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Rush Holt Science and Citizenship O UR CHALLENGE BEGINS W IT H A M E R IC A ’S AVERSIO N TO SCIENCE. I believe th at this aversion began to emerge after the application of the National Defense Education Act, which was created in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. Frightened by the prospect of being technically and scientifically outm atched by our rival, our governm ent set about producing a generation of scientists and engineers the likes of w hich the world had never seen. And we succeeded, to our great benefit. But there was an unintended conse­ quence. In encouraging the best and brightest students to pursue science and engineering and affording them opportunities to do so, we sent the other 80 percent of the population a message: “You are not am ong the best and brightest, so science and m athem atics is not for you.” It is as if there were a statem ent, perhaps in ink invisible to scien­ tists, at the bottom of the every page in science books that read “Do not tiy this at home. This is m eant only for experts.” The problem is, of course, that nonscientists could understand scientific thinking, and would understand it, if they were encouraged and expected to do so. Unintentionally, we created a situation w here 80 percent of our population was not taught not to think scientifically. The result today is that we are at risk of losing w hat makes America great: our Yankee ingenuity or good old American know-how. At one time, eveiy shopkeeper, every farmer, every m anufacturer was thinking about how things work, and how to m ake them better. They were thinking like scientists. Today our society is not illum inated by a scientific way of thinking. We are not asking questions in a way such that they can be answered empirically and verifiably. (I have not been able to come up w ith a better definition of science, by the way, for third graders or professional researchers, than this: science is a way of Roundtable Discussion 1037 asking questions that can be answered empirically and verifiably—so that you avoid fooling yourself and others.) We have lost our scientific way of thinking as a society and the benefits that we reap from this way of thinking are depleting as well. This problem is reflected in Congress, which is by design represen­ tative of America. Fewer than 1 percent of the Members of Congress are scientists, and as a result Members too have an aversion to science. By contrast, Members of Congress are not inhibited when it comes to speak­ ing on other issues in which they have no special expertise. Members of Congress speak intelligently and constructively on international affairs, economics, education, and transportation. However, w hen it comes to science, they are unwilling to speak. They actively avoid talking about science. They, too, state that we need to leave science to the experts. Though Members of Congress and their staffmay avoid science, the institution itself cannot. In fact, it is more difficult to identify a topic that contains no scientific or no technical aspect than to identify topics that do. And, even when so inclined, Members of Congress and their staff lack the time to analyze scientific and technological points. But Congress moves forward anyway, voting on technical or scientific issues nevertheless. Until the day comes w hen science is fully integrated into educa­ tion for all, and even M embers of Congress and congressional staff Members can deal with technical subjects, we will need special help for our legislation. Congress used to have an in-house professional office dedicated to providing technological assessm ent services know n as the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). From the OTA, Congress received regular reports in a legislatively relevant form on a myriad o f subjects, including agriculture, arms control, banking, com puter security and technology, economic developm ent, education, energy efficiency, the fishing industry, health and health technology, interna­ tional relations and technology transfer, natural disasters, oil, gas, and m ineral resources, and m any other areas. In 1995, in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1037-1041
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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