Project 2061: A Place To Start Educating The Public

Handwringing over "scientific illiteracy" in the United States is at an all-time high. Recent studies of science achievement place U.S. students below students in most other industrial countries, and surveys of U.S. adults reveal that few seem to understand even the most common scientific terms and concepts. Pundits forecast dire consequences of this illiteracy for our nation, ranging from declining economic competitiveness to weakening democratic institutions: Industrialists struggle

Key Dismukes
Aug 6, 1989
Handwringing over "scientific illiteracy" in the United States is at an all-time high. Recent studies of science achievement place U.S. students below students in most other industrial countries, and surveys of U.S. adults reveal that few seem to understand even the most common scientific terms and concepts.

Pundits forecast dire consequences of this illiteracy for our nation, ranging from declining economic competitiveness to weakening democratic institutions: Industrialists struggle to find workers able to handle increasingly technical jobs; scientists fear a shortage of qualified students and loss of U.S. preeminence in science and engineering; congressmen fret over how to develop consensus for rational policies about AIDS, "Star Wars," environmental hazards, airline safety, and a host of other complicated conundrums poorly understood by the public.

Scientists also see a connection to other alarming trends. A startlingly high percentage of U.S. citizens cheerfully believe astrologers, psychics, and persons claiming to have traveled in UFOs. (A Nashville, Tenn., city councilperson recently proposed building a landing pad for UFOs!). Individuals and organizations spend large sums on quack medical cures, educational programs, self-improvement courses, and other nostrums based on egregiously unscientific theories.

Some argue that we need a crash program, like the one launched after the shock of Sputnik in 1957, to infuse more science teaching into our schools and universities. However, simply doing more of what we do now would be a serious mistake. Our current approach fails not because we teach too little science, but because we so often teach it badly.

In particular, courses for students who do not pursue careers in science or engineering are organized with the wrong aims. We drill students on details they will not use, on facts they will not remember outside the classroom, and on problems they will never again be forced to solve. And we fail to address concepts essential for citizens who wish to understand public issues in science and technology. The traditional approach contributes to the perception of many students that science is boring and esoteric, with little relevance to personal life.

What does the well-informed citizen really need to know about science? It is unrealistic to think that we can teach enough science for citizens to analyze technical issues personally in all the public controversies that affect their lives. Modem science is so specialized that scientists themselves seldom have a deep grasp of issues outside their own specialties. The public is frequently confronted with controversies in which technical experts disagree. For example, how easy is it for Congress to resolve conflicting claims over "cold" fusion in deciding whether to earmark funds for this topic?

What citizens really need is a way to assess what experts—real or self-proclaimed—say and whether it is the whole story. A productive educational approach to this goal would be to de-emphasize the content of particular scientific fields in favor of teaching more general concepts and thinking skills that laypersons can use to evaluate complex issues—including, but not limited to, science. Such a curriculum would provide a set of analytic skills that transcends any one scientific issue, providing a foundation for reasoning about many areas of human concern.

A host of studies over the past decade have dissected the failings of U.S. primary and secondary schools, especially in the teaching of science. Project 2061, however, conducted by the National Council on Science and Technology Education under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, takes a new and refreshing look at the problem of science education.

A recent report from Project 2061 argues that traditional teaching and textbooks actually impede learning with approaches that are inimical to the spirit of science. Answers are emphasized over questions, memorization preempts critical thinking, and reading and recitation are too often substituted for discovery and argument.

Project 2061 lays out an approach in which the amount of technical detail taught in grades 1 to 12 would be reduced substantially. Ideas and thinking skills would be emphasized over vocabulary and memorization. The commonalities among scientific disciplines and the connection among science, mathematics, technology, and society would be stressed.

The Project 2061 report practices what it preaches. Well written and well conceived, it is a concise synopsis of what citizens should know about science and its interaction with society. Technical disciplines are blended into chapters on the physical setting, the living environment, the human organism, human society, the designed world, and the mathematical world. It provides an excellent perspective on the spirit of science, how scientists think, what they value, and how they struggle toward consensus. The report also presents a pragmatic agenda for bringing together the many parties—teachers, school administrators, state and federal agencies, and scientific societies-required to reform public school teaching of science.

But we should pay comparable attention to a related topic not addressed by Project 2061: The teaching of science to college students who do not major in science or engineering is in some ways as flawed as pre-college instruction.

How can this be? Unlike many primary and secondary school teachers, most university faculty are thoroughly trained in their technical disciplines and do not labor under crushing teaching loads. In fact, universities justify having become predominantly institutions for research partly on the rationale that faculty who are active in research are more knowledgeable and effective as teachers.

Our universities do train scientists and engineers quite well, but most university courses poorly address the needs of students who major in other fields. The typical survey courses required of liberal arts majors are more concerned with providing a systematic overview of a scientific discipline than with conveying the perspectives and thinking skills that students will be able to use in their own lives. Conversations with college-educated nonscientists often reveal confusion over what credence to give newly announced discoveries, theories, and-applications of theories that may or may not have a solid scientific basis.

Courses for non-science majors should explicitly address the character of science, its unstated values and assumptions, similarities to and differences from other forms of intellectual activity, and the social and human aspects of scientific practice. These aspects are not adequately conveyed just by teaching the subject matter and methods of a particular discipline. For example, all students should learn that the utility of a scientific theory hinges not just on how well it accounts for a select set of data, but also on how well it predicts new observations and whether it can be falsified experimentally.

Students should also learn that validation in science involves an extensive social process involving publication, peer review, replication, and aggressive pursuit of alternate explanations. It should be made clear that modem scientists rarely work in isolation, and that "breakthroughs" are the culmination of the work of many research teams over a period of years. And the objective of all scientists, even those espousing the most radical of theories, is evolution of consensus among the scientific community.

Well-educated citizens need to have some idea of what constitutes a credible set of scientific credentials and of the limits on expertise imposed by the intense specialization of modem science. They should be exposed to the interactions of science, technology, and society and especially to the difficulties in extrapolating from controlled laboratory experiments to the uncontrolled real world.

What citizens—and their elected representatives—most need in order to evaluate technical aspects of social issues are reasoning skills that are not unique to science. Education should prepare people to assess arguments and assertions critically and to distinguish the weak from the strong. That assessment involves asking questions such as: Are the data and premises on which an argument is made stated explicitly, and are they closely related to the argument? Are the data treated selectively? Do the data lead unambiguously to the conclusion offered? Is a distinction made between necessary and sufficient conditions?

Reasoning skills can be taught as a separate course or incorporated into other courses. But in either case instructors should realize that without special care students are unlikely to transfer what they learn in the classroom to practice in their own lives. In particular, students do not readily generalize the reasoning used in a laboratory experiment to the issues of daily life.

Reasoning skills must be taught explicitly because they are not entirely natural to us. Humans have a natural tendency to confirm what they know, to overlook disconfirming evidence, to be selective in seeking data and arguments, and to rely excessively on anecdotes as sources of evidence. Furthermore, psychological research shows that even scientists and other experts sometimes make inference errors in drawing conclusions in their own fields. Laypersons and experts alike, when reasoning under conditions of uncertainty, tend to use what have been called judgment heuristics. The heuristics are useful because they provide rapid access to previous experience, but they are dangerous because in some situations they lead to conclusions in conflict with, formal logic and statistics.

Beginning with C.P. Snow, many observers have worried about a society whose citizens poorly understand the science and technology that shape their world so pervasively. We argue that science would be conveyed more effectively by a new approach grounded in the development of analytic skills that science shares with other professions. Those skills have considerable value for everyone as tools for living.

Key Dismukes is chief, Aerospace Human Factors Research Division, NASA-Ames Research Center, Menlo Park, Calf.; John Jonides is professor of psychology and associate dean for research at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.