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...

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