What Scientists Owe the Public Last year, organizations ranging from the National Science Foundation to Readers Digest voiced concern about Americans' lack of scientific knowledge and the deteriorating state of science education in this country. What responsibilities do scientists have to communicate their research to lay Americans, or to help improve science education?

What Scientists Owe the Public

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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.

We're going to switch gears a little bit now and talk about something completely different. You know, in the last year, government officials, educators and agencies from NASA to the National Academies of Science have worried out loud about America's lack of knowledge of science and the rotting state of American science education. It's interesting, even this month, Reader's Digest is telling its huge audience--and they have 24 million readers--and there's an article in there called--it's America's Brain Drain Crisis. And the article talks about how 50 percent of our gross national product depends on science and technology, and right now many prominent scientists are growing older and retiring while fewer American college students want to study science.

Overseas, where many of our best scientists come from, the top science students who used to be eager to study in the US are saying, `Hey, yeah, I'm going to stay home now and study at the top universities that are being built over here; maybe in India, maybe in China. If they're going to build them here, we'll go to those. We don't have to go to the US like we used to.'

Well, you know, if The Reader's Digest is just talking about it, you know it's a really big problem. But who's to blame? Should we blame the scientists? Do scientists themselves bear any responsibility? And what about all the scientists who are teachers, also? What do they have to do with the fact that so many college students say they hate science, want nothing to do with it?

Well, at Columbia University, a biologist and an astronomer thinks--think it's essential that everyone understand scientific thinking, and these two scientists have been working to make a difference. They have designed something called Frontiers of Science. It's a new science curriculum that all Columbia freshmen at Columbia may take, but--no, they have to take it. But is it going to work? Is it going to change their outlook? Is anything going to make them want to feel better about science? Well, they're here to talk about it with us today. Dr. Darcy Kelley is professor of biological sciences at Columbia. She's here with us in your New York studios.


Dr. DARCY KELLEY (Columbia University): Happy to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you.

Dr. David Helfand is professor of astronomy and chair of the department of astronomy and astrophysics, and co-director of the Columbia Center for Astrophysics.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Helfand.

Dr. DAVID HELFAND (Columbia University): Thank you.

FLATOW: Let's talk about--Dr. Helfand, do you think that scientists have failed to communicate science to the non-scientists?

Dr. HELFAND: Well, there's certainly been a total failure. Whether it's all to be blamed on scientists or not is not clear since we make up a very tiny fraction of the population. But science literacy in this country is at an all-time low. Respect for science is pretty low and interest in science, especially amongst our leadership, and interest in science is low. The number of people majoring in physics today...


Dr. HELFAND: ...is lower than it was in 1956, which is the year before Sputnik, you may recall, and there are six times more college students getting degrees today. So the fraction of students has fallen by more than a factor of six in the last 50 years.

FLATOW: Do you think a program like yours, the Frontiers of Science, where new--you know, the freshmen have to take a course like that is going to make a dent or change how--the way they feel?

Dr. HELFAND: We hope it's going to change for a few people, and we'll have to do it a few people at a time. But since this is only the second year of the program, we don't have any data yet.

FLATOW: Dr. Kelley, what do you think?

Dr. KELLEY: Well, I'm more optimistic always than David. I mean, I personally think that science is one of the coolest things you could ever do. It's infinitely amusing. And I think there are ways to portray yourself that makes you more appealing to the American public as a whole. I mean, scientists work on problems that we can all relate to, the biochemical changes of love and so forth.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KELLEY: So I think these are things that you can use as a hook. But what you really need to do is to make them aware that they can think about problems the way scientists think about problems, and that's what Dave and I are trying to do in Frontiers.

FLATOW: You mean critical thinking. So make up your own mind, but use some tools that scientists use.

Dr. KELLEY: Exactly. So we aim--so David's written a marvelous Web-based textbook called "Scientific Habits of the Mind," which is full of anecdote and humor, at least to some of us, and aims to show how you would think about a problem if you were attacking it the way a scientist would. And anybody can learn to do this. It doesn't--you know, it doesn't take wild genius to be critical, analytical and careful.

FLATOW: But we used to have, you know--we used to have rock star scientists like Carl Sagan and people like that who used to be out in public and show that they exist, if nothing else. We don't have those people anymore. Isn't it the responsibility of scientists to get out there and wave the flag a little bit for their profession?

Dr. HELFAND: Oh, it's definitely the responsibility of scientists to do that. But I think if you go to your average Barnes & Noble, you'll find a very large number of books written for the popular audience.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. HELFAND: The problem, I think, lies in our public K-through-12 education system, where we've lost the teaching cadre that was literate in math, literate in science and excited enough to communicate that to students. It's gone. It's gone for a number of reasons, one of which is that we've got this insidious No Child Left Behind law which basically destroys teachers' ability to be creative and requires them to teach memorization so students can pass tests.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's take a call or two if we can. Let's go to Robert in Oakland. Hi, Robert.

ROBERT (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

ROBERT: This is a great topic. And I'm curious if one of the difficulties in educating sciece--or teaching science as opposed to liberal arts is the possibility of getting a wrong answer. Where maybe in the liberal arts, that's not as easy, but in the sciences, you have peoples' self-esteem being lowered because they did badly on a test. Therefore, the educators do everything they can to keep the self-esteem high. I know this is rather abstract, but I'm wondering...

FLATOW: Yeah--no, it's a good question.

ROBERT: ...if you could, you know, respond to the difference between, say, liberal arts education and science education with the fact of being right and--rather than vague.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Darcy Kelley.

Dr. KELLEY: Well, there often are right answers, but the most interesting questions, you don't even know the answers to, and that's one of the things that we do.

You know, the one bit of data that we do have from Frontiers has to do with how confident people are about science and math. Typically, what happens to every kid in that first year in college is their self-confidence in those areas just tubes. And we think it's possible we may, at the very least, may be able to keep that self-confidence up by making people feel competent, able and acquire these new skills. And if we could just do that, prevent the erosion, we'd be way ahead.

FLATOW: What about requiring that teachers take some courses in how to speak to the public or to their students who can't under--who are not scientists yet? I mean, so that they can explain, you know--they can explain what they do or how to speak clearly to the public?

Dr. HELFAND: Well, I teach a course, actually, to our graduate students...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. HELFAND: ...presumably the teachers of the future in the summer that's a 50-hour intensive course on how to speak astronomy. And they get--they have to speak, they get videotaped, the videotapes get analyzed. I think it's very important to do that. And my background as an undergraduate was a theater major, and I think that's helped me a lot in my career.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you agree?

Dr. KELLEY: Well, you know, charisma is an important aspect of human personality. You have charismatic rock star scientists. We actually have some on our faculty of Frontiers, awesome people, and they will help change that image.

And it's not by accident that we're seeing more and more films and plays about scientists in which science is being portrayed in a positive light. There are a number of efforts under way to address the image of science through the popular culture. And to be honest with you, that would help a lot. If you could think that it's sexy to be a scientist, that would be an awesomely big help in promoting the attractiveness of thinking about science.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. HELFAND: The caller has an excellent point, though. I have a little anecdote about a student who came into my office and said, `Professor Helfand, am I actually failing this class?'--she had a 15 percent average--and I said, `Yes.' And she said, `You have to understand, I'm an English major and the concept of failure doesn't exist,' which is an interesting note and I'm not sure the students are being well-served by any discipline where the concept of failure doesn't exist.

FLATOW: I think--well, you know, if you teach the sci--if you teach what scientists do actually, what it is to do an experiment, to collect data--and I've seen this actually in schools where they teach kids the simple experiment. You take a jar, you put it over a candle--you take a small jar--you time how long it takes the candle to go out. You do a larger jar, you time how long that it takes to go out. And you ask them to plot it and to guess, based on the graph, how long the big jar will take to put the candle out. And they collect the data, and they do those sorts of things. But you learn, at least, that it's OK--that most of the scientists make are wrong most of the time, you know. Scientists--it's not about being right all the time. Most scientists fail, and that's something that the public just never understands, the process.

Dr. HELFAND: Yeah, the process I characterize is scientists trying to disprove their theory. We never prove theories true. Mathematicians can prove statements true. But scientists are always trying to falsify a theory. And to the extent they do, it's discarded; to the extent they don't, it's stronger. And so we're constantly trying to do that kind of thing and do it with, as you say, real experimental conditions.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to John in Kansas City. Hi, John. John, are you there? Oh, John dropped off. OK, let's see if we can go to--let's go to Jane in Louisville. Hi, Jane.

JANE (Caller): Hello.


JANE: I'm on the board of our local science center, the Louisville Science Center here in Louisville, and we have a mission that's directed toward helping the school system support its science education for children. And we're caught a little bit in this battle over the issue of creationism, and it's hurt our ability to do some of the things we want to do, particularly from a fund-raising standpoint. But I'm curious about both those subjects, the one being that conflict that seems to be becoming an anti-science sort of movement, and then also the role of the science museums in education.

FLATOW: All right. Let me get Dr. Helfand to answer first.

Dr. HELFAND: Well, it certainly is an anti-science movement, and it has nothing to do with science--intelligent design or any of these things--it's a political movement, and I think it's a very dangerous political movement for our country.

Science museums have an absolutely central role because the American Museum of Natural History here in New York, which is our big science museum, sees millions of people a year literally.


Dr. HELFAND: We see a couple hundred in our classes, so they have an enormous potential for impact. The scary thing is that even here in New York, in the current Darwin exhibit that they mounted, they could not get a single corporate sponsor.


Dr. HELFAND: Never happened in the history of the museum.

FLATOW: No? For evolution?

Dr. HELFAND: That's right.

FLATOW: Is that scary or what?

Dr. HELFAND: Scary, scary.

FLATOW: Could not get a corporate sponsor for evolution? It speaks for itself.

1 (800) 989-8255. Do you find that after your students take courses, getting their first taste of science, that they may like it a little more or they're less fearful of it, or do you disagree on this?

Dr. KELLEY: Well, no, we don't disagree, but you get everything.


Dr. KELLEY: You know, you get the kid who hated science coming in, loathes it while they're there and hates it even more leaving.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KELLEY: And then you get the kid who is damned if she wasn't going to be an economist and suddenly sees the light and goes into, you know, geophysics. So that's the whole point of college, though, don't you think? Right?

Dr. KELLEY: I'm rooting for my daughter who's studying--she's studying marketing, and she took astronomy courses as a freshman. She says, `Oh, I love this stuff.'

Dr. KELLEY: Yeah.

Dr. HELFAND: We'll take her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KELLEY: Science is so seductive, really...


Dr. KELLEY: ...once you really start to get into it. And I don't think in high school typically, unless you're really lucky, you get to see real science, and that's what we aim to do.

FLATOW: And that is the point. Let me just do a station break. We're talking about teaching science this hour on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

And so few people--people, when you're in grade school or whatever, you think exploding stuff and colored water changes and whatever, that is science. And until--your course teaches them a little bit different than that.

Dr. HELFAND: Oh, no, we explode things if we have to.

Dr. KELLEY: We drop roses into liquid nitrogen...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KELLEY: ...and watch them shatter on the stage.

FLATOW: Right. So you get their attention that way.

Dr. HELFAND: Science is about curiosity, and almost all children are curious. And this curiosity gets beaten out of them by the deadly, stultifying curricula that they're having to do in K-through-12. So science to them is memorizing the definitions of boldfaced words in books and plugging and chugging numbers into their graphing calculators for equations they don't understand. And so by the time they get to 12th grade, they come to college, `Ah, now I'm free. I don't have this curriculum shoved down my throat. I'm going to take things that are, quote, "interesting."'

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. HELFAND: Whereas, they haven't seen science at all.

FLATOW: But, Dr. Kelley, you're like a walking billboard for science education because you were a very unlikely scientist. Right? Tell us a bit about your background.

Dr. KELLEY: Well, you know, I come from a family of humanists and writers. My grandfather was a newspaper man here in New York, Arthur Brisbane. Nobody in my family was ever a scientist. And so I've always hated it when I go to a cocktail party and somebody asks me what I do and I say, you know, `I'm a neuroscientist,' and they look at me and they say, `You don't look like a scientist.' And I think, `Ah! What does is a scientist supposed to look like?'

But I think it just speaks to the intellectual lure of science. I mean, Margaret Mead once said that the good thing about science was that it had room for so many different kinds of talents. It is, in that sense, a big intellectual tent and that--once again, I think that's something that you can show people.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you agree with...

Dr. HELFAND: Yeah, absolutely. I think that, you know, when I go to a party--a cocktail party and someone says, `What do you do?' if I say `I'm an astrophysicist,' they either ask me what my sign is or they walk away because they don't want to deal with it. So I say, `I contemplate the universe and get paid for it,' and that usually, at least, opens the discussion. And you find people who are fascinated and some people who are very frustrated that they don't have a way to learn more.

FLATOW: Now you look just like Alexander Graham Bell, and I'm sure people have told you about that in the past.

So what do you--so are you--in the couple of minutes we have left, are you optimistic that we can, quote, unquote, "save some of these kids," you know, get them more interested or you're not?

Dr. KELLEY: Well, if you could just show them that they could do it if they wanted to, I'd be satisfied with that. And then you'll always have those few kids sitting out there that you can grab by the throat and they'll come into the fold. That would be great, too. But just to show them that what they thought was science really isn't science I think is an enormous achievement to begin with.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And I guess if you can teach them a little bit how--what we were talking about the evolution, the creation, the ID before--to analyze it for themselves, to look at evidence and to make an objective decisions...

Dr. HELFAND: Yeah, that's it.

FLATOW: ...then you may have done something.

Dr. HELFAND: That's certainly one of our goals, although we really do want to demonstrate to them this is an exciting intellectual activity.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. HELFAND: It's not what they learned in high school and it is something that they could be interested in for the rest of their life even if they don't become scientists.

FLATOW: Do other schools have courses like this?

Dr. KELLEY: You know, it turns out that it's a hard--lots of places have tried; Stanford tried, Princeton tried and I think Harvard's gearing up to do something. But Columbia's notable for having the core curriculum. It's notable for having decided, rightly or wrongly, what it is that a civilized and educated person should be able to talk about.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. KELLEY: And so we have introduced science to the core curriculum, and its presence in the core is one of the things that gives it even half a chance of success.

FLATOW: How can you say you're educated these days if you don't know something about the sciences, you know?

Dr. HELFAND: Well...

FLATOW: It used to be a badge of honor that you had the two cultures. Remember the C.P. Snow thing?

Dr. KELLEY: Well, I'm afraid we still do, and our political leadership at the moment, for example, is fond of saying that we have to go with our gut. Well, the translation of that is going with the most primitive, cognitive processes that were very useful for survival on the plains of the Serengeti but are really a disaster when applied to the modern technological world. And so we still have two cultures and they're still dangerously separate.

FLATOW: All right. And that's going to be the last word for the year, this year 2005. I'd like to thank both of you. Dr. David Helfand is professor of astronomy, chair of the department of astronomy and astrophysics and co-director of the Columbia Center for Astrophysics. And Dr. Darcy Kelley, professor of biology sci--biological sciences at Columbia. I'd like to thank both of you for telling us about your course, Frontiers of Science. And have a happy new year to both of you.

Dr. HELFAND: Thank you.

Dr. KELLEY: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

That's about it for our program today.


FLATOW: You can surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com, where we have podcasts that you can download if you missed this program or others and listen to them on you iPod or take them away on your computer. Also, SCIENCE FRIDAY's Kid Connection there is free teaching curricula. We take the program, make teaching material out of it. You can bring it into your school if you have trouble teaching science or just want to augment it.

Have a great weekend and a happy and safe new year. We'll see you next year. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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