“Car Talk” and “Science-Speak”: The Importance of Standards for a Country Losing Ground in Scientific Leadership

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by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

During a recent edition of “Car Talk” on National Public Radio, I learned an amazing little fact about America’s automobiles.  No matter their make or model, all cars manufactured in the United States share a single common measurement as an industry standard.  It is the distance between two points on each and every vehicle.  Can you guess what this is?

Give up?  It’s the distance between the holes in license plates where they attach to the automobile.

Of course, such a standard is needed to avoid pandemonium.  Since license plates are required to operate vehicles on public roadways, then it makes sense that the industry is regulated to provide a universally applicable standard.  Once the standard is applied everywhere uniformly, then each state can design its license plates creatively.  For example, Florida offers its residents about 120 different plate designs; and Virginia offers more than 200 unique plates for its citizens!  Imagine what would happen if we didn’t have that countrywide standard!

One important standard in the “industry” of education in a pluralistic society is scientific literacy: a basic working knowledge of scientific principles and processes.  If we all understand and accept these fundamentals of science, then we can make informed decisions about biomedical research, nuclear power plants, electronics, bioengineering, emerging diseases, healthcare, sustainability, and so many other topics important for living in the 21st century.  Such understanding and acceptance allows all Americans, familiar with the science basics, to have fuller and more productive lives in competitive markets at home and abroad.  Science then can be a powerful unifying force in our nation.  As the National Resource Council stated in 1996, “In a world filled with the products of scientific inquiry, scientific literacy has become a necessity for everyone.”

According to recent research, approximately 28% of American adults qualify today as scientifically literate: an increase from around 10% in the late 1980’s and 1990’s.  That still means, however, that about 70% of Americans cannot comprehend the science section of The New York Times.  Though the United States has a slim lead in science literacy over its European counterparts, it holds that lead only because (1) college students are often required to take year-long general science courses and (2) Americans frequently use informal science education resources such as museums, magazines, documentaries, and the internet for current information about the natural world.  Is it acceptable that seven out of ten Americans are illiterate in the sciences?  Is it acceptable that seven out of ten Americans have no clear understanding of science reported in a national newspaper?

What kinds of questions need to be answered correctly for one to be considered “literate” in science?  Here are some examples:

• How long does it take for the Earth to revolve around the Sun?  (Answer: Approximately 365 days.)

• What percent of Earth’s surface is covered with water? (Answer: About 70%.)

• How much of that water is freshwater? (Answer: 3%.)

• Did humans and dinosaurs live at the same time? (Answer: No, 65 million years of life on the Earth separate the last dinosaurs from the first humans.  Sorry, Flintstones!)

Furthermore, in a 2009 Gallup poll, only four in ten Americans say they “believe in the theory of evolution.”  As a fundamental for the biological sciences, an understanding of evolutionary principles and processes is akin to an understanding of gravity for physics or atoms for chemistry.  You can read more about this poll at http://www.gallup.com/poll/114544/darwin-birthday-believe-evolution.aspx.  Believers and nonbelievers – along with every turnip, mushroom, and worm on the planet – are products of that ancient process, no matter their clever protestations.

For decades, Americans have maintained a global lead in science and technology.  And, thankfully, four out of five adults in the United States still think that science education is “absolutely essential” or “very important” to the U.S. healthcare system, the reputation of the United States among the nations of the world, and the U.S. economy.  The need for investment in science research and education has never been greater than now.  Maintaining the lead, however, means more than knowing how to click away on a keyboard or operate an otoscope.  It means having a deep, ever-growing understanding of who we are as one species among millions on an ever-evolving planet.

Standards will help us keep our edge.  Numerous examples exist including the “National Science Education Standards” as proposed by the National Academy of Sciences and “Project 2061” from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  A high rigorous standard in science education will help us build toward an innovating and sustainable society.

At times, listening to a science lecture is like listening to someone speak in foreign tongues: ancient Latin and Greek and various other languages.  This is the way I feel sometimes when listening to sports announcers.  Being the world’s most ignorant soul about sports, I hardly know the difference between the Super Bowl and the U.S. Open, much less about a touchdown or grand slam.  I hear the English, but what in the world does all that “sports speak” mean?  Yet I would argue that sports on a national level has very little to do with species survival.  Knowing “science speak” is essential, however, to our survival as leaders among the league of nations.  We’ve lost some of the edge and will continue to do so unless we embrace those science standards rigorously, evolution among them, and work collectively toward a scientifically literate society.

We intuit the sense of standards in the automotive industry.  Now let’s extend that awareness to science as an essential for national leadership, cropping away the arcane, the mundane, and the insane that lurk in the shadows.