Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Kristof's NY Times column on science literacy

Nicolas Kristof has an interesting column in today's NY Times (subscription required - it's that new Times Select thing). He makes a point that's been made before (as Kristof points out, most famously in C.P. Snow's famous "Two Cultures" essay), but it's worth making again because we're still facing this problem. Kristof says that much of our culture's scientific illiteracy stems not just from bad teaching, but also from our culture's profound bias towards education in the humanities. In our culture, you sound horribly uneducated if you've never read Hamlet or Plato, but nobody cares if you don't understand the difference between a gene and a chromosome, or if you can't say what a molecule is.

For some examples, you can look at the National Science Foundation's "Science and Engineering Indicators" report, which includes a section looking at the public's understanding of science. Here are a few of the results:
- <30% of Americans understand the term molecule
- only ~43% understand that lasers do not work by focusing sound waves
- 50% do not know that the earth goes around the sun once a year
- <50% know that humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time

[Added in edit: These stats remind me of one episode of the Tonight Show, where Leno went Jaywalking to a local college commencement. As the graduates walked off the stage, with their diplomas in hand, wearing cap and gown, Leno pulled some aside and asked them some really basic questions: how many moons does the earth have, what's three squared, how many times does the earth go around the sun, etc. And there were actually people who where way off - who the hell doesn't know that the earth has only one moon? Apparently some graduates of a community college in Burbank.]

There weren't many questions related to molecular biology, but I'm sure the numbers are just as dismal for biology questions, like what is the difference between a gene and a chromosome, do human or bacteria cells have nuclei, are proteins made of amino acids or nucleic acids, etc...

Kristof points out that our political leaders and the public are forced to confront science policy issues with major ethical ramifications, but how can they make sound judgments about say, genetic engineering of human embryos when they don't even know the basics about DNA?

As much as I love Shakespeare (and Joyce and Pynchon, and Aristotle and Kant, and on and on), my high school had us read way too much Shakespeare and learn much too little math. You had to have 4 years of English, but only two years of math and two years of science to graduate. This means that one could graduate from high school without any idea of what sine or cosine means, or what a limit, derivative or integral is (limits, etc.), and without any coverage of chemical bonds or basic Newtonian mechanics. On the other hand, graduates would have read Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear (although no Plato or Aristotle).

On top of the spotty high school science curriculum, college science courses for non-majors are not much better. At many schools, students can pick and choose a variety of survey courses whose content is quickly forgotten within a few years. These courses may not be the best way to foster scientific literacy.

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