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Galileo’s gap

May 11, 2020

Like many science nerds, a turning point in my life were a couple of years as a young teen when I took first courses in trigonometry, calculus, physics, chemistry, and biology. Those new ways of thinking about the world weren’t so much a light going on, as much as they were discovering hundreds of lanterns that I could work with some effort, of different sorts and useful for different things, almost all revealing other lanterns further out.

Most people never make that step. They never learned to work those lanterns, never saw what they illuminate. Robert Crease calls that the Galileo’s gap, referencing Galileo’s famous dictum that you must study mathematics to understand nature. Crease ties that difference to why some people are attracted to conspiracy theories. There is a certain plausibility to that. It takes only a little statistics or biology to see through Dr. Erickson’s nonsense. And in these early months of a pandemic, dozens of times I have seen someone who is ignorant of math recommend an article on the statistics about Covid-19 by an author who also clearly is ignorant of statistics. The innumerate advertising the pretend numerate.

Of course, many people who never acquired a science education do well at sussing out conspiracy theories. Common sense should tell someone that Plandemic is thin propaganda. And I’ve known science nerds who fall for all sorts of politically oriented conspiracy theories.

Crease’s hypothesis is at best one explanation among many. What’s needed to weigh them is data. There is quite a bit of polling, for example, that American scientists are less religious than the general population. I’ve never seen any such data for conspiracy theories. It would be interesting for Pew and Gallup or other major pollsters to add to their surveys a question or two on conspiracy theories then current. To see who believes them.

Still, there is a core puzzle. Many people never learned to frame problems in mathematical terms. Yet they voice loud opinions on the safety and efficacy of vaccines, the harm wind turbines do birds, the dangers of 5G, etc. Despite the fact that they do not know statistics, scaling, or power laws. And sometimes they hold up Galileo as their hero. They could no more explain Galilean relativity than they could any other aspect of physics. They don’t know that Galileo started his career as a math teacher. Nor that he would have told them — that he did tell them — if they want to discuss these things in any sensible fashion, they have to learn math.

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