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The united states by any conceivable measure has the finest scientists in the world. But the rest of the population, by any rational standard, is abysmally ignorant of science, mathematics and all things technical. That is the paradox of scientific elites and scientific illiterates: how can the same system of education that produced all those brilliant scientists also have produced all that ignorance?

The situation is not merely paradoxical; it’s downright perilous.We face an era that promises ever accelerating technological change in every aspect of our lives, while at the same time the very survival of our civilization may depend on our ability to make wise decisions about how to manage our resources, our climate and our conflicts. In the next century, we will need to be able to deal confidently with technical issues, and a responsible electorate will need to have some reasonable mastery of how the world works.

In these circumstances, an undergraduate major in science should be the best possible preparation for any serious profession. Or, put another way, the science major today should be what classical Greek and Latin were in the 19th century, and the liberal-arts major was in the 20th: the union card required to enter the professional world. Unfortunately, the science education we have in place to provide this union card could not be less suited to the task.

Science education in the United States today exists as a kind of mining and sorting operation, in which we, the existing scientists, cull through what comes our way, searching for diamonds in the rough that can be cleaned and cut and polished into glittering gems just like us. The rest are cast on the slag heap, left to fend for themselves with no basic understanding of the sciences. The paradox of elites and illiterates exists because our system of science education is designed to produce that result.

The problem starts in grade school, where few children ever come into personal contact with a scientifically trained person-including, unfortunately, their teachers. In most of the United States the only way you can graduate from college without taking a single science course is to major in elementary education. And, it is said, many people major in elementary education for precisely that reason. Our elementary school teachers are therefore not only ignorant of science; they are hostile to science. That hostility must, inevitably, rub off on the young people they teach.

A few years ago, I was on a committee to look into how well the “breadth” requirement-that all students take at least one course in science-was working at one University of California campus. We found that, of those students not majoring in a technical subject, 90 percent were satisfying the breadth requirement by taking a single biology course known informally among the students as “Human Sexuality.” Now, I don’t for an instant doubt that it was a useful and interesting course. It may even have tempted students to do hands-on experiments on their own time (a result we seldom achieve in physics). But I don’t think it constitutes a sufficient education in science for university graduates at the dawn of the 21st century.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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