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No. 341:
Scientific Literacy

Today, some thoughts about scientific literacy. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Writer William Hively ponders scientific illiteracy in a recent issue of American Scientist. Several questions come up. How do we measure scientific illiteracy? How serious a problem is it? And what can we, or should we, do about it?

Hively tells about an accident near San Diego in 1987. A 50-pound bag of industrial pigment — iron oxide — fell off a truck and spilled on the road. The Hazardous Incident Response Team closed the road for eight hours while men in protective suits moved in to clean up the spill.

Scientists tried to tell them that iron oxide was no more than plain old rust. Authorities asked why, if scientists were so sure it was safe, they weren't laying their lives on the line to clean it up. It makes a frightening story. If only a few people hadn't known that iron oxide is harmless rust, that'd be one thing. But when no one in a whole chain of command saw it for what it is, we worry.

We have many measures of scientific literacy. You might question any one, but together they show a steady decline from about 12% literacy in 1957 to only about 5% today.

The media reply by inventing ways to catch a child's interest. But does a man dancing in a DNA-molecule costume say enough about the beauty of science to children? Is that a rich enough food for their imaginations? Do we really let them know that science will feed their natural hunger for unanswered questions?

One teacher asks, "Who can tell the difference between scientific literacy and any other literacy?" We know reading has declined. We know the humanities have suffered because Johnny doesn't like to read. But has scientific literacy suffered any less than the humanities have? Probably not.

Observer Watson Laetsch points out two kinds of argument that favor scientific literacy. One is utilitarian. We tell students to learn science so they won't end up sweeping rust off the road. We tell them that technical literacy will help them compete with the Japanese.

The other argument is frankly hedonistic. Bright eighth-graders don't care a fig about competing with the Japanese. Nor do they fear difficulty. But they are determined to find stimulation and pleasure. And that's what science really stands to give them. That's the reason you and I are drawn to science. And I can see no reason to offer them anything less.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Hively, W., How Much Science Does the Public Understand? American Scientist, Vol. 76, No. 5, 1988, pp. 439-444.