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What constitutes scientific literacy?

  1. Nov 24, 2004 #1
    I'm a computer science major in college right now. I'm going to wind up taking mostly computer science and mathematics courses.

    I've taken some lower-division calculus-based physics (physics for scientists and engineers-type material), a decent freshman-level biology course, and I had some chemistry in high school.

    I want to, at some point, at least learn enough to understand undergraduate-level physics (Lagrangian/Hamiltonian mechanics and basic quantum mechanics) and some organic chemistry.

    How much science knowledge is enough for someone who studies technical-type things? How much science knowledge is enough for a non-science/engineering major?

    This is significant because, for example, I can tell you for sure that I don't know exactly how genetically modified foods are produced, exactly how a nuclear reactor works, etc. When UN weapons inspectors traipse around in a desert looking for weapons of mass destruction, I don't know exactly what they're looking for or how they do it. These are issues with clear implications for public policy and so on, and they affect our everyday lives.

    But many people have nowhere as much background as I do, modest as it is. Apparently many people are downright afraid of math (!) and science -- there are millions of fundamentalists in America. And so in terms of general technical literacy I and most people on this forum are beyond most people, even beyond many university students. How much should one know?

    No one doubts the importance of cultural literacy -- a general knowledge of the most important works of literature, a grasp of the major religions, common proverbs and folklore, etc. But I think some kind of scientific or technical literacy of some kind is just as important -- being able to do integration by parts, say, is equally as important as knowing what a "Judas kiss" is. This is a viewpoint few people take.

  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 24, 2004 #2


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    I think you're right, and I don't know how to anwers your question. Learn as much as you have the time to learn. Can't set a minimum standard.
  4. Nov 24, 2004 #3
    You have an interesting post, but for some reason, I am more curious as to why you have chosen a name such as "hatefilledmind".
  5. Nov 24, 2004 #4
    I was a CS major in college. I took three semesters of physics, and tried taking some harder stuff, but it was too much and I ended up dropping the courses. Incidentally, right now I'm taking chemisty courses to see if I can get in a chemical engineering program, as I was unable to find employment after graduation and didn't want to continue on the academic path in CS (grades weren't too spectacular either)

    If you just want a 'general scientific literacy', you don't need to take a full college course. Just read up on the particulars about the areas you feel you lack knowledge in.

    Yet our poltical leaders, few if any of whom have technical backgrounds, feel they understand enough about these issue to pass laws and launch wars over them :-)

    I personally know someone with a PhD in Biophysics. If you asked asked him exactly how nuclear reactors work or GM food is produced, he probably couldn't tell you. Only specialists in those fields really understand all the intricancies and nuances of those processes. I can tell you that a a conventional nuclear reactor basically involves bombarding U 238 with neutrons, which causes the atoms to split into smaller elements and more neutrons, which produce a chain reaction much as in combustion. This whole process generates alot of heat, which drives a turbine which drives an electrical generator. Thats the level of understanding I have. The person I know who is a PhD could probably tell you a little bit more, like exactly where you get your neutrons, but nowhere near everything.
  6. Nov 24, 2004 #5
    Technology is so amazing nowadays that you really don't need much of the technical knowledge to do most of the things you talked about. The computers do it all for you. For example I saw a guy testing the density of a road that was being built, to make sure it had been steamrollered enough. The machine he was using used a radioactive sample and detector. I asked him what the sample was and he had no idea. I asked him if he had to get government clearance to use the machine after 9/11 and he said he didn't know. Dumb people can work with cool stuff.
  7. Nov 24, 2004 #6


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    Actually, they do know they don't know enough about science, so they hire scientific advisors. Some people do fellowships in Congress instead of a traditional postdoc if they really want to get into public policy, and some of those go on to a full career as a congressional scientific advisor. The caveat is that most of these folks are the ones who didn't hack it in research, or never tried, so while they do have PhDs, they don't have any further experience beyond that. It's not the worst it can be, but it could be better.
  8. Nov 26, 2004 #7
    And they handpick the scientific advisors who will tell them what they want to hear ...
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