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Why the gulf between lay people and physicists?

  1. Sep 9, 2014 #1
    At one level it's obvious--physics is mathematically difficult, with areas near its frontiers forever inaccessible to educated persons of normal intellectual potential.

    Yet outside the hard sciences, the general level of math skill is atrocious. Typical citizens could learn much more math and science than they do, without being geniuses, yet they don't. It's like you're either an expert, or completely ignorant of science.

    I don't intend to parrot a common lament, but to ask why this is apparently so.
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  3. Sep 9, 2014 #2


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    This may be a consequence of the failure of the American educational system, in particular during the elementary school period. I recall that children in elementary schools in Canada and the US don't even learn the multiplication tables until Grade 5 or 6 (at least that's what I remember growing up in Ontario, and also by observing the experiences of my cousins who grew up in Michigan). In many Asian countries including Japan, by contrast, these are expected to be known by Grades 2 and 3, and by Grade 6 children already learn fairly advanced math concepts.

    In essence, American schools teach math and science too little during the earlier, formative years and then attempt to cram in advanced concepts in junior high and high school -- in my mind, not a particularly effective way to teach the subjects.
  4. Sep 9, 2014 #3
    I learned the multiplication table in grade 3 15 years ago. I do not know what they do now, but a quick glance at Khan Academy also shows the multiplication table being taught in grade 3. Khan Academy claims to base their course on a typical US curriculum.
  5. Sep 9, 2014 #4
    No, that may be the case in some rare school districts, but for the most part, kids learn multiplication much earlier than grade 5/6. In New Jersey, for example:

    Very similar in many northeastern states, and I'd doubt if it differed that greatly across the US except in certain districts where a special curriculum may be required to ensure the majority of students are not struggling.

    The problem with people in general not knowing much physics is that they don't care; they don't work in sciences, don't need to know physics or advanced math in order to carry on with their lives, so if they aren't interested, they don't learn (or remember) it. The average person needs only to know basic math, maybe a little bit of algebra in some cases. They likely need almost no physics. Unless it is an interest of theirs, why should they care to learn/know it?

    Of what use is differential equations to a grocery store manager? How much use will Maxwell's equations, or Bernoulli, be to a journalist, a painter, a bus driver?

    Most people have a lay understanding of physics because that's all that's required. I understand physics, yet even I don't go through Newtonian equations of motion before I toss a football. Our general understanding and experientially learned approximations are all we need to get by day to day.

    Many people don't have the time to study physics and keep their minds sharp on these subjects (this information fades if you don't keep it up), and even if they do, most don't have the inclination. A truck driver probably wants to spend all his time with his wife, maybe his kids, when he's not on the road, rather than reading up on kinematics, which he'll never need to know.

    Would it be nice if the average person was more scientifically literate? Yea, of course. But it would also be nice if the average person was more educated in literature, politics, poetry, history, carpentry, psychology, etc. etc.
  6. Sep 9, 2014 #5


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    It would also be nice if the 40% to 60% of the people in the US (depending on which poll or study you believe) didn't believe in Aliens, ghosts, angels, and other crap but they DO whether I like it or not (and I do NOT).
  7. Sep 9, 2014 #6
    I've asked a "dumb question." Oddly, memorizing a times table may be easier for a somewhat older child--an adult could probably do it in a single session. Yet, discourse I see suggests we don't learn to reason with even simple arithmetic.

    For instance, in a drag race question I was told that doubling the car's acceleration gets you to the end of the strip in half the time. This doesn't seem right, because doubling the speed gets you there in half the time. With acceleration, the speed changes at some rate, so that doubling the time spent accelerating doubles your speed, and therefore more than doubles your distance. If this is true, then you must more than double your acceleration to cross the strip's fixed distance in half the time.

    I realize this argument is sloppy. But it can be made with little mathematics or science, so the layperson should be able to disconfirm the drag race answer with a little thought. Acquisition or inculcation of an attitude hostile to this kind of thinking to be involved. I appreciate all the responses here. :smile:
  8. Sep 9, 2014 #7
    Schools are increasingly veering from the rote memorization path. A lot of schools are incorporating tactile learning with things like base 10 blocks, and word problems and the like.

    I think this has more to do with vernacular than physics education. The gas pedal is sometimes called the accelerator, and many people confuse acceleration with velocity.

    It is obviously not the case that doubling acceleration will half the time. Basic equations tell us this. Solve for the estimated acceleration of a typical 10 second car assuming it has a zero starting velocity and a constant acceleration through the finish line. At 400 meters (1/4 mile), it will have to accelerate at 8 meters per second squared in order to finish within 10 seconds.

    Double the acceleration to 16 m/s^2 and you will not get 5 seconds. You have to quadruple the average acceleration in this example in order to halve the time. With a starting velocity >0, this multiplier changes. Remember, X=Vi*t + 0.5*a*t^2. So, for a given distance, X=400 m, and a desired time (t=5 s), you can easily come up with the required acceleration. Note that because t is a squared term, you can easily see that halving it will require the acceleration to quadruple, all other variables being equal.

    Again though, this comes down, I think, to vernacular and a misuse of terminology. Though, I agree, this widespread misuse of terminology is confusing and causes many problems when people start talking about things at a level which they do not fully understand.

    I imagine if you pointed out the person in question's mistaken use of acceleration, they'd be able to reason that you are correct, and that they in fact meant that you had to double the speed (or quadruple the acceleration, in the case of drag racing).
  9. Sep 9, 2014 #8


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    Typical citizens could learn much more music than they do without being virtuosos, but they don't. Why is that?
    Typical citizens could learn much more baseball than they do without being MLB players, but they don't. Why is that?
    Typical citizens could learn much more about art without being professional art historians, but they don't. Why is that?
    Typical citizens could learn how to write much better without being Pulitzer Prize winners, but they don't. Why is that?
  10. Sep 9, 2014 #9
    As a layman I can tell you that I actually did learn much more math in school than I can remember now, and that is because if you don't go into some occupation that requires you to maintain and exercise the math you learned, you automatically forget it. You become preoccupied with whatever you actually are doing for a living, and anything you learned that doesn't apply to it atrophies.
  11. Sep 10, 2014 #10


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    Great answer! :thumbs:
  12. Sep 10, 2014 #11

    It's a silly and pointless question. OP, I could ask you why you're not very competent in other fields, that aren't physics related.
  13. Sep 10, 2014 #12
    My 16 year daughter asks not only about math but also all her subjects, "Why do I have to learn that, I'm never going to use it?" The answer, at least with respect to math, is that it teaches one to think abstractly. And that may be the real problem, not being able to think abstractly. By the way, she's always been on the honor roll.
  14. Sep 10, 2014 #13
    How does she know she's never going to use it? If she's all set on pursuing the humanities, the math might not seem useful, but what if she later decides to move into a technical field? (I know some people who have made this transition, and needed to get back up to speed with basic school math!) School is a chance to find out if she has talents in various areas - languages? math? art? music? If she tries her best in all these subjects, she'll know what might be worth attempting later on in life, if she suffers a career setback. For example, if her abilities in drama don't lead to an acting job, she might recall she was really good at learning languages and retrain as a translator.
  15. Sep 10, 2014 #14


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    I don't know. I think it's a valid question to ask - particularly among physicists.

    As scientists we have a responsibility to disseminate what we learn to everyone, including the non-physicists - partly because they are the ones who pay for it, partly because they are the ones who benefit from it. Understanding why the average layperson doesn't know more about physics or perhaps even why they don't WANT to know, can help us in soliciting public funds, improve our education system, and ultimately help to create a more scientifically literate populace.
  16. Sep 10, 2014 #15


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    Anybody can be a layperson just by showing up. To become educated, like a physicist or other professional, requires a large investment of time and foregoing or postponing a lot of the leisure activity which others not only take for granted, but have come to deem as should be bestowed on them by right.
  17. Sep 10, 2014 #16


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    So, why not try to get a partial answer in one area you're familiar with? It may be too big of a question in general, but why not try to understand a smaller version; a subset in an area one is familiar with?
  18. Sep 10, 2014 #17


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    I think you're missing the point. People don't learn what they don't want to / don't need to learn. ZombieFeynman was just pointing out that that applies to ALL areas of interest, to illustrate that it is not limited to STEM areas. In other words, it's not going to be helpful to figure out why people don't learn more about, say, music than they do ... it's just the way people are in all areas.
  19. Sep 10, 2014 #18


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    Well, not to be argumentative, but I think it overall has to see with the perceived "barriers/cost to entry", how difficult it is for one to get started on any given topic, i.e., the perception of how accessible the material is. Then , say, a textbook full of abstract notation may give the impression that the cost of entry is high, meaning one will have to exert a lot of effort, spend a lot of time to gain a foothold. Conversely, a book where the topic seems more accessible will be perceived as having lower cost, lower barriers to entry.
    Maybe it is tautological, or completely obvious , but I think the best option is to have clearly-explained material , so that potential readers do not believe they will have to spend half a lifetime just to grasp the basics. Of course, this will help, but is not guaranteed to reach everyone. It is an art that few command, to be able to explain clearly without neither overly-diluting the material nor being overly-technical and putting-off readers.

    It is ultimately , I think, a competition between interest and accessibility, the optimal combination being high interest and high accessibility and , obviously, the worse one being low interesting and low accessibility.

    Sorry if this is too obvious, maybe somewhat-circular.
    Last edited: Sep 10, 2014
  20. Sep 10, 2014 #19
    I think the minimum amount of scientific knowledge people should be given at school is way too low.
    If you think, for example, as my friend did, that you can power a car by putting a fan in front of it, and as the car gets going, the wind turns the fan and the fan charges a battery, which in turn makes the car move, then the school system has failed you.
  21. Sep 10, 2014 #20


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    I think you continue to miss the point. People don't CARE how high the "cost to entry" is, they are just not interested. THAT is the point. They are just not interested.

    All of the clever tutorials in the world are not going to change that
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