Science: the umm,err effect

It's official: we have no idea what's going on. Instead, we have evolved the art of the technobluff. By Matthew Sweet
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Next time you need to humiliate someone, just ask your victim how they think a fridge works. "Oh, hell, I don't know," flaps Lizzie, 27. She opens her fridge door and squints inside, but it's not helping. "Do they have some sort of weird gas in them?" There's an anxious silence. "Don't quote me on this," she pleads. "It's going to be really embarrassing". As it was for most of the people on the receiving end of our Real Life science quiz (right). "Err... it makes ice by electrical charges," was the news from Nina, 49, a nurse. She's just as reticent about going on record as a technological no-hoper. Names have been changed to protect the ignorant.

According to a recent Gallup survey, 60 per cent of the British public think the cosmos was created in the Big Bang. Yet Lewis Wolpert, Chairman of Copus (the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science), suspects this is "belief by authority based on virtually zero understanding". Two weeks ago it was announced that Douglas Adams was right about the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything: the value of Hubble's Constant - a theorem for calculating the age of the Universe - was calculated to be 42. Most people were too embarrassed to ask the question "42 what?" And last Monday, Richard Dawkins, Oxford's Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, implored us to acknowledge that science contains "mystery beyond the wildest imagining". For Jack, a 26-year-old househusband, the workings of the Snowcap 150DL that keeps his fish fingers rigid are an enigma as puzzling as quantum cosmology. "It has a thing at the back with a fluid in it," he mumbles, uncertainly. Then he remembers the bit where it attaches to the wall. "I suppose electricity must come into it somewhere. I'm amazed by my total lack of scientific knowledge."

According to Real Life's research, discomfiture seems to be caused by three major types of ignorance: a) ignorance of the technology that surrounds us; b) lack of knowledge of basic scientific concepts well-known to schoolchildren; c) the inability to grasp sexy ideas like Chaos Theory. Though a) and b) are can both generate intense feelings of shame, it is c) which causes the greatest anxiety, as it usually takes place at dinner parties. Take the example of Black Holes. Nina thought they were "holes in the ozone layer that are something to do with space". Other members of the test group revealed a vague understanding that might allow them to bluff their way through the first course: "it's when a star blows up and forms a vacuum"; "something without matter in it that creates suction in the solar system"; "something that spaceships disappear down". Dangerous territory, but Stephen Hawking's theories still attract the over-confident chatterer like the gravitational pull of a collapsing neutron star. And the notion of Entropy proved even more confusing. In the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it represents the state of disorder within a system at the atomic, ionic or molecular level. Robin, 34, thought that it was a disease of some sort, and Olivia believed it to be "the theory that if you leave things long enough, they will happen - if you hang all your creased clothes up in the wardrobe, they'll eventually iron themselves. Like those monkeys with a typewriter who produce the complete works of Shakespeare." Here the shame begins to set in: if Olivia's explanation had not taken place in a controlled environment, she would have had her coat on by this point.

There also seems to be a gendered aspect to the issue: male test subjects were much more likely to produce a tombola of half-digested technobabble, and were distinctly up-tight about the holes in their knowledge. Jack admits his ignorance of the his fridge's use of vapour-compression cycle with arresting honesty. His partner, Vivian, 23, sees it this way: "If you're a woman and the washing machine breaks down, you get a man to come and fix it. If you're a man and the washing machine breaks down, you have to get another man to come and fix it. That's a big admission of inadequacy." So here's an experiment you can do at home. Take one member of the male sex, ask him to explain a concept like, say, gravity or the Internet. Watch closely. A neurochemical reaction takes place and within seconds, pure bullshit is produced. Robin, on the Quark: "Well, it's a radioactive particle you get in uranium. They're really dangerous. I think it's got a positive electric charge". At least he didn't say it was Greek yogurt.

It's the abstract nature of notions like Quantum Theory that makes them so terrifyingly hard to retain. As Kathleen, 25, reflects, "I don't really need to know about them because they don't affect me. I've got too many other things to think about, and if I did really need to know, I probably would know." It's an argument that finds resonance with many blushing members of our test group. So why do they all feel so guilty?

Part of the problem lies in the shaky hold the group seemed to have on the function of the microchip (Nina thought it was "a tiny device that has largely replaced batteries"). The problem with this piece of technology is that unless you keep an electron microscope in your toolbox, you can't take it apart to find out how it works. Our grandparents could dismantle their mangles and internal combustion engines and make informed observations about such things. Take your computer to pieces and all you'll get is a pile of flat, green things. And because a screwdriver won't release its mysteries, most people are stuck as passive consumers of a technology that might as well be as abstract as anything in Hawking. As David, 26, argues, "people who know about computers are running a cartel of jargon. We treat technology like any other consumable. No one who has satellite TV understands the technological difference between cable and Sky, they just know that one costs more than the other."

Olivia has a theory of her own: "Why should there be a good public understanding of science when public understanding of anything isn't that great? Most people get muddled about cosmic science beacuse they don't learn it at school, they get it off Star Trek."

Lewis Wolpert can sympathise with this confusion. "Science is an unnatural mode of thought, and goes against common sense. Of course no one has a clue what Quantum Mechanics is, but scientists work like hell to get these ideas and then the arts turn them back into magic." The writers Ian McEwan and William Boyd, he argues, are particularly culpable.

Scientific theory has always entered culture in dilute and trashy forms. The 18th-century public didn't sit around discussing how marvellous it was that every reaction had an equal and opposite reaction. Victorian capitalists jumped on Darwin's theories as eagerly as the leaders of crap middle management seminars made ill-informed use of Dawkins' The Selfish Gene.

Dawkins urges that "science needs to be released from the lab into the culture", but once it gets there, all we seem able to do with it is attempt to impress our mates. And that seems to be a law as irrefutable as Boyle's.


1 What's the difference between the blood in your arteries and the blood in your veins?

(From School Science key stage 2, for 8-year-olds)

2 How are rainbows formed?

(as above)

3 Name an enzyme (From GCSE science for 15 to 16-year-olds)

4 What is a radioactive element?

(as above)

5 How does a lightbulb work?

6 How do fridges keep food cool?

7 What's the difference between an atom, a molecule and a compound?

8 What is electricity?

9 What is a microchip?

10 What is a black hole?


1543 - Copernicus proves that the solar system is heliocentric, making humankind into a cosmic wallflower.

1768 - Arkwright's water frame makes working from home rather difficult - and for the first time you may not know how to repair the tools of your trade.

1788 - George III's physicians call in maverick mad-doctor Francis Willis, thus inventing that arcane specialism called psychiatry.

1859 - New readers start here - Darwin publishes The Origin of Species and rewrites the Biblical plot.

1890s - Sexologists bring taxonomy into the bedroom - now you have to look your sexuality up in a textbook.

1945 - The Second World War produces leaps in atomic, computer and rocket technology - all of which are put to covert military use.

1953 - Watson and Crick announce the discovery of "the secret of life" - DNA ; it stays a secret for most people.

1971 - The microprocessor is invented, and it becomes increasingly impossible to pull things apart to see how they work.

1988 - Millions give up on page 16 of Hawking's Brief History of Time.

1996 - Trust no one? With BSE and genetically-engineered tomato puree, is it any wonder that we're anxious about science?

ANSWERS TO THE QUIZ: 1) Blood is oxygenated in the artery and deoxygenated in the vein. 2) Water droplets refract white light into its constituent colours. 3) Amylase, lipase, protease (among others). 4) One with an unstable arrangement of protons and neutrons. 5) When electricity flows through the filament inside a light bulb, it becomes white-hot and gives off light. 6) A refrigerant fluid absorbs heat from the food, evaporating as it does so. A compression chamber then condenses the refrigerant, giving out the heat, which is expelled through a vent. 7) Smallest unit of matter that cannot be broken down into anything chemically simpler; a group of two or more atoms bonded together; chemical made of two or more elements bonded together. 8) Energy resulting from charged particles (electrons, protons, etc). 9) A thin piece of silicon containing thousands of miniature electronic circuits. 10) Object in space whose gravity is so great not even light can escape from it.