Nov. 9, 2017

The need for scientific literacy in a democracy

From Science for All Americans: Most Americans are not science-literate. One only has to look at the international studies of educational performance to see that U.S. students rank near the bottom in science and mathematics—hardly what one would expect if the schools were doing their job well. The most recent international mathematics study has reported, for instance, that U.S. students are well below the international level in problem solving, and the latest study of National Assessment of Educational Progress has found that despite some small recent gains, the average performance of 17-year-olds in 1986 remained substantially lower than it had been in 1969.

The United States should be able to do better. It is, after all, a prosperous nation that claims to value public education as the foundation of democracy. And it has deliberately staked its future well-being on its competence—even leadership—in science and technology. Surely it is reasonable, therefore, to expect this commitment to show up in the form of a modern, well-supported school system staffed by highly qualified teachers and administrators. And surely the curriculum in such schools should feature science, mathematics, and technology for all students. 

Education has no higher purpose than preparing people to lead personally fulfilling and responsible lives. For its part, science education—meaning education in science, mathematics, and technology—should help students to develop the understandings and habits of mind they need to become compassionate human beings able to think for themselves and to face life head on. It should equip them also to participate thoughtfully with fellow citizens in building and protecting a society that is open, decent, and vital. America's future—its ability to create a truly just society, to sustain its economic vitality, and to remain secure in a world torn by hostilities—depends more than ever on the character and quality of the education that the nation provides for all of its children.

There is more at stake, however, than individual self-fulfillment and the immediate national interest of the United States. The most serious problems that humans now face are global: unchecked population growth in many parts of the world, acid rain, the shrinking of tropical rain forests and other great sources of species diversity, the pollution of the environment, disease, social strife, the extreme inequities in the distribution of the earth's wealth, the huge investment of human intellect and scarce resources in preparing for and conducting war, the ominous shadow of nuclear holocaust—the list is long, and it is alarming.

What the future holds in store for individual human beings, the nation, and the world depends largely on the wisdom with which humans use science and technology. And that, in turn, depends on the character, distribution, and effectiveness of the education that people receive. Briefly put, the national council's argument is this:

Science, energetically pursued, can provide humanity with the knowledge of the biophysical environment and of social behavior needed to develop effective solutions to its global and local problems; without that knowledge, progress toward a safe world will be unnecessarily handicapped.

By emphasizing and explaining the dependency of living things on each other and on the physical environment, science fosters the kind of intelligent respect for nature that should inform decisions on the uses of technology; without that respect, we are in danger of recklessly destroying our life-support system.

Scientific habits of mind can help people in every walk of life to deal sensibly with problems that often involve evidence, quantitative considerations, logical arguments, and uncertainty; without the ability to think critically and independently, citizens are easy prey to dogmatists, flimflam artists, and purveyors of simple solutions to complex problems.

Technological principles relating to such topics as the nature of systems, the importance of feedback and control, the cost-benefit-risk relationship, and the inevitability of side effects give people a sound basis for assessing the use of new technologies and their implications for the environment and culture; without an understanding of those principles, people are unlikely to move beyond consideration of their own immediate self-interest.

Although many pressing global and local problems have technological origins, technology provides the tools for dealing with such problems, and the instruments for generating, through science, crucial new knowledge. Without the continuous development and creative use of new technologies, society may limit its capacity for survival and for working toward a world in which the human species is at peace with itself and its environment.

The life-enhancing potential of science and technology cannot be realized unless the public in general comes to understand science, mathematics, and technology and to acquire scientific habits of mind. Without a science-literate population, the outlook for a better world is not promising.

Science for All Americans by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Found online at: