The recent Buzzfeed article, An Alarming Number Of People Think “The Martian” Is A True Story, has generated plenty of laughs and clicks, in its Buzzfeed sort of way. (Tweet #3 is priceless.) But is this something we can just laugh off, or is it indicative of a much greater problem?
First, this is Buzzfeed. And their “alarming” number of people who think The Martian is based on a true story are accounted for in exactly 11 tweets. Tweets. Not exactly a landslide of evidence for science-illiteracy. Buzzfeed is obviously poking at the idea that “so many people” know nothing about the world around them, not even pretty significant stuff like—I dunno—whether humans have visited Mars. It’s the kind of question that those who do know significant stuff can easily point at to laugh at the morons of the world and get their superiority on. Without checking, of course, to see if the “alarming” numbers cited are, in fact, a significant portion of the population. Who’s the moron now?
But anyway, we can suppose (in the absence of a scientific poll) that there really are people out there who don’t know humans have never visited Mars. Why not? We know there are people who don’t believe we visited the Moon. Between conspiracy theories and misinformation, movie special effects (which are getting more realistic every day), internet nonsense and Fox News, it’s easy to believe there are those who don’t know our real history of space exploration.
But the only area we can realistically point to as the culprit of this lack of knowledge is our educational system. Any school system that is graduating young people without instilling in them a good background in human history—and I’d say knowledge of what planets we’ve visited, and the limits of science and technology to get us there, would count as important to know—is simply not doing its job.
And we, as a people, shouldn’t be laughing at people who don’t know basic human history like that… as much as we should be getting angry and asking our schools, and our governments, how they could be allowing people without such a basic education out of the schools we pay for with our tax money (or maybe we should be asking, aren’t these people going to schools?).
But maybe we shouldn’t panic; after all, all we know is we’re talking about 11 tweets. So, before we over-react, maybe we should be trying to ascertain how many people without this basic knowledge we’re talking about… that scientific poll I mentioned. Then we can better discuss how to bring them up to speed. And there are many ways to educate people besides school.
We may be able to accomplish the proper dissemination of knowledge through media… more programs like Nova, for instance, but with some reworking to bring them to the attention of more of the populace (namely, those who won’t watch PBS). Other networks, like The Discovery Channel and The History Channel, can provide airtime to programs that better enlighten the audience (they may need to hire a popular celebrity to host the show and bring the viewers in).
Possibly a great template for such a show might be based on Mythbusters, the very popular program that uses science, and plenty of fun, to test and either prove or dispel popular myths and conjectures about how the real world works. In fact, Mythbusters has already done a program that tests (and thoroughly disproves) the conspiracy theory that the manned Moon landings were faked in a sound stage. A Mythbusters-type show, demonstrating our current state of the science and technology we’d need to get us to Mars, would not only teach about science, but would help inform viewers that we are not yet capable of a manned Mars mission.
And, of course, we’ve had series like Cosmos (the original, hosted by Carl Sagan, and the recent version hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson) and my personal favorite, Connections (hosted by James Burke), that combined scientific and historical lessons with engaging hosts to teach its audience. These shows were popular with viewers, and are used as effective educational media today.
Perhaps if we had regular programs like those, hosted by popular media figures and commanding good and multiple time slots and web-based media outlets, to help provide information about the way the world works and what we’ve done with that knowledge, we wouldn’t be laughing at Buzzfeed articles about less than a dozen twitter posts supposedly attesting to some anonymous peoples’ ignorance that is intended to make the rest of us think there’s a global epidemic of morons out there.
Or maybe—just maybe—we could pay more attention to those around us, and take it upon ourselves to make sure those we know have the adequate knowledge to carry them through life, and not wasting it looking for UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster or… men on Mars.
Postscript: A tweet along this theme has been showcased by Yahoo Business, and it’s not the same as the 11 showcased by Buzzfeed… bringing our total of tweets to an even dozen.