Friday, July 19, 2013

Two news items: scientific literacy and stolen art

So apparently there is this thing called the report on Science Literacy in Australia, and the latest results are making the rounds. Lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth is involved because too many people didn't know the answers to all the questions they were asked. Having looked at the questions, I find them to be a fairly odd mixture, and accordingly I would judge the results.

The first (how long does it take for the earth to go around the sun?) is not really a question of science literacy but more one of not being a complete and utter dimbulb literacy. This is not science but everyday orientation knowledge, on par with "what are clouds made of" or "into what bodily orifice goes the food". That more than 40% of the people asked got that one wrong is indeed cause for concern, to put it mildly. Really any percentage above perhaps 2% is frankly unacceptable.

That more than a quarter (and even more than a fifth of university graduates!) apparently believes that dinosaurs and human existed contemporaneously is a bummer but already less surprising. Although as a biologist I would wish for everybody to have a good overview of natural history this is hardly as crucial a piece of orientation knowledge as understanding the basic dynamics of the solar system.

9% of those asked do not believe in evolution; that is actually less than I would have feared. Another 10% believe that it is a thing of the past but does not happen any more, another mistake that I would have expected to be considerably more common. So this surprises me pleasantly.

Utterly bizarre is, on the other hand, the question about what percentage of the water on the planet is freshwater. It appears as if the people surveyed were asked to give the percentage, and now the media report "only 9% gave the right answer" (which is 3% of the water). That is just idiotic. The right answer is "very little, who cares about the exact value", and thus quite sensibly a quarter of those surveyed answered with "not sure". Surely getting the precise number wrong cannot be compared to getting questions with simple yes or no answers in the same survey wrong. If we count everybody who answered anything above 10% as significantly overestimating freshwater reserves we find that only a third of the people surveyed did so. Not that terribly dramatic, is it?

Really what I would find more important is for people to get a feeling for statistics, burdens of evidence and just plain plausibility. It seems more useful to teach somebody about the big picture (which would of course include dinosaurs living before the evolution of humans) and critical thinking than to have them remember dates and values like that freshwater one.

In entirely unrelated news from Europe, several irreplaceable and valuable paintings that were stolen from an art museum a few months ago appear to have resurfaced as a heap of ash in the oven of the suspected burglar's mother. While the world of art lovers is understandably shocked, I am pondering the following questions:

Why are artworks like these worth tens of millions of dollars? Now don't get me wrong, I am not saying they are worthless. Of course they are rightly considered to be priceless historical artifacts. But that means "priceless", not "having a price tag of millions of dollars". Why anybody would pay millions to own one of them is what is beyond me; if there was any significant amount of sanity in the world of art lovers their actual monetary value would be something to the tune of $120 or so apiece. Nobody should wish to own them privately anyway because of the responsibility that would come with it. Artifacts like these should belong to the public, and they should never be auctioned. As an added bonus, if everybody were that sensible about them then there would be no incentive to steal them.

Why do art museums hosting items that are (bizarrely) valued at millions of dollars so rarely seem to have even half way decent security? Why do they appear to have enough money to buy a painting for $10M but not enough to pay for a few guards?

Now I know that the kind of person who tries to earn their bread with burglaries and theft is not actually Nobel prize material, but seriously, what are art thieves thinking? "Hey, let's steal this painting that everybody who might ever be interested in paying to own it will immediately recognize as recently stolen! We'll be rich!" Calling a thought process like that idiotic would be an insult to idiots everywhere, and yet this happens again and again and again.

Finally, once those criminal masterminds realize that there is no way they will ever even get a hundred bucks for the stolen artwork, why do they so regularly destroy it? Why not at least leave it somewhere to be found? Admittedly, I personally consider the extinction of a single species of plants or animals that nobody has ever heard of to be a greater tragedy than the potential destruction of all paintings humanity has every produced. Sorry, but ultimately they are only things and we can paint new ones while the extinction of a species of living organisms is forever. Yet I still find it hard to fathom the mind of a person who would pointlessly destroy items that others find valuable enough to exhibit in a museum and write books about. Apparently there are simply people on this planet who are civilized and others for whom the description "boorish unthinking vandal who should never be allowed to step outside without supervision" would be flattering.

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