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Entry 436, on 2006-12-04 at 18:58:04 (Rating 2, Comments)

Recently I have been involved with helping my daughter revise for exams. I have also listened to some podcasts which discussed the level of knowledge of typical American and European adults. I wondered about how many adults knew the answers to basic science questions which kids are expected to know for school exams. So I started asking questions...

There were several questions which adults seemed to have problems with. For example, the question: which is bigger, a molecule or an atom? If you know the basic fact that molecules are made from atoms then the logical answer is molecule, which is basically correct. Of course, molecules and atoms vary in size, and a small molecule, eg H2 would be smaller than a large atom, eg U. Also, what do we mean by "bigger"? Is bigness defined by volume, mass, or what? The question isn't as simple as it seems, but few people would consider it at this level anyway. In fact there is a 50% chance of getting the answer right by pure guesswork, yet most adults still get it wrong!

The second question was: how long does it take for the Earth to orbit the Sun once? The correct answer is one year. But we could ask what does that mean? A year of standard 24 hour solar days - so what about leap years? What do we measure the year relative to? Do we take account of long term changes in the Earth's orbit? Anyway, many adults get this wrong as well, even when they ignore the complicating factors.

I guess there is no real practical value in knowing these things, so you might ask what is so wrong with people not knowing these facts. That is a good point, but knowledge for its own sake is important. Practicality often springs from theory, and we live in an age of science and rationality... or do we? Sometimes I wonder if the enlightenment really happened at all!

Immanuel Kant defined enlightenment as: "...manís leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one's intelligence without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if it is not caused by lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one's intelligence without being guided by another. Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own intelligence! ..."

Well I guess that sounds like hard work to a lot of people. If there's no practical benefit for using your intelligence then why do it? Why not just accept the nonsense presented by most tv programs instead? Maybe we live in the age of superficiality where people are more interested in the behaviour of brainless pop-stars than they are in the wonders of technology and science.


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