SciTech

Ira Flatow: Why we’re flunking science, and where water ranks among America’s problems

Ira Flatow, left, portrays himself in a scene with actor Jim Parsons in an episode of the CBS series “The Big Bang Theory.” Other science notables who have done cameos on the show include cosmologist Stephen Hawking, physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye “The Science Guy.”
Ira Flatow, left, portrays himself in a scene with actor Jim Parsons in an episode of the CBS series “The Big Bang Theory.” Other science notables who have done cameos on the show include cosmologist Stephen Hawking, physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye “The Science Guy.” Warner Bros. Entertainment

Ira Flatow may well be the voice of science in America: The 66-year-old broadcaster has served as National Public Radio’s science correspondent (in the ’70s and ’80s), host of the Emmy-winning “Newton’s Apple” on PBS (in the mid ’80s), and, since 1991, host of public radio’s “Science Friday.”

A self-professed science geek, he is also executive producer for “Science Friday,” which reaches an estimated 2.5 million listeners weekly.

He’s won numerous awards from the scientific and broadcasting communities – such is his ability to make technology and science understandable and interesting.

In an interview last week, he talked about the sometimes complicated relationship between science and citizens.

Q. On average, how well do Americans understand basic science?

Water is very, very scarce. As we dry up aquifers, as rainfall patterns change, water is going to be a valuable commodity.

Ira Flatow

A. I think we rate very poorly. Even the most educated of us who go to some of the top liberal arts colleges don’t know basic science. For example, there was a film made several years ago called “The Private Universe” that asked the graduating class of Harvard, “Why is it hotter in summer than in winter?” Ninety percent of grads said it was because Earth is closer to the sun in summer: They thought Earth had an elliptical orbit. The real answer is that Earth’s poles tilt, and when the North Pole is tilted toward the sun, that’s summertime.

Another basic most people get wrong is about evolution. There’s a great belief, even among people who believe in evolution, that we descended from the ape. In fact, we did not. We have common ancestors; we’re parallel branches from a common ancestor.

This is not to say people aren’t interested in science: People love it, and you can see this in TV ratings. “Big Bang Theory” is one of the top shows and is a sitcom about scientists.

Q. Are average Americans more knowledgeable – or less so – than before?

A. I haven’t looked at the data, but interest in science changes with what’s in vogue. In the 1960s, it was the space race. People equated that with science, but it was more about technology and politics than anything. In the ’70s it was the environmental movement people concentrated on. In the ’80s, attention turned to what became known as AIDS and HIV. Later it was the turn of computers and cloud computing.

Science answers basic questions that philosophy and theology ask: Where are we coming from and where are we going? Science is a way of discovering that.

Q. And what do we know the least about?

A. Two things. One is the bottom of the ocean: We know more about Mars than we do about what lives down there, and we have few resources to find out.

The other is … what the universe is made of. Everything you see – from stars and planets to the phone next to you – is 4 percent of the universe; it’s what’s visible. But there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s dark, and we don’t know what it is. That dark matter is another 20 percent of the universe. And the other 70-some percent is this dark energy that’s pushing things apart like an anti-gravity force. And we don’t know what it is or where it came from.

Q. What common misconception makes you grind your teeth?

A. Right now, it’s global warming – people who don’t accept the idea that it is real, that humans are greatly involved in causing it. Arguments from nonbelievers fly in the face of the facts in front of us.

We’re watching Greenland melt into the ocean like an ice cube. Antarctica is melting. The North Pole is free of ice in summer – which has never before happened in recorded history. Russia, Canada, the U.S. and Scandinavia are all beginning to fight over who has the rights to those open waters. Lloyds of London won’t insure you unless you build things that have global-warming sea rise built in.

I can’t understand the resistance from those who don’t believe in it. Even the most evangelical Christians believe climate change is real and that God told us to be stewards of the Earth.

There’s an element of politics in this.

Q. The easiest way adults and kids can gain traction on the learning curve?

A. I think we need to rethink how we teach science in schools. People growing up think science is a book of facts sitting on a desk. That it is static.

They don’t understand science is a process – a method of finding what the facts are – and the method will find that facts change over time. We once thought Earth was flat, but we’ve learned to change our minds. We need to teach in school that facts change. That’s how science works.

We need to teach science more like how we teach art and music – how to appreciate it. We don’t expect you to be a Picasso or Yo-Yo Ma, but to know why science is valuable and how it contributes to society; how nature works and why science needs to be supported.

Also, we need to recognize that failure is very important: Science is built on the shoulders of failure. It’s like sculpture: Chip away, and what’s left is the positive result. Don’t be afraid to fail.

Q. Among the many environmental and energy issues that loom large in this country’s future, where does water rank?

A. Near the top. Water is one of the things they’re not making any more of. It’s going to become more valuable as drought and climate change moves around the world. We’re going to have extremes – flooding, blizzards, record hurricanes. …

Water is very, very scarce. As we dry up aquifers, as rainfall patterns change, water is going to be a valuable commodity. We will need to know how to cooperate in dividing it – or we’ll be fighting over it.

On the airwaves

“Science Friday” airs on nearly 400 public radio stations in the United States. It is carried 2-3 p.m. Fridays in Raleigh on WUNC (91.5 FM) and in Rocky Mount on WRQM (90.9 FM).

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