Scientists tell us that our universe is made up of protons, electrons, neutrons, and morons. It's the latter I want to talk about.
Tonight comic host Jay Leno has a shtick where he quizzes people on the street.
Leno: „Where do you find chlorophyll?"
Joe Six-pack: "Probably in your toilet." (Correct answer: „In plants.")
A recent survey of American adults found that only 45% could define „DNA;" only 22% could define molecule; only 45% knew that lasers use light waves, not sound waves; only 48% knew that electrons are smaller than atoms; and only 48% knew it's not true that the earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs. As one observer put it: „Why shouldn't they answer that way? After all, they grew up watching the Flintstones on TV."
If it's any consolation, Americans did score higher on literacy tests than Europeans, Canadians and the highly touted Japanese. Still, this is hardly enough — for we still need to go overseas for help. On top of this, American higher education has become so costly that some of our youngsters are leaving the U.S. to get their education.
People need to know more about science and technology. For how else can we make decisions about cloning, genetically engineered food, competing medical claims and a host of other choices unless we have the knowledge? People get bombarded with claims by psychics and medical quacks, swamped with misinformation about issues that are debated vigorously in the political arena. If they don't have a sufficient background in science and technology, or apply critical thinking, they cannot be the kind of citizen our Founding Fathers had in mind.
There is no better starting point than with our school teachers. They must be taught properly before they can teach our children.
In the last decade, scientific literacy has grown from 10 percent in 1988 to 17 percent in 1999. In the next decade if this rises to 25 percent of all adults our country, we could have 50 million scientifically literate citizens. That would make a huge difference in the decisions our politicians make, and, to boot, we won't have too many people saying: E = MC whaaa?
Published in the 2002 November/December issue of the American Rationalist ©. Bernard Katz is Contributing Editor of The American Rationalist.
(Last change: 21-09-2003)