I began to read the paper. It kept talking about extensors and flexors, the gastrocnemius muscle, and so on. This and that muscle were named, but I hadn’t the foggiest idea of where they were located in relation to the nerves or to the cat. So I went to the librarian in the biology section and asked her if she could find me a map of the cat.
“A map of the cat, sir?” she asked, horrified. “You mean a zoological chart!” From then on there were rumors about some dumb biology graduate student who was looking for a “map of the cat.”
When it came time for me to give my talk on the subject, I started off by drawing an outline of the cat and began to name the various muscles.
The other students in the class interrupt me: “We know all that!”
“Oh,” I say, “you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you’ve had four years of biology.” They had wasted all their time memorizing stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.
This is a b.s. criticism, of course. Fact is that these biology students knew the anatomy of a cat as much from doing tons of work with mammals as from spending long nights memorizing the physiology. I’m sure it also pays to commit a lot of technical stuff to memory, since you can draw on that while you’re looking for something new, and it helps you sort out what the important bits are for whatever you are currently working on. Surely Feynman would have been frustrated in the same way the biology students were if he had to listen to a lecture that started with the naming of the parts of an atom.
But the moral of the story is dead on. Science doesn’t mean memorizing “facts”. It isn’t a trivia game of gigantic proportions. Science means figuring out how things work. And while Americans certainly lack the skills to do that as much as they lack knowledge of science trivia, a measurement of the latter doesn’t necessarily bear on the former.
I don’t know to what degree a scientifically literate populace is important. It seems very desirable to me. I think a close acquaintance with the methods of science can help sharpen what we call “common sense” – help us figure out how “things work” that we have to mess with every day. But, only a lucky few of us get to “do science” in the sense of really extending human knowledge about how things work. For the rest of us, a science education may not be all that pragmatic, and others may not see it as desirable as I do.
I think the minimum we should ask is that kids graduate high school having enough understanding of the process that they know whether they want to try to go that route in their careers, and that they have a chance of success if they do. They should also have enough practice in using mathematics with the computational tools of science that they can discern if they want to go into a related field, and enough that they can succeed if they choose to.
I don’t need a survey of science literacy (or of science trivia literacy) to tell me that a lot of kids don’t graduate from school with that. I just want to be clear on what the desirable goal is – the understanding of scientific process and the ability to solve basic problems using scientific and mathematical tools, not a catalog of interesting but useless “facts”.
Oh – and it also wouldn’t hurt to have enough of same to be able to evaluate public controversies over important scientific phenomena… like climate change and creationism. But I don’t want to get over optimistic.