Neil's News

Scientific Illiteracy

10 July 2004

[Newspaper cutting] Printed in yesterday's Northern Scot newspaper:

"What would happen to someone who was exposed to nitrogen gas and who breathed it in?"  This simple question was asked of people in Elgin.  The results of the survey were astonishing.  100% of respondents said that someone exposed to nitrogen would probably die.

Every schoolchild is taught that three quarters of the air we breathe is nitrogen.  Farmers and gardeners use bags of nitrogen as fertilizer.  Yet when asked about this ubiquitous chemical, everyone assumed it was deadly.  One person went so far as to suggest that someone exposed to nitrogen would "explode".  Young and old, men and women; the results were unanimous.

This ignorance does not bode well for public consultations on genuinely complicated issues such as nuclear power, fluoridation and GM crops.  What value can the public bring to these debates when most of the population believes that breathing air would be deadly?

I'd planned on talking about sample sizes and some demographic observations. But after seeing the nature of the local audience, it seemed wise to dumb down the letter as much as possible. Apparently I didn't go far enough; the editor of the newspaper was unable to pronounce the word "illiteracy".

My favourite survey response was from one gentleman who exclaimed: "Sunday my friend, ye should na' be working on a Sunday!" Oh. Right.

Update: After further reflection, maybe I'm looking at this wrong. Instead of being saddened by the local population's lack of knowledge, I should be excited at the completely untapped market for "Nitrogen protection kits". I think I've just figured out what that hither-to mysterious "Step 2"[?] is!

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