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by Morris Shamos


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In this provocative book, Morris Shamos, a physicist and science educator of very broad experience, argues that . These ideas are all subjected to a careful and exacting microscope in Morris Shamos's book, Scientific Literacy, and each of them is found wanting

Shamos argues that a meaningful scientific literacy cannot be achieved in the first place, and the attempt is a misuse of human resources on a grand scale. These ideas are all subjected to a careful and exacting microscope in Morris Shamos's book, Scientific Literacy, and each of them is found wanting. Does the average citizen need to understand science to participate in public discussions of science?

In this provocative book, Morris Shamos, a physicist and science educator of very broad experience, argues that . Does the average citizen need to understand science to participate in public discussions of science?

Shamos argues that a meaningful scientific literacy cannot be achieved in the first place, and the attempt is a misuse of human resources on a grand scale. He is skeptical about forecasts of Òcritical shortfalls in scientific manpowerÓ and about the motives behind crash programs to get more young people into the science pipeline.

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Arguing that universal scientific literacy is a futile goal, a physicist advocates a practical science education curriculum emphasizing appreciation of science as an on-going cultural enterprise; awareness of technology's impact on health, safety, and environment; and sensible use of experts.

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By MORRIS H. SHAMOS MORRIS H. SHAMOS is professor emeritus of physics at New York University

By MORRIS H. SHAMOS is professor emeritus of physics at New York University. The Myth of Scientific Literacy was awarded the Frederic W. Ness Book Award at the 1996 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. We reprint here Shamos's selections from the book, using as section headings the titles of the chapter from which the excerpts are taken.

Morris Herbert Shamos, American physicist, educator. Shamos, Morris Herbert was born on September 1, 1917 in Cleveland. Polytechnic University fellow. Son of Max and Lillian (Wasser) Shamos. AB, New York University, 1941; Master of Science, New York University, 1943; Doctor of Philosophy, New York University, 1948; postgraduate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1941-1942. The Myth of Scientific Literacy ) The Myth of Scientific Literacy by Shamos, Morris (1995) Hardcover.

Hijazi Abu Ali, Valery M Dembitsky, Morris Srebnik - Ali Contemporary Aspects of Boron-Chemistry and Biological Applications SIC22. Morris Shamos - The Myth of Scientific Literacy. Hijazi Abu Ali, Valery M Dembitsky, Morris Srebnik.

Why do we make every schoolchild and college student take science? Does every American really need to be scientifically literate? In this provocative book, Morris Shamos, a physicist and science educator of very broad experience, argues that universal scientific literacy is a futile goal, and urges a critical review of the purpose of general education in science. Shamos argues that a meaningful scientific literacy cannot be achieved in the first place, and the attempt is a misuse of human resources on a grand scale. He is skeptical about forecasts of Òcritical shortfalls in scientific manpowerÓ and about the motives behind crash programs to get more young people into the science pipeline. Finally, he is convinced that, as presently taught, the vast majority of students come out of science classes with neither an intellectual grasp nor a pragmatic appreciation of science.     

Shamos advocates instead a practical science education curriculum that grants the impossibility of every American learning enough science to make independent judgments about  major scientific issues. Rather than giving children the heavy diet of scientific terms and facts they now get, he would emphasize: an appreciation of science as an ongoing cultural enterprise;  an awareness of technologyÕs impact on one's personal health, safety, and surroundings; and the need to use experts wisely in resolving science/society issues.      

Whether you loved or hated your science classes, you will find Morris ShamosÕs arguments about the future of science education required reading. Teachers, parents, scientists, science educators, school administrators, legislators, and science and human resources policy analysts will be especially interested in this book.


Comments: (6)

skriper
It is an idea that has been prevalent for nearly 100 years: in order to consider an education successful, students need to have a basic "scientific literacy." Society depends on the average citizen being able to understand the main ideas in physics, chemistry, biology, and earth science. If we do not give all students scientific literacy of this kind, not only will they be unable to participate in scientifically-laden public debates, but America might lose its place as the industrial leader in science.

These ideas are all subjected to a careful and exacting microscope in Morris Shamos's book, Scientific Literacy, and each of them is found wanting. Does the average citizen need to understand science to participate in public discussions of science? That would be like saying that to participate in a debate about the behavior of the current Senate, one must have detailed knowledge of the Constitution's eligibility requirements of the senate. Knowing the ins and outs of climatology will not help the average citizen talk about global warming because (a) such knowledge is more detailed than the average citizen has time/patience and (b) most argument about global warming has more to do with moral/political stances than scientific ones (the latter being done by experts, not the general public).

But will foregoing hope of universal scientific literacy mean that less students will go into science? Perhaps, but that is primarily due to market factors, rather than educational ones. Students', and curriculum designers,' decisions are usually made based on "where the money is." If the money is not in science - and it is not! - students will not go there, but go into business, law, etc. It would be strange, argues the author, to attempt 'steering' students towards a profession that is not lucrative, and once it is lucrative, students would likely go there on their own accord.

The main thrust of this book, though, is on the first point. The idea that students must have an understanding of science in order to be participating citizens is - while not wholly a myth - an overblown mantra. Most debates hinging on the details of science are conducted by those who have the training to understand the minutiae (just like debates involving the details of history are conducted by historians, not the lay public). At those times where the general public DOES talk science, it is generally in the context of discussing the MORAL or SOCIAL implications of a scientific action, rather than the details of the scientific act itself.

Ironically, this can be seen by the obviously irked reviewer below, who takes the authors suggestion that we might "leave the science to the experts" is exactly the mentality that led to society's general support for/indifference to eugenics. Of course, this PROVES the author's point: the issue of whether to practice eugenics is not an issue that demands a detailed understanding of genetidcs or evolution, but is a MORAL issue. Contra the reviewer's assertion, and proving the author's point, the general public does not need to be scientifically literate to discuss whether a stem cell is a human life, what to do about nuclear weapons, or whether genetic engineering is morally permissible.

Is the author saying that we should not teach science and just leave it all to the experts? No. He is saying (a) that we should really ask ourselves what small bit of science is necessary for students to understand vs. nice for them to understand (students understanding what evolution is as opposed to how RNA creates amino acids). Also, the author is a strong proponent of suggesting that we teach science APPRECIATION rather than science LITERACY (teaching how science does what it does more than a survey of its results).

My biggest reservation about the author's thesis is that everything said about the futility and non-necessity of getting kids to retain science can be equally said about history, algebra, and world literature. Let's think particularly about history: does a student need to understand the details of the civil war to be a responsible citizen? (No.) Does she need to know the details of the American founding to discuss whether church and state should be seperate? (No.) So, all the same things apply to history (and algebra, and world history) that the author applies to science. But would the author advocate that we also water down our teaching of history and algebra in a similar way?

While I agree that the author makes a persuasive case that much of what we teach in science is irrelevant to students civic functioning, I am not sure that this is the only reason we teach science (or history or algebra). We teach them partially to equip students with knowledge they may use after high school. But we ALSO teach them because when students learn these things, they are learning how to learn in various disciplines, experiencing the 'basics' of different fields so that they might figure out where their interests lie, and appreciate the vastness of each discipline by exploring it in some detail. (Think about why we teach history: we teach American history so that students might appreciate that there is more to America than "right now." This is the same reason why we teach evolution and genetics.)

So, I deduct one star because I think the author takes a myopic view of education when he suggests that scientific literacy is irrelevant because of its lack of pragmatic civic value (as if this is the only reason to teach a subject). I take another star off because the author is needlessly repetitive. His point that the average citizen need not be scientifically literate in a traditional sense is well taken, but the author repeats this over and over and over, trying to convince us each time with the same arguments.

I don't generally write such lengthy reviews, but felt the need to here. This book lends itself to the type of simple misunderstandings seen in the review directly below mine. The author is not an elitist and his pessimism towards the idea of scientific literacy does have some compelling, if not complete, reasons. The fact that I produced such a long review should be testament to how thought provoking the book is. Whether you agree or disagree with the author's premise, books that challenge 'sacred cows' need to be written, and this one is very much worth reading.
Tegore
The reason no other person has written a review on this book is because probably few other people have read it. I have been reading it in conjunction with my work on eugenics and the impact on the deaf and hard-of-hearing in the United States. What does science literacy have to do with eugenics? The whole reason eugenics was possible in the United States from 1880 to the 1930s and beyond, is because people left 'science' up to the 'experts'...those who had science training, physicians, social workers, and some very questionable 'scientists'. These experts used science colored by prejudice to place marriage restrictions, sterilize those they considered less worthy of bearing children, and also to practice euthanasia and experimentation on the disabled in the U.S. Shamos makes the ridiculous argument that only those interested in science as a career should have exposure to scientific concepts, the rest of us 'illiterates' (whether female, minorities, or different abilities) should allow the 'experts' to make informed decisions about science and its impact on our lives. Shamos doesn't even bother to do the educational research to back up his general statements, and a good many of his statements border on offensive. This is a man who had the ear of science associations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
What is so frightening is this book is recent, and he makes several of the same statements the eugenicists used to use about society and people doing what is best for society, and not for individuals. According to Shamos, most Americans cannot possibly fathom science concepts and so we should not waste our time teaching science in elementary and secondary schools. Rather than doing research into the best ways to teach science so all can understand, even if it means using multiple methods, Shamos excuses science educators and scientists from even trying since the masses are too stupid to be able to overcome generalizations or what he calls "common sense." Rarely have I read a book which made me so angry. There is no excuse for laziness on the part of educators in teaching science for a lifetime, and there is no excuse for prejudices that dictate what individuals can and cannot do. Science pervades our lives, and in order to give informed consent to any science practice, all must have the education to question, whether medical, environmental, or any other science that impacts our lives. The right to restrict educational opportunity has no place anywhere, and it certainly has no place in the United States. Karen L. Sadler, A deaf scientist and educator, Science Education, University of Pittsburgh
Anaginn
The two reviewers who gave this book a one star review should read the two other five star reviews with an open mind and then try to find some common ground that might actually help to improve the science literacy in this country. But that would require some self discipline. It's a lot easier and definitely more fun just to the fan the flames of the science education wars and not make any progress.
The Myth of Scientific Literacy download epub
Science for Kids
Author: Morris Shamos
ISBN: 0813521963
Category: Science & Math
Subcategory: Science for Kids
Language: English
Publisher: Rutgers University Press; 1st, No Additional Printings edition (May 1, 1995)
Pages: 288 pages