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Improving Scientific Literacy

Book Review

Robert Baker

Skeptical Briefs Volume 6.1, March 1996

The Myth Of Scientific Literacy by Morris H. Shamos Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick NJ Cloth, pp.. 262, $27.95

For several decades now members of the scientific establishment have nervously bemoaned the fact that this nation is rapidly running out of scientists and engineers and that there is an ever-increasing gap between the scientifically literate and the mass of the American citizenry. While many have suggested all sorts of broad-based strategies and techniques to remedy this alleged disaster, and to keep the nation abreast of other countries who seem to be getting ahead of us in science education, few have managed to come up with workable plans for solving the problem. It is therefore refreshing to encounter an eminent scientist who not only argues persuasively that we as a nation are much better off than we heretofore thought, but that it is unrealistic to assume that we will ever be able to educate the public science-wise. Also, that we are foolish if we believe that we will, through some sort of educational magic, make physicists, chemists, mathematicians, economists, psychologists, biologists, etc. out of the average man, woman, and child.

The dispenser of this sobering wisdom is Morris H. Shamos, professor emeritus of physics at New York University, who also says the last thing we need to produce are “clones like ourselves”, i.e., scientists who have the same values, techniques, methods, and outlook that we have. Our present system, Shamos argues, is producing sufficient numbers of clones in all the hard and “soft” sciences to take care of our immediate and foreseeable needs well into the next century. What we do need, however, are scientific generalists who are good communicators and who are able to get the general public to feel comfortable with science.

Shamos argues that the current reform movement is badly flawed and is not making progress. Not only have we failed to set any reasonable or agreed upon standards for scientific literacy, we have also failed to set forth any guidelines for the ways and means of achieving such standards. Moreover, we have failed to specify how such improvments would benefit our society more than literacy in other disciplines such as law, political science, psychology or sociology. Why science is so much more valuable and necessary must be carefully spelled out and justified to the satisfaction of everyone in our society. This can be done, Shamos insists, if we help the public gain confidence in what scientists do by providing access to responsible expert advice and cleaning our house of the large number of fringe experts and their junk science. We must very carefully select and use our best people as technical advisors on matters of public policy and they must spell out very clearly what the proposed scientific action means and how it impacts the social body — especially its moral and political aspects. Like we have done in the field of law, we would be wise to establish a scientific “supreme court,”as Authur Kantrowitz proposed a quarter-century ago, to resolve significant disagreements. This court would function in a manner similar to a legal court by studying and cross examining proponents on both sides of important science issues. Quickly eliminated would be the “junk science” that Peter Huber so eloquently described in his book Galileo’s Revenge.

Shamos also proposes the establishment of a National Science Watch Committee to oversee our scientific educational efforts. How should it be structured so that it would gain and hold the public’s trust? The schools cannot do this alone. We must communicate to the public that becoming interested in and informed about science issues is in their own best and personal interest. Learning about AIDS and breast cancer causes are good examples.

Shamos is the first to admit that he is not in possession of all the answers but believes we had best be getting started in the direction of achievable progress. Anyone concerned with science education should begin immediately to teach:

Shamos also recommends the setting up of a curriculum guide for scientific awareness. This guide would focus specifically on such things as:

All of the above subjects would be taught not to emphasize the content but rather to stress the nature of the scientific enterprise. This, Shamos believes, is the sort of understanding of science that we want the educated public to be aware of — they need to better understand the “why”, “what” and “how” of scientific endeavor. These, Shamos stresses, will be absorbed and retained whereas a hodge-podge of isolated facts will not.

There is little doubt that Shamos has his finger on the problem, and it is apparent that this lack of awareness and understanding of the issues listed above underlies many of the present misconceptions about science found at the public level as well in our colleges and universities.

If we ever hope to deal effectively with the serious problem of antiscience in academia, as set forth by Gross and Levitt in their recent work Higher Superstition, we must take a stance toward the problem along the lines that Shamos suggests. What Shamos is proposing is one of the most promising and more implemetable ideas we have encountered in several decades. It is also important to note that I have only skimmed the surface of the very deep, well-written, long and carefully developed thesis. Anyone and everyone concerned with science education should read Shamos if he or she desires to be fully informed about the problem.

Robert Baker

Robert A. Baker is professor of psychology emeritus, University of Kentucky, Lexington.