Scientists and Education

Speaking at a Ciba Foundation symposium in London some years ago, Alvin Weinberg talked of the dangers that can arise when a highly technical issue such as nuclear reactor safety is subject to frenetic public debate. "There develops an escalation of contingency," the then-director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory said. "

By | October 20, 1986

Speaking at a Ciba Foundation symposium in London some years ago, Alvin Weinberg talked of the dangers that can arise when a highly technical issue such as nuclear reactor safety is subject to frenetic public debate. "There develops an escalation of contingency," the then-director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory said. "Each unlikely event connected with a reactor, once it becomes a matter of public discussion, seems to acquire a plausibility that goes much beyond what was originally intended. In consequence, re actors now, at least in the U.S.A., are loaded down with safety system after safety system. The safety and emergency systems dominate the whole technology."

Many scientists would have backed up these remarks with strong words about the damaging effect of public antipathy on the vigorous development of science and technology. Weinberg did not. Instead, he went out of his way to extol the American climate of open debate in preference to the situation
in the Soviet Union, "where reactors, until recently, had no containment shells, no emergency core cooling systems, no pressure suppression systems." Weinberg attributed this extraordinary disparity to "the difference in the degree of access of the public to the technological debate" and concluded by insisting that "in a democratic society, the public's right of access to the debate is as great as the public demands it to be."

Those words should be remembered each working day by professional scientists everywhere. Because whatever the practical frustrations caused, directly or indirectly, by public apprehension over such developments as genetic manipulation and nuclear power generation, it is right that these issues
are fully and democratically debated. But there is an important rider to this view: If the community at large is to influence science policy-making and regulation in a prudent fashion, it must be a technically literate community. And this is far from being true today. Indeed, the most worrisome long- and medium-term problem now confronting science worldwide is that public controversy over scientific issues has moved way ahead of general understanding.

A century ago-even 50 years past-no such mismatch existed, and a comparatively monastic science could go its own way untroubled by the "outside" world. Today, public and personal issues involving science come thick and fast, making scientific literacy a prime requisite for citizenship. The need for animal experimentation, for example, or the merits of the latest cult diet can-not be sensibly debated without an under-standing of elementary physiology. Likewise, it is impossible to discuss the benefits and dangers associated with new pharmaceuticals, or those stemming from the use of hormones in animal husbandry, without a nodding acquaintance with basic ideas such as probability and causality. Al-though these are habits of thought for scientists, they are far from universally familiar. What we actually see virtually every time a scientific question enters the public arena is widespread concern allied with widespread ignorance.

Whether scientists recognize it or, not, therefore, they have an urgent interest in the quality and content of school science teaching. Elementary science education does in fact hold one of the most important keys to the future vitality of professional science. Consider, for example, the furor over hypothetical dangers arising from recombinant DNA manipulation. Some months ago, I at-tended a Dahlem conference in Berlin where 50 biologists in this rapidly burgeoning speciality were corralled together for five days. Peculiarly knowledgeable, the majority of them were conspicuously eager to open up for wider public assessment not only their enthusiasms but also their apprehensions about possible hazards. Other than in the vaguest terms, however, they were highly reluctant to ventilate specific concerns.

The reason was simple: most of the Dahlem participants were uneasy about the social milieu into which they would be delivering any such comments. A scientist today who openly questions potentially unwise or dangerous applications of a novel science is likely to be either pounced upon as an ally in the struggle against technocracy or vilified as its living embodiment. He or she will at least be misunderstood, such is the extent of scientific illiteracy in the general population. Many people know, for example, that radioactivity is a creation of feckless physicists, rather than a natural phenomenon.
They know that it could and should be entirely abolished.

So it is not easy to publicize honest doubts. Consider the dilemma of a virologist who supports the idea of releasing genetically engineered organisms into the environment for pest control, metal leaching and similar benefits, but who has anxieties about one specific proposal.

Societal reaction against novel technology is not the only factor that underlines the case for much greater scientific literacy among the population at large, including its politicians. Despite the SDI bonanza, re searchers in most Western countries are be-coming increasingly concerned that their governments are neglecting the vital importance of support for long-term, fundamental science. In Britain, which now has an ad-ministration that applauds the entrepreneurial spirit in industry while simultaneously cutting back on the basic research that provides seedcorn for the future, two committees of inquiry convened by the Royal Society have been at work on the ailing health of fundamental science. But again, the case for what seems to be a luxury-especially in straitened times for the economy-is not easy to make when ignorance of the real essence of science extends to the very top in politics.

Of course, moves to improve scientific education and to make it more relevant to today's highly technological society would not provide a universal solution for all the problems we face. There is even a danger that more information, better understood, will provoke dissent rather than engender harmony. But by helping people comprehend scientific concepts (and be critical about bogus claims) such efforts would transform the quality of public debate about the applications of science. And that is what all scientists, individually and through their institutions, should be encouraging. The need is urgent.

A microbiologist by training, Bernard Dixon is European editor of THE SCIENTIST.

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