such people will represent a relatively small part of the nation’s employment base. The remainder of our citizenry will need to be sufficiently science-literate to survive and contribute in the high-technology world we are all entering. British novelist C.P. Snow used to delight in asking acquaintances whether they could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. When they failed, as they almost invariably did, he would point out that his question was the technologic equivalent of asking, Have you ever read any Shakespeare? In the same vein, Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, has observed that “scientific illiteracy is sometimes worn as a badge of pride. Most educated people would be ashamed to admit they didn’t know the difference between Hamlet and King Lear, but they might jovially brag that they don’t know a gene from a chromosome or relativity theory from the uncertainty principle.” Admittedly, not everyone needs to be a rocket scientist (most of them, incidentally, are engineers, not scientists!), but everyone will need at least to be functional in using basic mathematics and science and as familiar with a computer as their parents were with an automobile.
Engineers and scientists are, admittedly, not always particularly helpful in making that necessity a reality. Software programmers are notorious in this regard, having developed an entire “language space” of their own, speaking whole sentences without using anything but acronyms. In fact, most engineers don’t even know what words many of the common engineering acronyms they use, such as “laser” and “radar,” represent. Engineers design computers so that often we must click on “start” to turn them off. We must press the “All On” button to turn off our television set remotely. I adhere to the principle that normal people believe “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” whereas engineers believe “if it ain’t broke, it doesn’t have enough functions yet.” Whatever the case, this is life in the fast lane, the only lane in the world in which we live, and those who cannot keep up seem destined to become road-kill on the information highway.
Despite the unprecedented explosion of scientific knowledge that has occurred in recent decades and its pervasive impact on our lives, a 2004 National Science Board survey revealed that almost 30% of America’s adults do not know that Earth revolves around the sun, 22% do not know that the center of Earth is very hot, and over half do not know that electrons are smaller than atoms. Only half the population is aware that dinosaurs and humans never coexisted. Another poll indicated that at least 25% of American adults believe in astrology—no doubt more than believe in the principles of astronomy. And, according to a NASA survey, fully 15% of America’s adults do not believe that humans have gone to the moon.
The not-too-astounding conclusion of the National Academies competitiveness study is that in a knowledge age we will need people with knowledge. And we will need a few