A Liberal Arts Solution to Science Illiteracy

By Doug McGinnis

Chemical warfare. The contents of your medicine cabinet. The food on your dinner table.

It’s 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 says.

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 hold office.

“It 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 well.”

“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.

“You 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 understand.”

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 newspaper editor.

“Students write a lot here, but not for the general public. It’s essential for them to learn to do so,” Taylor says.

At 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.