I was noticing an article in the Atlantic by Rebecca Rosen – On Nuclear Weapons as Units of Measurement. The gist of the article was that you can’t really compare meteor explosions (like the one over Chelyabinsk) to a nuclear weapon. Of course that lady is mistaken: the blast and thermal effects are similar. No ionizing radiation, but blast and thermal are the main killers. The only reason the explosion (about 500 kilotons) didn’t level Chelyabinsk was its high altitude, probably over 100,000 feet. She is mistaken because she doesn’t know anything about the subject, and relied on info from atomic historian Allen Wellerstein – who also knows nothing. He managed to misunderstand a Sandia report that concluded that the Tunguska explosion was less powerful than thought – but only because the rapid downward motion of the fireball made the explosion more effective at causing ground damage than expected. So Wellerstein only got it backward. Nobody’s perfect.
But then, what do people know? What do people in public life know? What do specialists know outside their speciality? And while we’re at it, what about all the things they know that aren’t so?
I think that native smarts is important, but so is knowledge. We know that the average voter has what you might call a shallow grasp of detail – for example, most of them can’t find Afghanistan on the map. Only a bit more than half know that the Earth goes around the Sun in a year. And so on. But what the people who run the show? My impression is that they aren’t much better.
The practical question is what people in various jobs know, and what extra knowledge would make them better at those jobs. Next, is it even possible to substantially increase their level of knowledge? I tend to rant about biologists who don’t know anything about evolutionary genetics, but the problem is general. Professional historians give the Bancroft Prize to some liar who claimed that guns were rare in colonial America. Maybe they were liars too, but I’ll bet that sheer ignorance played a role.
I certainly don’t have the data to be sure about this, but my medium-strong personal impression is that this is getting worse.