warfare. The contents of your medicine cabinet.
The food on your dinner table.
hard to find an issue in our society that isn’t
touched by science. Yet it’s equally difficult
to find an elected official or ordinary citizen
with the education to understand these issues.
The late Chemist David Cushman ’66, winner
of the prestigious Lasker Award, put it this way
in Wabash Magazine several years ago: “Individuals
who are ignorant of science cannot really function
in our modern society, and are often destined to
be the pawns of politicians, and others who wish
to control their lives.”
Yet even with this recognition, ordinary citizens
and the politicians who set the ground rules for
science continue to grapple with emerging technology
without the scientific background to do so. “Many
top elected and appointed officials don’t
have the education to tell good from bad science,”
says Rick Dahlquist ’64, chairman of the chemistry
department at the University of Oregon. Some people
are turned off to science in junior high and high
school. “It’s very hard to get their
attention after that, and these will be tomorrow’s
business leaders and educators,” Dahlquist
It would help if more scientists held public office.
But they are a rarity. Congress and state legislatures
are dominated by lawyers and businessmen.
“We’ve got to have a generation of people
who are willing to run for office even though they
are successful in other endeavors,” said Tom
Emmick ’62, retired vice-president for research
at Eli Lilly. He laments that the best and the brightest
avoid public service lest the media feast on their
private life. “If you crossed the street the
wrong way when you were 15, it will come out in
the campaign,” Emmick said.
So if we can’t get more scientists in politics,
we’ll need to better educate those who do
all comes down to this issue: how do you get non-scientists
to the point where they can reasonably understand
what’s going on?” says Dahlquist. “In
a Wabash College setting, you can do that pretty
“Probably the liberal arts colleges do the
best,” says Ralph Yount ’54, chair of
bio-chemistry at Washington State University. But
on the whole, higher education hasn’t done
very well, he believes. “Most schools aren’t
rewarded for doing this.”
Yet there might be hope if individual scientists
took it on themselves to educate the public, business
leaders, and legislators on the scientific issues
of the day. That would require scientists to develop
the skills to interpret tough technology issues
for an often confused populace.
Some schools already give their science students
the skills to communicate with a broad lay audience.
Wabash is a case in point, says Yount.
have to do a lot of writing. The classes are smaller
and there are more chances to speak up. I took a
great books course with Byron Trippet where you
never made a statement you couldn’t defend.
Otherwise he would just nail you.”
Yount said scientists will have to learn new tricks
to get their message across to a lay public. “It’s
very easy to talk in jargon,” he said. “You
have to be able to talk in terms that people can
Wabash chemistry professor Ann Taylor takes Yount’s
words to heart. In her biochemistry course, she
requires students to write a newspaper article on
a particular disease or scientific issue. The articles
aren’t only graded, but also judged by Wabash
communications staff members, faculty, or the local
“Students write a lot here, but not for the
general public. It’s essential for them to
learn to do so,” Taylor says.
the same time, Wabash’s non-science majors,
who will be among tomorrow’s non-scientist
leaders need at least a working knowledge of today’s
scientific issues. With the opening of the new science
building, engaging non-science majors in the sciences
has become a pressing priority at Wabash. Biology
department chair and this year’s winner of
the College’s top teaching award, David Krohne
is spending the next two years focusing on the improvement
of science courses for non-science majors. We’ll
feature Professor Krohne’s work and his perspectives
on this issue in a future WM.