“The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on psuedoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”

Carl Sagan (1932-1996)

Picture of Earth taken in December.  Notice how Antarctica and the Southern Hemisphere are accentuated and that the Sun is shining at a lower angle, therefore producing less heat, in the northern hemisphere.  This is why we have seasons.  The Earth circles the Sun, and in 6 months, the northern hemisphere faces the Sun.  That is why the Sun circles the sky in the Arctic in June. Seasons have nothing to do with distance from the Sun; they have to do with the tilt of the Earth’s axis.  The continent you are looking at is Africa, with the Arabian Penisula at the top.  Notice the comma shaped white areas over the blue ocean.  They are storm systems.   Notice the white over the middle of Africa.  This is the ITCZ, the Intertropical Convergence Zone.  The Sun is so hot at the equator that humid air rises, condenses when it cools in the upper atmosphere and produces thunderstorms.  Notice how there are no clouds over the Sahara, in North Africa.


A financial consultant I know is deeply religious and went to Bible camps.  When his wife came ill with lymphoma, he took her to the hospital where she was put into remission for many years.  While he prayed for her, I found it interesting he took her to a hospital, where she was cured.  Dr. Sagan himself said much as he would have liked an afterlife, the chances as he knew it were zero.

When I was young, I had multiple strep throats.  Had it not been for penicillin, I would have likely developed acute glomerulonephritis or rheumatic heart disease, with subsequent kidney failure and mitral stenois.  I would either be dead or never have seen the world the way I have, by pack and paddle.  Uremia used to kill in the 20s: The sex symbol Jean Harlow died from it at age 26; Sean Elliott and Alonzo Mourning would not be alive today if science had failed to progress.

The dumbing down of America: where people don’t know why we have seasons (note picture above; rocket science got man to that distance) but can tell you what is happening in Hollywood; where rap stars are idolized, but Frances Oldham Kelsey is unknown.  Don’t know her, right?  Well, use science and Google her name.  She did more for this country than any rapper, actor, or artist.  Jonas Salk will probably be unknown in another 30 years.  He kept me from getting polio.  Now, we have to practically force otherwise intelligent people to vaccinate their children, the idea being that vaccines cause autism, rather than perhaps genetics, overstimulation, pollution, our obsession with cleanliness, and maybe even the water we drink and food we eat.

That is the dumbing down of America.  We used to say “UCD” in medical histories, for “usual childhood diseases.”  These diseases were removed, except a bunch of otherwise intelligent (one would hope) parents seem to think that they don’t exist because we don’t see them. These diseases are still out there, lurking, waiting for us to let our guard down.  Pertussis has already made a resurgence.  Pertussis kills.

In schools, we teach math to the tests, rather than to show where it can be useful and fun.  In 2011, I was requested to do a Nature by the Numbers course for a non-for-profit organization.  I did the work, asked for feedback, and heard nothing.  Some time later, I learned that schools didn’t have time to teach this material.  Perhaps if kids could see how knowing the volume of a cylinder determines cubic inch displacement in engines, how land use led to land grant universities, what a section is, what DNA is, what carbohydrates and proteins are, how chemistry and physics work in real life, they might be more interested.  I always teach the use of math when I substitute.  I show where algebra works, I teach why interest on money matters, where exponential functions are used, how quadratic equations are equations of motion of baseballs, footballs, basketballs and projectiles.  I teach about probability, so they learn the chances of winning Powerball are equivalent to guessing one minute, randomly chosen beforehand, since the Declaration of Independence was signed.  I teach them what year it was signed, because most don’t know.  I don’t even bother with teaching them the 50 states, because I’m lucky if they know 10.  I once made a comment about Delaware having the second highest cutoff rate in the nation for National Merit scholarships.  I joked, “I’d be a finalist if I lived in Arizona.”  Well, I have.  I asked the students to name all the states that border Delaware.  That is easy.  There are only three.  One named one.  The other responses were frightening.

I tell them about the 49 countries I have been in, courtesy of science and systems that has made aviation safer.  I tell them about solar eclipses, about wilderness so remote that even their cell phones don’t work.  I tell them about the 49 national parks I have seen, what they contain. I don’t treat kids as dumb, but I am stunned at the mindless guessing and their dependence upon electronic products that are the result of good science, not prayer, not wishing, not falling from heaven.

I teach them about cyclonic circulations in our hemisphere, and how they are necessary to balance the heat of the Earth between the equator and the poles.  Sometimes, I have an opportunity in the woods to show people the right directions, or even predict the weather.  More than one time, the barometer I wear on my wrist, coupled with a new south or southwesterly wind, has told me rain was coming.  In the wilderness, my life depends upon this knowledge.  I can read the sky, day and night.  I know where the Moon will be, where Polaris is, where the Sun will rise, and they can learn this, too.  This is our heritage.

Kids aren’t dumb.  They are curious until we drum it out of them, because we hate to be asked Why? when we don’t know.  In my youth, we had encyclopedias.  Now, we have access to the correct information, but we don’t know how to determine what is correct and what isn’t.

Every kid occasionally ought to be bored.  Every kid ought to be read to and learn to read.  Every kid should sit on the ground somewhere, where there is no asphalt, only natural grass, rocks, sticks, muck, or sand.  Every kid should put his feet in water and learn how to float.  Every kid ought to see the stars from a dark site and understand the phases of the Moon,  which drives the calendars of Islam and Judaism.

At one school I worked at, chess was allowed but cards were not.  Kids couldn’t learn how to play bridge, a fascinating game where bidding is allowed with only with 15 specific words, 7 of which are numbers.  It teaches partnership, politeness, probability, tactics, and when to be aggressive on offense or defense.  I am not very good at it, but the game ought to be allowed in schools, before it dies out, because most bridge players are old.

We allow dumbing down, because science and math aren’t cool.  Next time you use your computer, cell phone, car, wear clothes, shower, take a pill, sleep in a bed, walk upright, and listen to music, remember what brought it to you.  It wasn’t God, and it wasn’t prayer.  It was science.

If you have arms and legs, thank Frances Kelsey.  If you ever think that it is impossible to stand up to big business, thank her again.  If you think that science is only for men, think about her.  But if you are a guy, get busy.  The girls are going to run the world.  That might not be bad, but if you want a decent job, think about science and math.  Chances are very high you won’t be a famous athlete, rock star, or the next Steve Jobs.  I understand probability; too many don’t.

The world will belong not only to those who guess right but to those who adapt to the changes that will come.  You don’t have to be a Steve Jobs.  I found that being myself, adaptable to a changing world, has been a good ride.  I’ve been all over the world, I’ve seen the great wilderness areas, I’ve traveled alone and known solitude, and I have taught myself much.  I’ve adapted, and science has led the way.

I don’t want to die tomorrow or soon, but if I do, I’ve lived a full, interesting life.  I haven’t been a sports or rock star; I’ve been much, much more.

Thank you Jonas Salk and Alexander Fleming.  If you don’t know who they are, then you ought to.  Look it up.  Use science that is in your computer.  Or you can pray for the answer.  I know what I’d do.

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