Getting the Facts Straight About Science
I had a lot of misconceptions about scientists when I was a kid.
Like about Thomas Edison. My teacher told us one day that the world would have been a very different place if Edison had not invented the light bulb. The electric light didn't seem like such a big deal to me, however. After all, we could still watch television by candlelight.
I got confused about Archimedes, too. He was the guy who went running naked through the streets of Athens shouting "Eureka!" after he sat in a bathtub and discovered that his body pushed out some of the water. All I could think of when I learned about old Archimedes was that if I'd spilled water all over my bathroom floor, my mother would have shouted and it wouldn't have been "Eureka!" I didn't even want to think about running naked through the streets of Philadelphia.
In fact, the only scientist who I really appreciated was the great Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei. I loved his name. I imagined having a first and last name myself that sounded so much alike, like Cosby Cosbei. That would have sounded cool on the basketball court.
What makes me remember these experiences is that May 12–18 is National Science Week, and I'm afraid that a lot of American kids have the same mistaken notions about science and scientists that I did when I was in school.
There is an unfortunate image of scientists as old guys in white coats who putter around laboratories saying things like: "Where did I put my data?" The fact is, however, that scientists are men and women of all ages who are doing some truly fascinating things.
We all know about astronauts, of course. But scientists also are searching for cures for cancer, sickle cell anemia and other illnesses. They are improving methods for detecting air and water pollution, understanding how to deal with toxic waste dumps and spotting new environmental problems like acid rain. They are developing new energy devices like solar-powered electric cells.
Scientists also are seeking new ways to ease hunger and disease in Africa and other parts of the developing world. For example, they have begun using genetic engineering and
other new techniques to develop better seeds and farming systems so Africans can grow enough food even during a drought. Biologists are working on vaccines for malaria, sleeping sickness and some of the other diseases that kill millions of Africans each year.
All this is interesting and it's worthwhile, too. Scientists may not wear sequined gloves or play Sunday doubleheaders, but young people should recognize that a career in science can be exciting. Scientists send rockets to study the planets and climb into tiny submarines to learn about the spreading ocean floor. They race to erupting volcanoes, fly into hurricanes and are among the first ones called when some strange disease strikes a community.
The spread of computers has turned on a lot of young Americans to the fact that science can be interesting, worthwhile and a good way to make a living. Science also provides the understanding needed to create new jobs and industries and keep our country competitive economically.
Nonetheless, many young people either have not gotten the message or else remain unconvinced. One reason is that kids are not exposed to science enough. The average American elementary school student studies science for just 25 minutes per day, and most of that time is spent reading from textbooks rather than doing experiments. Students typically learn about plant growth and other life sciences, but get little training in such interesting subjects as chemistry or physics.
The situation gets worse in the higher grades. Many of our country's high school students do not study physics, chemistry, biology or astronomy at all these days. This contrasts sharply with the situation in Japan and Western Europe, where high school students generally receive much more extensive instruction in science.
Schools across the United States have become aware of this problem and are trying to improve their instruction of math and science. But the schools cannot do it all. Parents need to show kids how exciting science is by taking them to museums, zoos, universities and farms. Airlines, factories and other businesses should invite students to see science and engineering in action.
National Science Week offers a special opportunity for these kinds of activities. Schools, businesses, community groups and other organizations across the country are sponsoring science fairs, exhibits, tours and other events to increase public understanding of science and technology. The events have been organized by the National Science Foundation, private companies, professional societies, educators and others.
Parents and students should take advantage of these events. But we also need to encourage our young people to pursue science year-round. After all, they are the ones who will have to make the new discoveries and design the future. They need to learn, as Thomas Edison might have put it, that science is fun; there's nothing that can hold a candle to it.
May 12, 1985
Bill Cosby, star of "The Bill Cosby Show," holds a Ph.D. in education. He served on a commission that studied pre-college education for the National Science Board, the policy-making body of the National Science Foundation.
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Who Killed Yankee Ingenuity?
Steven L. Goldman
What do "Back to the Future III," "Gremlins 2: The New Batch" and ''Robocop 2'' have in common, besides being movie sequels? Like their own predecessors, like "Die Hard 2" and "Total Recall," and like many other recent popular films, they offer hostile or distorted images of scientists, engineers and technology.
"E.T.," for example, triggered a series of films in which scientists are depicted as heartless, or so committed to solving a technical problem as to be blind to its moral implications. Among these films were "Splash," "Iceman,'' "Baby," ''Project X" and "The Manhattan Project." One wonders how many of the tens of millions of young viewers were inspired to pursue a career in science by the spectacle of scientists determined to dissect or otherwise abuse such lovable creatures as E.T., a beautiful mermaid, a revived neolithic man, a baby dinosaur and highly intelligent chimpanzees.
The Disney studio has a long history of depicting scientists as genial bumbling fools, and this continued with the father in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." But the critical edge was much sharper in the depiction of the insufferable, compulsive physicist father in "Parenthood."
Technology frequently appears in films as a means of extending corporate, military or political power regardless of its impact on people or nature. In "Robocop" and "Robocop 2," for example, corporate greed controls technological innovation. In "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," corporate manipulation of a U.S. senator ruins Tucker for having developed a superior automobile. In "Total Recall," corporate control of the planet Mars is an amoral tyranny sanctioned by the government on Earth because of the military applications of the alloys the corporation manufactures.
In "The Mosquito Coast," the engineer hero is a neurotically self-centered genius who wants to impose "straight lines and right angles" on a "curved" Nature. His technical triumphs prove temporary, but the damage he inflicts on his wife and children, on forest and river, is lasting. Similarly, the heros of "The Conversation" and "The China Syndrome" are engineers who, for a long time, deny moral responsibility for the applications of their expertise. And both men turn out to be fatally inadequate to correcting the wrongs they suddenly discover they are abetting.
In "The Emerald Forest," technology—in the form of an American-built dam complex on the Amazon River—unbalances the relations between two primitive jungle tribes. The crisis that develops is resolved by destroying technology, thereby restoring the natural balance.
In the "Star Wars" trilogy—which, like "E.T.," played to huge audiences around the world—it is the Evil Empire that possesses the superior technology. The rebels win because they are morally worthy of tapping into the spiritual power of the Force.
Technological wizardry is ultimately irrelevant in "Batman" and in all of the James Bond films, too. Bond and Bruce Wayne triumph because of their heart, strength, courage and commitment to the right. In the two "Die Hard" films, the hero repeatedly expresses disdain for technology, while the whole point of ''The Terminator" was the ability of a naked human being to defeat the ultimate assassin: an intelligent, virtually indestructible robot.
How could a culture that for so long has prided itself on its technical ingenuity, and has for more than 40 years supported science and technology with public funds on a massive scale, so patently enjoy seeing science and technology depicted so negatively?
More to the point, if the United States is to maintain, let alone improve, its standard of living, it must improve its industrial competitiveness. Doing so will require a greater role for science and engineering in corporate and governmental decision making, as well as more scientists and engineers in industry and academe. Where are these new professionals to come from? What is to motivate students to make the course choices in high school that will keep open the door to careers in science and engineering?
No one expects movies to promote the educational, or the vocational, needs of society. Movies are entertainment. But the themes to which large audiences respond by their ticket-buying and video-renting decisions are symptomatic of prevailing values. Unless these change, audiences will continue to jeer evil technologists while our technical expertise, and with it our prosperity, fades further into our national history.
August 5, 1990
Steven L. Goldman is the Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Lehigh University.
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On an Antidote for Science Phobia
I had a revelation recently as I was watching a pro football game. At one point the announcer went about diagramming a just-completed play. It was a real doozy and I had a hard time following what all those X's, O's and arrows were up to. But, trying my damnedest to keep up, I did, along with millions of other fans.
As I looked at the diagrammed play on the electronic chalkboard, it came to me suddenly that all those X's and O's looked very much like the pictures produced when nuclear particles are made to collide in atom smashers.
Now imagine if TV viewers were somehow suddenly confronted with a blow-by-blow analysis of particle collisions in accelerators. The collective channel clicks would register eight or higher on the Richter scale.
When it comes to science, many smart, achieving, curious and otherwise accomplished folk come down with a case of synaptic shutoff. Here we are living in what is truly an astonishing era in human history, a dazzling epoch of scientific and technological achievement—mere prelude to marvels yet undreamed of—and many of its beneficiaries are indifferent to, if not altogether bored by, the very enterprise that brought us to this most exalted station.
Confront a science phobic and he or she may argue, "Absolutely not true." Some will swear that they adore science. After all, they'll say, they devour their newspaper's weekly science section. They never miss Carl Sagan on the tube. My argument is that it's not science they're reveling in, but the products of science—new technologies, new cures, new answers to life's woes and enigmas.
Most of these folks, I would contend, show little curiosity about science itself—about what scientists do, about how they conduct their investigations. The results are great, but the arduous journeys required to get there seem to be of little interest.
This widespread aversion to science comes from Americans' not knowing the complete story about how science actually happens. In football we know a lot about the rules of the game—the process—and also about the players' lives: their salaries, their off-field exploits, their drug habits.
That's hardly the case with science. By and large what the public has gotten is a mythic view of science along with a scientist-as-demigod iconography. The emphasis is on the products of the magic box, not on the process that leads to the creation of those products. Put another way: The public gets little of the X's and O's and arrows and very few three-dimensional glimpses of the players. It gets merely the scores. And that, inevitably, breeds alienation, incomprehension and fear.
As a science writer I discovered rather late in my career how flawed this perception really is. As I spent more and more time in the laboratory watching scientists do their thing I discovered that not all of them were geniuses. Some were mediocre or just plain inept. Many, even the best of them, were often wrong. As Newton is my witness, I have seen scientists manifest foolishness, arrogance, jealousy, vengefulness, ambition, envy, egotism, territoriality—and, heaven forfend, even out-and-out dishonesty.
Human qualities don't just disappear with the donning of a lab coat, but they seldom surface in descriptions of contemporary science. Oh, once in a rare while, events force us to get a glimpse of them. Witness the story of human failings—and courage—that came to light in the wake of the Challenger tragedy. However, under normal conditions the human dimension is usually absent.
None of this is meant to diminish the glory that is science. On the contrary, I would contend that if the human element were a more normal part of the telling about science, then science itself would prove far more tantalizing and attractive and its practitioners much less priestly and remote.
From whence sprang this mythic perception of science and scientists? The major perpetrators, I think, are our schools, which teach science in a way that treats learning and fun as being mutually exclusive. Also, some scientists have been content with keeping the public in a mystified thrall, and
those of us who report on science have tended to cover scientists with "gee whiz" awe and kid-gloves respect. This only sustains the myths that foster fear amongst the populace.
Those of us who care about science need to share with the rest of the public our well-kept secret that it is very much a human endeavor, practiced by flesh-and-blood folk. By humanizing science we can ease our country's science phobia.
November 22, 1988
Ben Patrusky, a science writer and communications consultant, is executive director of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. This article is adapted from a longer version that appeared in Issues in Science and Technology.
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Physics for Poets, Science for Society
Leon M. Lederman
National surveys assure us that public understanding of science has never been poorer while our national need for a scientifically literate public has never been greater. We are faced with an endless array of issues—AIDS, pesticides, ecological Armageddon, space stations and Stealth bombers—that are inextricably entwined with science and technology. How are we to manage these issues if we do not understand them?
Scientists and science communicators must do more to enhance "science literacy" among their fellow Americans through books, television programs, museums and, perhaps most productively, our nation's schools and colleges.
I recently retired as director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. Fermilab is a dynamic laboratory, operating the world's most powerful particle accelerator. My years there were fruitful and, about a year ago, I was offered a third five-year term as director. I could have looked forward to a scientific bonanza from our new superconducting accelerator, the Tevatron. It took us ten years to build this machine, and now I could let young experimenters develop the physics results while I basked in a reasonable glow of reflected glory.
Instead, as I looked around at the problems our country faces, I became convinced that there is a call as challenging and perhaps more pressing than the cutting edge of physics research. I accepted an offer to teach a "Physics for Poets" class at the University of Chicago, which I began this semester. Physics for Poets is an alternative to other courses, such as "Rocks for Jocks" in geology, that liberal arts students can select to satisfy their science requirement.
My decision was personal, but I do think it illustrates the deep concern that many scientists feel about the importance of enhancing the capacity of the American public to deal effectively with the threat of planetary environmental catastrophe and other problems involving science and technology.
It is simply unacceptable that so many students come out of college as innocent of science as when they entered. Our society must have citizens comfortable enough with science to participate in decisions that will ensure our safe passage into the 21st century. By the same token, many of our students who do study science need a richer appreciation of the social sciences and humanities. They must do better in communications and be more aware of the ethical dimensions of their work.
This gap must be bridged and I want to help. There is a selfish component to my decision, since the only way for a person of my generation to hang onto a remnant of the clarity of perception characteristic of the young is to seek out young people and teach them. Yet I also know how important it is for future politicians, newspaper editors, judges
and voting citizens to feel comfortable with scientific concepts.
Before coming to Fermilab, I was a student and professor at Columbia University for 32 years. The chairman of the physics department there, the great I.I. Rabi, insisted on strong teaching as well as outstanding research. I began my own teaching with "Physics for Nurses" and evolved to teach general physics for science students and advanced courses for physics majors.
Finally, I got the job of teaching physics to liberal arts students in the same kind of class that I am now teaching at the University of Chicago. The students were intellectually lively; one equation would make their eyes glaze. I had to prepare each lecture meticulously, asking myself what I wanted them to recall in their later lives.
Today, I am convinced that we will not have effective political decisions unless our leaders and the voting public can better cope with scientific and technological concepts. The university is one good place to start. There is nothing that compares to the hot action of seeking simplicity and order in the sub-nuclear jungle, but I look forward to contributing to the Herculean task of forming a new academic coalition to redefine the requirements of a 21st century college graduate.
A scientifically educated citizenry and a concerned scientific community cannot remain just a desirable goal for our country. Increasingly, as we face technological accidents of global scope, the hole in the ozone layer, the terrifying global warming trend and so many other issues, it is becoming the price of our collective survival.
October 15, 1989
Leon M. Lederman, Director Emeritus of Fermilab, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He was co-winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics.
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Making Sense of a Risk-Filled World
The Alaskan oil spill has faded from the headlines and flowed to our subconscious as further proof of the perils of modern life. it resides there beside Chernobyl, Bhopal, the Challenger, Three Mile Island and other disasters.
Our world often appears to be a dangerous place. We are bombarded with warnings about chemical residues on our foods, radon in our basements and dozens of other hazards. Yet we also enjoy longer and healthier lives than our grandparents. So how is one to interpret all of these alarms and decide where action really is needed?
That is a dilemma not only for average citizens who hear about risks in their daily lives, but also for the scientists, engineers and public officials who must help the public assess the risks associated with everything from nuclear reactors to food additives.
An expert committee of the National Research Council, which I chaired, recently found that many of these technologists are frustrated in communicating their views on risk. Go to their conventions and you will find sessions on "Explaining [topic of the meeting] to the public." Listen and you will hear them discuss in baffled tones why so many of their fellow Americans get enraged over some threats that are statistically small while remaining nonchalant about other dangers that are demonstrably—to technologists—more serious.
Americans on both sides of the technical fence have a problem with "risk communication," and it is due largely to several widely held misconceptions.
The first of these is that disputes over risk are always about facts. Many technologists believe the public would agree with them if only it would stop complaining and get educated. These experts view opposition to their recommendations as proof that people are not getting the message,
whether because of inattention, the complexity of the subject or some other reason.
The problem with this view is that many disputes are not about facts at all. They are about values. People simply may disagree with an industry or public agency about the relative importance of jobs, energy, safety or a pristine environment. Arguing over the details in such a dispute, as so often occurs, is unlikely to resolve these differences.
A related misconception is that improved communication alone can eliminate conflicts like these. Wrong again. Although better communication certainly is desirable, it may cause people to solidify their position if it clarifies the differences in their underlying values.
Still another misconception—and one of the most widely held—is that a major part of the problem is journalists who sensationalize events to sell papers and boost ratings. This sometimes does occur, but journalists are essentially intermediaries, transmitting the messages of others. They cannot be blamed when those messages contain bad news or are poorly constructed.
Both technologists and the public need to stop thinking of risk communication as a process in which learned experts issue information to a placid audience. Instead, it must become a two-way street in which all sides genuinely interact. That is easier said than done, of course; any parent, child, employer or employee knows that real listening is difficult. Yet only through such exchanges can people get beyond the flood of numbers to the underlying values.
To make this happen, the public should demand better performance by government and industry leaders. When these leaders meet with reporters to discuss a potential hazard, they have a responsibility to present the facts—and the uncertainties—in a way people can understand. Clear communication cannot be regarded as a frill to the "real business" of technical competence. It is not only the public that needs complete and understandable information, but presidents, governors and other senior officials who may lack technical training.
The public also has a right to honesty. Government officials are servants of the people, and they should tell the
truth without sugar-coating or putting a "spin" on it. Honesty is the prerequisite not just to credibility, but also to making decisions on the basis of facts and public values rather than on ideology.
It serves no one well for technologists to complain endlessly about the public's lack of technical training or for average citizens to feel they are being treated in a condescending manner. Experts and non-experts must work together if we Americans are to begin making better sense of our technological society.
November 12, 1989
John Ahearne is executive director of the scientific research society Sigma Xi.
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Making the Link Between Science and Politics
Thomas H. Kean
My experience as governor of New Jersey has convinced me of a growing split in our country between policy decisions and rational scientific thought at a time when the problems facing us have become overwhelming in their complexity.
Whether the subject is pollution, health care or industrial revitalization, we politicians need the help of the scientific community more than ever before. Our problem is not a lack of information—we are drowning in data. What we need is for scientists to overcome their traditional aversion to politics and help us make decisions more wisely.
Too often, the "experts" who now come forward are pseudo-
scientists. They are otherwise intelligent people who believe their Ph.D.'s in English or education make them PDQ: pretty darned qualified to explain the subtleties of science to the public. They are dentists and accountants who hold up their ''advanced degrees" as they call for an immediate stop to this or increased funding for that, all in the name of science. They play to the six-second sound bite, and they do it well: Their brand of "yellow science" is remarkably effective in energizing people and motivating politicians.
The result is often what the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Frank Young, has called "risk assessment by media." This is no way to decide public policy. If we politicians are to separate the serious from the spurious, we must have competent scientific help.
Unfortunately, too many scientists consider elected officials to be lower forms of life—missing links in the evolutionary chain. These scientists prefer to work on their own worthwhile research rather than wade into the political mud. Of course, many scientists do share their expertise with policymakers, but their numbers are too few to meet our needs.
I am not advocating the Morton Downeyization of science. I don't expect to see Nobel laureates on daytime television hectoring Geraldo or opening up to Oprah. But scientists must make themselves more available to the public. They should attend fewer faculty meetings and more town meetings. They must appear not only on Nova, but on the nightly news. An educated public is the secret to our common survival. Science itself has a term for those who are too old or too slow to learn: extinct.
As they become more involved, scientists must take care not to scare the public with dire predictions based on time frames that are short for scientists but long for the general public. Warnings of Saharas in the Dakotas or beachfront property in Dubuque lose their impact if they fail to happen quickly. California has yet to slip off into the Pacific, and that has put public trust in scientific prediction on shaky ground. Scientists must always keep their audience in mind and give it specific, realistic recommendations.
Beyond helping public officials and reaching out to the
public, more scientists should consider leaving the halls of science to work in the halls of Congress. This great industrial society is represented in its federal and state legislatures by hundreds of lawyers—but only a handful of chemists, biologists, engineers and others with technical training. America needs people with scientific expertise to throw their hats—and their lab coats—into the political ring to help make sound decisions about the environment, space policy, agriculture and other critical subjects.
By raising their level of involvement in these ways, scientists can help rid society of important misconceptions about what society can and cannot expect science to accomplish. In the past, science has spoiled us with its success. Time and again, it has found the silver bullet that can cure whatever ills society faces. But we cannot continue to create messes, counting on science to clean up after us.
Times have changed, and we must change with them. It is no longer acceptable for a governor to duck a tough decision by saying, ''I'm a politician, not a scientist." For the good of our children, governors must know about both politics and science—and scientists must, too. In these days of complex problems and high-tech solutions, it is essential that those who understand the laws of nature be more involved in the making of the laws of man.
July 30, 1989
Thomas H. Kean is governor of New Jersey. This article is adapted from a speech he gave at the National Academy of Sciences.
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