientific illiteracy”

  1. That’s a tough one. I would just say:”You know will help faster? Chew some gum. I’m a doctor.” Then go on. “In the times of Jesus, people used to bring bark, and tree sap from miles away to help the poor children of Jerusalem when their ears were not popping. It is rumored that frankincense was nothing more than an early form of Hubba Bubba. In fact, if you translate it Frankincense is’Hubbily Bubbily’. Look at the root words, first; ‘hubba’ means ‘giant’, and secondly “bubba’ means ‘bubble’. It’s quite intriguing really. It just goes to show that Gum was made for Jesus. And therefore since we still have gum, including a gum called ‘Hubba Bubba’ Jesus is real, and he died for your sins. And he told me to tell you to give me $25 for helping you out.”
    Problem solved, people are happy, got the story they wanted, and you, my dear friend, are $25 richer…and have a funny story to tell your friends about where you got $25 to buy that sweet ass turtle neck you’re sporting.
    And I say these things…to you.

  2. I totally should have thought of the Hubba Bubba story from the gospels. Brilliant!!! Next time in that situation, it’s hubbabubba time!

  3. Hi anonymous… Not quite “everything,” but the fact that styrofoam cups filled with damp tissues don’t help ears pop, yes. That, I can officially say, does not help ears equalize. Why? Because there is no theoretically sound way that cups over the ears with damp tissues in them would help.

  4. I would have given the kid some gum just to shut up, but on the other hand, if you would have presented such a simple solution to the problem, you would never have witnessed that ridiculous scene, which in my opinion would have been worth rupturing the kids ear drums to see.

    As for the three questions, you have incorrect answers for all three:

    How long does the earth take to circle the sun?
    Answer: That’s a trick question, the earth now rotates around Rush Limbaugh’s ego.

    Did man and dinosaur live at the same time?
    Answer: Of course. There is a fantastic documentary on the subject, called Ice Age, and the sequel Ice Age 2. A very brilliant scientist by the name of Ray Romano clearly shows that they co-existed.

    What percentage of the Earth is covered in water?
    Answer: 99.9% because of Global Warming. The ice caps are all completely melted. It’s so freaking hot that there is still snow on my lawn here in the desert!

    You freaking scientists and your facts that you expect everyone to know…

  5. it makes you wonder whether this kid stopped breathing if these parents wouldve put a lit cigarette in his mouth. was this on southwest? i find all the einsteins on there.

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