It’s A Lifestyle, Friends
That passionate appreciation of the wonders of the universe revealed by science was certainly central to his effectiveness in attracting people all over the planet to study, teach, and do science. But there was more. Carl Sagan was absolutely convinced, as am I, of an urgent imperative for science education. We live in a society utterly dependent on science and high technology. We cannot hope to maintain even the limited degree of democracy that we now have if the great majority of us are alienated from the language and methods of science. The byproducts of the scientific and technological revolution of our time are a series of complex choices that require an informed electorate. How long will we remain free if those decisions are made by a tiny, unchallenged elite, speaking a language that only a few of us comprehend?
For three days the delegates assembled in the opulent main lounge of the Union League Club of Chicago, surrounded by paintings by masters such as Innes and Monet Attached by wire to the forty-foot ceiling, and looking puny among the grand nineteenth-century decor, hung a scale-model of Sputnik I, the symbol of the event. Jon Miller recalled how Sputnik’s “beep . . . beep . . . beep” sent shockwaves through the U.S. body politic, triggering the space race and prompting a majority of people, experts and laymen alike, to conclude that the United States had fallen behind the Soviets in science and technology.
Most Americans at the time held the complacent belief, based on post-war prosperity at home and economic dominance in world trade, that the U.S. scientific and technical establishment ruled the competition. But a poll taken in the weeks after the launch showed that nearly 70 percent of the public thought that “our schools have put too little stress on science” (Opinion Research Corporation survey, January 1958).
In response to increasing pressure on the issue, President Eisenhower appointed James R. Killian Jr., the head of MIT, as his special assistant, charged with reinvigorating the nation’s space effort. NASA came into existence within a year, and over the next two decades the National Science Foundation (NSF) would spend more than $1 billion on programs to enhance education in the sciences and engineering.
Miller described the importance of Sputnik I this way: “[Sputnik] was a significant event, because it caused a major reexamination of education in the United States, increased funding for virtually all science and technology, attracted large numbers of talented young people into science, and stimulated a public curiosity about space that continues to today.”
What Is Scientific Literacy?
One of the conference speakers was physicist and author James Trefil. Trefil served as a collaborator with the late E. D. Hirsch in writing The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. His ideas reflect the same principle that motivated the book – that scientific literacy for a nonspecialist boils down to having enough basic knowledge about science to be able to understand a newspaper article or to speak familiarly about the subject in a general discussion. After working with Hirsch, Trefil published another book in the same vein called 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Science. Again, what he argues is that scientifically literate citizens should be conversant with the major conclusions of the basic sciences and able to comprehend a nontechnical presentation of scientific ideas that draw upon this shared foundation of knowledge.
Many participants felt that scientific literacy involves more than just having command over a prescribed set of factoids. Jon Miller said scientific literacy is about having the rock-bottom skills necessary to “participat[e] in the modern world.” More and more jobs will require technical training; everyday decisions will increasingly require an ability to reason about technical issues; and public policy debates will more and more rely upon scientific data and conclusions. In short, the ability to grasp the essentials of a scientific argument – to gauge the validity and implications of scientific and technical information – will be indispensable to every citizen of a twenty-first-century democracy.
Scientific Literacy and Fate Control
Senta Raizen, a Ph.D. chemist and director of the Washington-based National Center for Improving Science Education, says that scientific literacy does concern national priorities such as economic competitiveness, but more profoundly, it is about “empowerment for the individual.” She says it is about “fate control.”
“If I’m told by my doctor, ‘You decide what treatment you want for your breast cancer,’ and I have no way of dealing with that question at all, then I could be totally at the mercy of some quack’s opinion,” said Raizen. “For me, it’s a question of whether I can handle the issues that cut close to me and are important to the society in which I live.”
According to John Durant, a professor of the history of science at Imperial College and the assistant director of the National Museum of Science and Industry in London, all of us live in societies that are “more closely dependent on science and technology than ever before in history.”
“The dangers of not knowing how one’s own society works range from a general sense of alienation that people who are undereducated can have to practical and political disadvantages,” said Durant.
A number of conferees echoed this idea: Scientific literacy, in an age dominated by science and technology, is not just about individual survival. It also takes into consideration such intangibles as personal dignity and a sense of belonging to the society in which we live. People who feel frightened or bewildered by science and technology may feel estranged from a society in which science and technology play a central role.
The question of the public’s understanding of science and technology also vitally concerns the continued democratic character of societies governed by popularly elected representatives. If progressively fewer average citizens have the knowledge to become active in debates over scientific or technical policy issues, at what point would the people lose their effectiveness in monitoring elected officials? Could a scientific/technical elite one day assume an unchallenged role in making decisions that affect the masses of ordinary people?
Miller estimates that about one in ten Americans are “attentive” to science and technology policy issues, a level that has remained stable for more than a decade. Of this group, most attend to only a tiny fraction of current debates. A certain amount of “issue specialization” is inevitable, given the complexity of the issues and the limited time people have to attend to public affairs. The question becomes, “How many people attentive to any particular issue does it take to serve as a “surrogate public?”
Miller’s work in assessing the American public’s attentiveness to the space program, for instance, reveals that about 12 percent of the U.S. population – or about 22 million people – express a high level of interest and are well-informed on space-related developments. This core group exercises a disproportionately large influence over space policy, reflecting the pattern of a “weak-party strong-interest-group political system.” What Miller says about the space program could as easily be applied to any issue involving science and technology.
Is 12 percent, or 22 million individuals, big enough to be thought of as democratic? Science and technology issues pose a special problem for the specialization model. Apart from the normal distribution of personal and profession interests, meaningful participation may require some minimal level of scientific understanding to be able to comprehend the arguments about a pending public policy issue. Given this dual set of hurdles, we might agree that an attentive public is the 20 million plus range is minimally acceptable, but urge that educational policies and practices seek to produce a large number of attentives in future generations.
Another, consideration is maintaining the ethical standards and integrity of science itself. When the work of scientists has an impact directly on people’s lives, people have an obligation to ask tough questions and challenge the scientists’ findings, when and if that seems appropriate. This is just an extension of the way science is done. Having the public involved provides another dimension of accountability.
Paths to Scientific Literacy
It is hardly surprising that people who stay in school longer are typically more scientifically literate. Surveys show a definite correlation between level of education and knowledge about science. The primary goal of increasing scientific literacy then becomes keeping people involved in formal education for as long as practical and necessary, realizing that not all people have the same interests or abilities. The second is to package the subject matter of science in ways that make it attractive, while still conveying its substance.
Informal education also plays a vital part in promoting scientific literacy, especially for continuing education. Museums, zoos, arboretums, conservatories, planetaria, aquariums all help disseminate knowledge about science and help make science engaging for a mass audience.
“It’s very striking when you look at kids in science museums,” said John Durant, “to see that most of them seem to really be enjoying what they’re doing and engaging in what they’re doing. That’s a clue to the role that the informal sector can have.”
Also key is the part played by the mass media. Conference speaker Mary Wooley, president of Research America, a science advocacy group active in the area of biotechnology, said it is crucial that the media have “a reality-based understanding of science.”
Too often the media fall short of Wooley’s recommendation. Incapable of understanding technical details, many journalists tend to romanticize science stories. In the case of Sputnik, they focused on the speculative question of life on other planets or on the then-still-fantastical idea of visiting the Moon. The same preoccupation could be seen recently in the broadcast medias coverage of the Mars Pathfinder mission. The spectacular geological data that was returned, showing a more Earth-like Mars than had been previously thought, was hardly discussed in the mass media. Instead, journalist after journalist repeated the same question: “Did Pathfinder turn up any evidence for life on Mars?” They kept asking this, even though Jet Propulsion Laboratory representatives made it clear from the beginning that the mission was never designed to look for any evidence of Martian life, past or present. The media just assumed people wanted to hear about the imaginative equivalent of “little green men,” not about the real science that was being done.
Sensationalistic press coverage of scientific discoveries does nothing to advance public understanding of science. For every Nova, there seem to be a dozen shows about UFOs or strange mysteries of the occult. Speaker Larry Gross, a professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, emphasized that television is not well-suited for the dissemination of scientific ideas, because the medium stresses “limited dialogue and visual action.”
Print media do a better job but reach far fewer people. Even the daily newspapers have a tendency to sensationalize science. George Hersbach, president and CEO of a biotech manufacturing company in the Netherlands called Pharming Health Care Products, spoke on this topic. His company uses transgenic cows and rabbits to produce chemicals, manufactured normally in a healthy human body, for patients whose bodies are unable to make them. The press and broadcast media tend to run stories about Pharming that stress loosely related, but controversial, subjects such as human cloning. The actual work of the company hardly gets mentioned. Sometimes the full text of an article presents a more representative view of Pharming’s business, but the headlines and lead paragraphs don’t. “Nobody reads the whole article,” said Hersbach. “The articles could be good, but the headlines bad.”
The conference examined many other questions about public attitudes toward science. For instance, political decisions regarding research funding can often be influenced by popular perceptions. From a strictly self-interested perspective, the scientific community should understand how the public views science and technology.
Another concern of conference attendees was the responsibility of scientists to earn the public’s trust. Some conferees suggested that scientists had mainly themselves to blame for any problems in the public’s view of science. They felt scientists must pay more attention to the moral implications of their work and the uses to which others put it. However, the concern that came across most forcefully was that the continued health of our democratic society will depend more and more on having a citizenry that is informed about science and technology and that can reason effectively on such issues.