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Department of Physics

Dr. Michael Ranney
Science, Numeracy, and Representations: Under-Appreciated Links Among Math, Physics, Other Sciences, Ethics, and Society


101 Cardwell Hall
September 11, 2017
4:30 p.m.  


In this talk, the audience is invited to consider the proper relationships among science, mathematics, representations, and morality.  My laboratory has explored links between people’s understandings of numbers (e.g., statistics) and people’s preferences for those numbers. Humans can change many quantities (e.g., reducing greenhouse gas emission amounts), yet a person might even prefer practically unchangeable physical quantities to be different (e.g., preferring a different gravitational acceleration for Earth––or wishing that our solar system might reside much closer to neighboring systems).  Related work shows sometimes-overlooked connections (and even fallacious connections) between geometry and physics, especially in ideas about kinematics functions.  Across society, many people do not understand myriad physical/chemical/biological/social mechanisms, yet improved numeracy can support better understandings about important mechanisms. In training journalists, I came up with “40 numbers one should know but many don’t”––to help journalists inform the public in more analytic and scientific ways.  Bringing in the philosophy of science, how readily people shape or modify their preferences in relief to such statistics suggests the extent to which they are empiricists (perhaps vs. rationalists). Finally, I will pose a rarely-addressed ethical question pertaining to the degree to which representations (mathematics, theories, and even language) are utilitarian––or “good”––in an ultimate sense.