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39 comments

Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

Posted October 16, 2009 2:55 PM by Steve Melito

"The problem with the Internet is obvious to anyone who has ever used it," write Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum in the final part of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. "There's tons of information available, but much of it is crap".

The Bloggers Cannot Save Us

According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), blogs are now the second most popular source of information about science - at least for the average American. Television shows about science are still more popular, but Americans are turning increasingly to the Web instead of going to the library. Yet "science blogging", Mooney and Kirshenbaum claim, "can rarely serve as a substitute for in-depth, considered professional science journalism of the sort that is now in demonstrable decline".

Part of the problem is with the bloggers. The other part is with their audience. Blogging, Unscientific America claims, is informed by "a set of pressures that inevitably leads to much quick writing and posting rather than deep, sustained thought. Like journalists in print media, bloggers try to avoid being "scooped" and may struggle to meet deadlines. Then there's the matter of blog appeal. "Anti-religion and anti-science polemics are both very popular," as PZ Myer's second-place showing at the 2008 Weblog Awards reveals.

Yet the success of "New Atheist" bloggers such as the University of Minnesota biology professor isn't necessarily due to their catholic (universal) appeal. Rather, as Mooney and Kirshenbaum claim, "the single biggest blogging negative . . . is the grouping together of people who already agree about everything." True-believers such as the atheists who congregate at Myer's Pharyngula blog "proceed to square and cube their agreements, becoming increasingly self-assured and intolerant of other viewpoints".

This argument of Unscientific America has merit, of course, but perhaps the authors should visit a science-related Web site (and one with plenty of blogs) such as CR4. Here, they'd find spirited debate on a great many subjects rather than a "grouping together of people who agree about everything."

Are Our Scientists Learning?

If the bloggers cannot save us, then who can? "America doesn't merely need non-scientists to better understand the details of science," Mooney and Kirshenbaum claim. Rather, "we need them to see why science matters to their lives and their careers". The data indicates that this will be a tough sell, however, especially during an economic downturn that some economists have dubbed The Great Recession.

According to a 2007 (and now outdated) study by the Urban Institute that Unscientific America cites, the U.S. "produces more than three times as many four-year college science and engineering graduates as there are corresponding science and engineering job openings". America also educates and employees more professional scientists than any other nation. Yet just as graduates of four-year colleges struggle to find employment in their fields of study, newly-minted Ph.D.'s must also work to find work. According to Unscientific America, a Ph.D. recipient under the age of 35 has just a 7% chance of landing a tenure-track position in America.

Most Americans don't hold doctorates, of course, and not every adult attends a four-year college (or even a two-year one). Nor will most Americans put science front-and-center at a time when pocketbook issues are paramount. So when Mooney and Kirshenbaum write that "our high schools turn a lot of smart people off to science – smart people who instead go on to study, law, finance or business", it's not hard to see how this trend will continue. Again, according to the 2007 Urban Institute study, only 45% of those who earn a bachelor's degree in science or engineering work within those fields within two years of graduation.

Conclusion

Unscientific America was published in 2009, but the spirit in which it was written may require revision now that the job losses of The Great Recession have become evident. In order for Americans to heed the book's call "to see why science matters to their lives and careers", they must first perceive a relationship between scientific research and economic prosperity. Research for research's sakes won't win science many allies, especially when that research is government-funded and thus politically polarizing.

Explaining the relevance of science isn't just an intellectual or political activity then, but also an economic one. A scientist-communicator in the mold of Carl Sagan might help, but talk of "billions and billions of stars" would be far less appealing than "millions and millions of jobs". America would benefit from the well-rounded "Renaissance scientists" that Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum celebrate, but the perceived benefits of science must extend far beyond a scientific elite that is all-to-easy too demonize for political gain.

Author's Note: This blog entry is the fourth in a series. Here are the links to the other entries, which correspond to the parts of the book.

Book Review: Unscientific America (Introduction)

The Rise and Cultural Decline of American Science

Unscientific America: Different Rifts, Still Divided

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#1

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/16/2009 11:31 PM

This sounds like an interesting albeit mildly depressing book to read. I do find it amusing that the final edition in this review points out that bloggers cannot solve the degradation of Science in America. Blogs are the web equivalent of "letters to the editor" without an editor to cull the well written opinions out from the purely inflamed. Like this very reply itself, they're meant to correct at best one topic each. A blog cannot replace a sound education.

My personal disappointment in how Science is taught today comes from people not having an understanding of the fundamentals of Science. Most Science education today seems more suited to a television trivia contest. There is little to no focus to the concept that Science is regularly tested and subjected to peer review.

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#2

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 12:23 AM

I gave this a GA, as I think it is. However, I would like to consider a bit more about the idea of "peer review." To put it cynically, the peers of a naive or fraudulent purveyor of some idea or other may be equally naive or fraudulent. They are likely to rubber-stamp whatever misconceptions they already agree with. This happens frequently in such "disciplines" as pseudoscience, religion, quite a bit of philosophy, and any other "social construction." Maybe it would be better to encourage and honor other types of review, such as knowledgeable and critical but open-minded review. Alas, there is much too little of that, and even less recognition of it when it does occur.

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#3
In reply to #2

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 9:31 AM

Quite true. Many bogus organizations attempt to claim the high standard of Science by passing their ideas past their own flock and calling that a "peer review". But as you understand, true peers for these reviews must include people who do not initially agree with the presenter's work. (Allow me to apply some religious terms to my argument.) Truth does not get revealed by preaching to the choir, further pivotal revelations maybe discovered this way but not truth and acceptance. Truth and acceptance comes from converting the skeptics by responding to their questions. Ignoring a skeptic's questions (dismissal by claims of heresy) jeopardizes the presenters credibility.

Let me return now to the idea and implications from preaching to the choir. Some erroneously claim that preaching to the choir is only a "feel good" process. In actuality this leads to the most powerful arguments that can convince a skeptic of the validity for or against a presenter's idea. For by exploring the implications and repercussions of this idea, unexplained observations maybe explained or new phenomena maybe anticipated. Ideally the new phenomena had not been previously observed due to either a technology limitation or a lack of perspective. But observing a previously unknown phenomena because a presenter's idea lead us to look at the universe in a new way, heavily grants credence to the presenter's idea.

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#4
In reply to #3

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 2:13 PM

I disagree. The scientific peer review process, although not perfect is pretty rigorous, particularly in the better scientific journals. Anyone who has actually tried to get published in say Physical Review Letters can tell you that if you don't cross your t's and dot your i's you don't have a chance.

On what do you base your assertion that the peer review process is flawed? From what I can see, your argument seems to be:

1. I don't agree with the generally accepted scientific theory: A
2. I have found in the literature a minority of scientists that also don't agree with A
3. The Peer Review process is broken because A is still a generally accepted scientific theory despite the protests of a small minority of scientists.

Then you generally seek out like minded individuals (always of the same political inclinations) who reinforce your opinion.

You essentially turn your back on science because it doesn't confirm your incorrect, politically biased misconceptions. Everytime these dispersions are cast on science we fall just a little bit further behind the rest of the world in technological development. China and Europe now lead in solar power development and Fusion development. Once the LHC is functional we will dependent on Europe to make progress in particle physics. Why, because congress didn't like that it was costing over 10 billion dollars to advance the scientific frontiers (Superconducting Super Collider). School children in the US rank middle of the pack in Science and Math in the world.

The only solace I have is that the people that share your views tend to be older, which means time will hopefully solve this problem.

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#5
In reply to #4

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 2:32 PM

The scientific peer review process, although not perfect is pretty rigorous, particularly in the better scientific journals.

you generally seek out like minded individuals (always of the same political inclinations) who reinforce your opinion.

You essentially turn your back on reality because it doesn't confirm your incorrect, politically biased misconceptions.

How's that working for you? No intelligence allowed??

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#6
In reply to #4

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 2:34 PM

This is a classic response from Riger Pink - the person that probably has done more damaged (on this site) to engineering and science. Roger is probably the most closed minded and self righteous moran person that has ever typed on a keyboard. All to often he be brings in the "world is going to end" argument and supports it with insults instead of fact.

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#7
In reply to #6

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 3:23 PM

Dear Guest,

I am truly disappointed after reading your two posts. Over the years we have had so many conversations, some in which we agree, others where we don't, but I had thought, after all this time, that we had reached a level of mutual affection.

It's not like you're perfect Guest. Too be perfectly blunt, you may have a multiple-personality disorder. I haven't said anything before this because the number of personalities is frankly astonishing. I thought it had to be an act. I now realize maybe it isn't, though I can't imagine that you have all the mental disfunctions that your often meandering and dischordant posts seem to indicate. The cacaphony of your corpus of posts is staggering, I get the distinct impression you don't sleep, which may one source of your problems.

Anyway, thanks for posting regardless of the content, afterall, what would CR4 be without Guest?

Your sometimes friend and sometimes rival,
Roger H Pink

P.S. Moran was a bit harsh, which I assume you crossed out because you misspelled it (I assume you meant to spell moron). You hurt me right here (You can't see but I'm pointing at my heart), that's where you hurt me.

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#8
In reply to #7

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 3:29 PM

True to form as detailed in post #6 but I authored post #4 would you not pout at me too.

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#11
In reply to #8

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 4:01 PM

You cut me to the quick sir. Right here (I'm pointing at my heart).

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#25
In reply to #7

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 7:08 PM

I think this may be part of a vast conspiracy.

I would watch Moose, Chris, Magaulin & possibly Sharkles if I were you...

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#12
In reply to #6

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 4:02 PM

It only takes a few spelling and grammar errors to lead one to believe that Guest #6 is the moron!

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#13
In reply to #12

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 4:04 PM

Don't do that Guest. Self-loathing is ugly.

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#18
In reply to #12

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 5:12 PM

roger did you forget to sign in before posting?

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#32
In reply to #6

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/18/2009 7:13 PM

Guest, if that is your real name, if you want to make cutting remarks, you'll need to learn how to spell "moron".

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#9
In reply to #4

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 3:32 PM

Roger,

I find it very strange that you, Roger, might think that I, redfred, dislike or find the peer review process flawed. I find the peer review process a pillar of strength of the Scientific method. I also find it ironic that you state "that if you don't cross your t's and dot your i's you don't have a chance." Now these two uses of the pronoun "you" are acceptably undefined for this discusses any individual submitting an article to a scientific journal. But the entire rest of your use of the pronoun "you" is undefined, Roger. You then cite three specific entries that have nothing to do with either my reply, the book review or anything I can see stated about this article. Roger, you have certainly not dotted your i's or crossed your t's here. This unfocused use of these pronouns is why, I do not understand the source of your comments.

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#10
In reply to #9

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 3:59 PM

This is awesome.

In your post #3 you write: "Many bogus organizations attempt to claim the high standard of Science by passing their ideas past their own flock and calling that a "peer review". "

Then in post #9 you write: "I find it very strange that you, Roger, might think that I, redfred, dislike or find the peer review process flawed."

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#14
In reply to #10

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 4:07 PM

Is this the best of Roger Pink?

Where's the wit and passion?

Where's the erstwhile restraint of petty ambition with regard to attacking rather than discussing various view points as used in real science??

He's finally lost it over the proverbial edge?

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#15
In reply to #14

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 4:37 PM

That's ridiculous, I have never restrained my petty ambitions......have I?

(inner monologue):

Roger's ego: Maybe Guest is right, maybe I have lost my edge,
Roger's id: Nooooo, that's crazy, my posts still have vitriol.
Roger's ego: But I do seem to be less passionate on issues
Roger's id: That's not fair, I've just been busy, distracted
Roger's ego: Still, Guest may be right, I may have lost my "erstwhile restraint of petty ambition with regard to attacking
Roger's id: Wait, that doesn't make any sense
Roger's ego: You're right, erstwhile means formerly, or in the past which means Guest's sentence is actually suggesting I showed restraint in the past of my petty ambitions.
Roger's id: Well I know that didn't happen.
Roger's ego: Anyway, even though guest messed up his sentence, I think he was definitely implying I've lost a step.
Roger's id: I don't think I've lost a step
Roger's ego: I think you're right, just to be sure, let's try to provoke a response with the term "Ad hominem" in it.
Roger's id: I'm hungry
Roger's ego: I could go get a cheeseburger
Roger's superego: Ok, this inner monologue is officially off topic, I'm ending it

(inner monologue ends)

Guest, what does "lost it over the proverbial edge" mean? I understand "gone over the proverbial edge" and I get "lost it" but you seem to have made an agglomeration of the two proverbs. Also, do you really believe that I showed more restraint of my petty ambition in the past and not now as the term "erstwhile" suggests, or did you just misphrase your sentence?

Roger

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#16
In reply to #15

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 4:47 PM

roger pink (quite apt I think), I am guest #6. You truly are a classic piece of work. You are so self centered that you cannot see what a moron (spelt correctly this time) you are. Do you not realize that you are the laughing stock of CR4? Your views are outdated and quite frankly bizzare. No one here takes you serious and there is a good reason for this - YOU ARE A MORON

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#17
In reply to #16

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 5:07 PM

Guest,

Thanks for your feedback. We here at Roger H Pink care about your Roger H Pink experience. We appreciate your feedback and will strive to make Roger H Pink better. Your comments are very important to us and we will endeavor to respond to your suggestions. Thanks for choosing Roger H Pink.

Roger H Pink

Legal Disclaimer - The above response in no way represents a legal promise of action by Roger H Pink. Furthermore, any actions taken by Roger H Pink as a result of your suggestions do not in any way constitute any admission or acknowledgement of being a moron.

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#19
In reply to #15

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 5:15 PM

Erstwhile

Third line down and two thirds across the page...

Guests are afforded the ambition to blend, mix and match on the fly.

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#20
In reply to #19

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 5:38 PM

Here's webster's definition of erstwhile:
Main Entry: 1erst·while

Pronunciation: \ˈərst-ˌ(h)wī(-ə)lFunction: adverb Date: 1569

: in the past : formerly <cultures, erstwhile unknown to each other — Robert Plank

Main Entry: 2erstwhile

Function: adjective Date: 1903

: former, previous <erstwhile enemies>

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/erstwhile

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#22
In reply to #20

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 5:41 PM

so you can copy and paste aswell - where do your talents end?

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#27
In reply to #20

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 11:03 PM

I don't see that your stated definitions contradict the form I used it is common sense.

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#31
In reply to #4

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/18/2009 7:10 PM

G.A. Clear, blunt, possible unpopular, but spot on.

The best way for a young scientist to get fame and tenure is to prove everyone else wrong (or not quite right).

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#29
In reply to #2

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 11:16 PM

So apropos

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#21

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 5:39 PM

Well it has been fun guys but I've got to do some work now.

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#23
In reply to #21

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 5:42 PM

Yes it has been fun.

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#24
In reply to #21

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 6:59 PM

But Roger,

When did you stop beating your wife

If you need to relax you could always take a bath

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#26

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 8:19 PM

Yet there remains a shortage of engineers and scientists to fill jobs. Does this mean the education received is not adequate?

Or maybe the want-to-be engineers need hands on training before they graduate?

It seems that you can graduate with a degree and still not meet the minimum requirements.

There are those that work in an engineering position that have not had the formal training, but still have the knowledge acquired through years of job experience and self-study.

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#28

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/17/2009 11:13 PM

The problem with the Internet is not obvious to me. I don't believe everything I read, and consider the source for all things read, or watched. I've read enough and written enough to have been forced to change my mind on evidence of superior evidence, or logic.

One notable change of mind had to do with whom you are most likely to go to war with. -Turned out you are most likely to go to war with those you do the most business with, not those you don't buy and sell to.

Typically I only visit CR4, or Wikipedia, or some of my friends sites, like popwars.com, or dynamictension.net. Sometimes I go to sites CR4 members recommend. Hey, there is only so much time in the day.

If Science is such a tough sell, how come we all have radios and TVs, and cars and computers? Seems to me there is a history of men buying new stuff made from scientists, if it works. - and what about them guns?

7 percent is pretty good considering only about 2 percent of writers make much money at it. Try making it as an actor or an artist...

-And don't be so quick to lambast attorneys, since at least they often work individually for themselves.

Einstein recommended that the US make a really big bomb. Dad said he would not have made it off the beach of Japan. Hence I would not be alive he said. Not noticed much "demonization" of him.

I am remiss for not making more speeches for it would be good to do as much good, as Hitler did bad.

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#30
In reply to #28

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/18/2009 12:15 AM

PR is PR good or bad is no difference it's PR.

Can't knock the Internet, I think the ratio would be essentially similar going door to door...

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#33

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/19/2009 2:35 PM

Why do I feel like when I had my three young kids living with me? When I would intervene in one of their all-too-frequent fights, one was always trying to tell why they were justified and the other completely at fault.

Although there was one who predominantly "started it", all were capable.

Reason didn't EVER win out!

To start, you both need a time out. If you can't agree to disagree, then we'll have to take more drastic measures.

By the way, I KNOW who is the one who usually starts things around here. Got eyes in the back of my head, y'know.

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#34
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Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/19/2009 3:43 PM

Did you comment to the intended thread?

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#35
In reply to #34

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/19/2009 9:36 PM

Hi bwire,

Yes, I am certain. The focus was RF and RP's little back-and-forth. The way they went at it for a while was quite amusing to me, RF being the noble one not the instigator.

Mike

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#37
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Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/20/2009 10:19 AM

Thank You for the noble comment.

My sole reply to that strange banter came from being completely baffled by the experience. It almost seemed like an unannounced homage to Monty Python.

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#38
In reply to #35

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/20/2009 11:43 AM

I though it a good comment if towards the thread concerning who's the dumber parent or is it, who's on first?

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#39
In reply to #35

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/20/2009 12:02 PM

I couldn't agree more. Emoticon.

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#36

Re: Unscientific America: The Future In Our Bones

10/19/2009 10:15 PM

How many times do we get posts asking "is <insert product> a scam?" This should tell us something about general science knowledge, let alone that these posters don't know how to, or maybe don't even know that they can, continue an internet search to find out opposing viewpoints. Taking the information they have accumulated to make a decision to believe or not to believe the claim without having someone else tell them.

I think that what we are seeing is the demise of critical thinking.

I have a personal issue with hollywood. My case-in-point, the density of gold (Au). How many movies have you seen where the "bad guys" have gotten into <wherever> and started loading knapsacks/duffel bags/gunny sacks with gold bars, the weight of which is more than anyone could carry?

My irritation was brought about yesterday while watching an episode of "Heroes" where the Chinese guys, on entering the abode of the extremely-fast-chick, and finding a great amount of loot (including the Mona Lisa), notice a shelf on which are over a dozen liter-sized gold ingots. Ando sees them and reaches up to take one down as if the 43lb ingot was a bottle of water.

What percentage of people in the general populace understand the incongruity of this? I would bet that this value has been decreasing over the last 20 years.

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