Where We Wonder: Scientific Literacy In The 21st Century

A discussion with some scientific superstars about scientific knowledge today.

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Where We Wonder: Scientific Literacy In 21st Century
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Where We Wonder: Scientific Literacy In 21st Century

In a world where everything we do seems tied to science and technology, a quote like this is pretty scary:

Leon Botstein, the president of leading liberal arts college Bard, told the New York Times:

“The most terrifying problem in American university education is the profound lack of scientific literacy for the people we give diplomas to who are not scientists or engineers,”

“The hidden Achilles’ heel is that while we’ve found ways to educate scientists in the humanities, the reverse has never really happened. Everybody knows this, but nobody wants to do anything about it.”

Well, there are some people who want to do something about it...people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. What’s a benefit of scientific literacy to him? It “inoculates you against charlatanism.”

There’s a big benefit - the more you understand, the less chance you’ll have the wool pulled over your eyes by people like slick-talking politicians.

But here’s the funny thing...you want to arm yourself against scientific doublespeak from the political class? New Jersey Representative Rush Holt - himself a Princeton physicist - says of his colleagues:

“There are 435 people in the House and 420 don’t know much about science and choose not to.”

So today, a conversation about scientific literacy - with some of the leading thinkers in the field. We’ll talk about getting students more interested in the sciences - about how to talk with science “disbelievers” and how science impacts politics. 

***This episode was produced by Gabriel Sistare and originally aired on 9/22/11***



Stephanie, you are so right!

Stephanie, you are so right! I am a paraprofessioinal in an urban, inner high school. Considering the difficult lives many of our students face, it was surprising to me to learn that curiosity is very much still alive in high schoolers -- but it is often squelched by rote lab proceedures and boring memorization.

I took several workshops in using the inquiry method for science. It's definately the way to teach science, if not every subject. But, it requires more teacher training and preparation; and smaller class sizes would be helpful, too.

Great Show!

What a fantastic topic! I received a Bachelor of Arts degree over 20 years ago and worked in education since then. But over the past year and a half, I have become hungry for more science in my life. My job allows me to sometimes sit in on in high school science classes, which I truly enjoy no matter what the topic -- and I have time in my life for lots of independent study. I am trying to learn how to identify trees at the moment. So I am loving science right now!

Listener email from Melissa

I am very glad to hear your wonderful guest, he is an inspiration for families who want to have their children experiment and love learning about their world.

I have 2 children in elementary school and wonder if our teachers are prepared to teach children how to develop their scientific thinking, and it seems as if the teachers are not comfortable with the math and sciences.

Listener email from Mark

First, I love the comment that Science is observation, not recitation. This plays well into discussions about non-science entering into the classroom:


I note that the conversation here has devolved into this Religion versus Science conversation. And with respect to politics, this is where science is ignored.

Listener email from Lyle

How do you think what you are saying applies to the social sciences- economics, political science, sociology? Is social science subject to the same principles of understanding and knowing?

Listener email from Stephanie

My observation with science in schools, having one child in 6th grade and one in 10th, is that schools focus too much on goals, achievement, and rules, and usually have very scripted "experiments".
Scientific curiosity is fostered by experimentation as a perceptual exploration where the discovery of new things is the only goal. Our schools are so focused on goals and achievement that the formal scientific method is often stressed to the extent that it kills the scientific exploration. It's certainly important that the scientific method be taught, but there needs to be much more hands on, messy work. The balance in teaching science to children should be tilted far to the side of experiencing and experimenting, with limited reviews and discussions to point out how we may make incorrect assumptions, and how to find good conclusions. The enjoyment of the exploration is killed when it is too strictly controlled.

We might do better if science were taught as a perceptual activity rather than a goal oriented activity, at least through the sixth grade, or up to the high school level.

Listener email from Bill

It always strikes me as funny when Religious Right politicians push free market economics and then say they don't believe in natural selection. Tell me the difference.

Listener email from Chris

I think science is avoided by science because the way that it is taught in high school and college. Professors tend to be elitist and approach grading in a weed out manner. Science courses rarely promote the discussion and exploration encouraged in humanities. What do your guest think?