In an oft-told variation of the Hindu myth of cosmology, a young boy asks his father what holds up the Earth. Amused, the father assures his son that the world rests on the back of a large turtle. "But what holds up the turtle?" the boy asks. After brief reflection the father says, "A huge elephant." "But," the boy continues, "what is under the elephant?" Sensing that he is rapidly losing control of the conversation, the father finally exclaims, "Son, it's elephants all the way down from there!"
As one who interacts frequently with the public, I often hear similarly disconcerting explanations about the "cosmology" of the modern world. If one asks a new owner how his or her home computer works, one is likely to hear: "You plug it in, push the 'on' button, and it's microchips from there on down."
Apathy about science and technology seems especially rampant among my fellow Americans. A recent National Science Foundation survey showed that fewer than half of American adults understand that the Earth orbits the sun yearly, only 22 percent can define DNA, and just 11 percent know what a molecule is. (See "Public Understanding of Science and Technology," on the briefings page.)
The great irony, of course, is that as much as any other on Earth, the American economy and our attendant standard of living are based on a foundation of rapid scientific advances. Today we take for granted that skyscrapers do not collapse; that satellites in geosynchronous orbit allow us to communicate near-instantaneously with others around the world; that a vast electric power grid faithfully delivers energy to millions of homes; that medical devices function for years within our bodies; and that a trillion dollars in electronic transactions are flawlessly entered into millions of individual accounts each day.
Why is it that such scientific achievements are increasingly taken for granted, while occasional failures are subject to intense public criticism? A portion of the problem is due to the fact that there is still widespread scientific illiteracy even among those who hold high-level decision-making positions. For example, only 20 of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have a science or engineering background. There are only two in the Senate and one in the cabinet. Of 50 U.S. governors, nine have a science or engineering degree. Keep in mind that these are the people who must make the decisions regarding automobile pollution standards, approval of a space program, funding of the superconducting supercollider, and developments in bioengineering such as the possibility of human cloning.
All of this leads to my proposal for a two-pronged effort to help Americans survive—and thrive—in the technologically driven 21st century. First, we need "rocket science for beginners": It has often been debated whether scientists need to be exposed to the liberal arts; more compelling, I think, is for poets and the like to be exposed to physics. Uninformed decisions about scientific issues are the equivalent of denying ourselves the future.
Second, living as we do in a "sound bite" world, scientists and engineers must learn to communicate far more effectively with lay audiences. In my judgment, this remains the greatest shortcoming of most scientists and engineers today. The time has arrived when scientists will have to come down from their Ivory Tower and enter the arena of real-world debate, bubbling controversy, and—brace yourselves—politics. It is no longer viable to place our candle under a bushel. At best we will find ourselves in darkness, and at worst every bushel will go up in flames. We must prepare future scientists to present information in almost every forum—from town meeting to state legislature, from the New York Times to 60 Minutes, from Congress to the Oval Office.
If we continue to put our trust solely in the primacy of logic and technical skills, we will lose the contest for the public's attention—and in the end, both the public and the scientific and technical communities will be the losers. If, on the other hand, we become more adept at explaining science and technology, while at the same time encouraging more "rocket science for beginners," our future will be bright indeed.
Norman R. Augustine is retired chair of Lockheed Martin Corporation and a member of the engineering faculty at Princeton University. This article is excerpted from the March 13, 1998 issue of Science Magazine. It is reprinted with permission from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, © 1998.