Fewer than one-third of all Americans understand the term "DNA."
Fewer than 15 percent understand the term "molecule."
Only about 50 percent know that humans didn't live at the time of the dinosaurs.
-- Science & Engineering Indicators 2000, published by the National Science Foundation
Scientific illiteracy is a big problem in this country, and scientists have to do something about it, said two Stanford faculty members who were part of a Feb. 16 panel called "Cultivating the Civic Scientist" at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Because of this problem, many people fear things they don't understand, the press legitimizes inaccurate and erroneous pseudo-science, and the government sometimes promulgates wrongheaded and dangerous public policies, said Lucy Shapiro, a microbiologist.
Scientists need to write and teach about science whenever and however they can, be connected to the news media and advise policy makers when an important scientific question arises, she said.
"A civic scientist is one who is willing to engage in a dialogue about the nature of science, the future of science and its potential impacts on society," said Michael Riordan, a particle physicist. "The highest expression of the term 'civic scientist' refers to a scientist who disinterestedly makes his expertise available to further the welfare of the country."
On issues from missile defense to antibiotic resistance and breast cancer policies, the government needs the advice that only scientists can provide. Riordan and Shapiro both fulfill that civic obligation, but also educate the public through their writing and speaking.
"People are hungry to hear this stuff," Shapiro said, referring to the public's appetite for clear explanations of science. "Newspeople consistently underestimate the curiosity of a typical TV audience and their tolerance for learning something." About 15 years ago, she decided she had to do something about it. "I lecture whenever I can because I'm a clear speaker," Shapiro said. "Not everyone can do it, but those who can should."
Riordan agrees that the popular press isn't capable of covering the more difficult scientific stories. That's one reason he has written four books, with a fifth on the way. "The more complex stories may have to be written by scientists themselves," he said.
The civic physicist
Riordan was a member of the team that discovered quarks at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in the early 1970s. But his career has taken a different path in the last 15 to 20 years: He writes books for the general public about science, the history of science and science policy. Moreover, he teaches a course on the history of 20th-century physics in Stanford's Program in History and Philosophy of Science.
He also gets calls from the press on a regular basis and often is quoted in newspapers and magazines. His own stories for the New York Times and New Scientist and Science magazines have covered such topics as the discovery of neutrinos, the search for the Higgs boson and the need for a major new American particle collider.
During his career, Riordan has worked closely with a number of people he considers great civic scientists. He points to SLAC's Wolfgang Panofsky and Sidney Drell, whose contributions to nuclear arms control are widely known.
Riordan himself served on a panel that drafted the American Physical Society's recently published official position on the technical viability of a national missile defense system, urging the United States not to deploy such a system unless it is proven effective against anticipated countermeasures.
But Riordan says scientists don't have to be bigshots to play important roles in public life. "To become a scientist involved in policy, it helps to spend time on committees getting to know the policy issues and the policy makers," he said. Federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the State Department all need science advisers.
Scientists also play an important role in civic life when they interact with the press. Unfortunately, Riordan said, many scientists are leery of the press. "They see that reporters don't always get things right and leave out complexities and qualifiers scientists feel are necessary to explain their work."
Nevertheless, scientists have to overcome their fears and distrusts and learn to tell the public, through the news media, why it's important to do what they do, he said: "The press is the conduit to a large and influential audience."
The civic biologist
Lucy Shapiro, the Virginia and D. K. Ludwig Professor of Cancer Research in the Department of Developmental Biology, is a laboratory scientist, first and foremost. But about 15 years ago she decided she could also be a civic scientist. It's hard to do both in early stages of a scientific career, she said. When she was an assistant and then associate professor, she was too busy getting grants, running a lab and starting a family.
"But there comes a time in your career when you can do more," Shapiro said. She could have written a textbook or started a company, but making science accessible to the public was the best fit for Shapiro's strength: public speaking.
"I'm just a run-of-the-mill scientist trying to make people less frightened about technology," she said. "To make intelligent decisions, there's no substitute for real information."
The talks she gives to the public often reach only a few people, but on occasion she speaks to policy makers. At one point, Shapiro was invited to the White House along with several other scientists to speak to President Clinton and his Cabinet about the risks biologically altered pathogens pose to national security and the food supply.
After a period of scripted presentations, the Cabinet members were getting sleepy. When she stood up to speak, Shapiro went off-script.
"Do you know what genetic engineering is?" she asked.
"Why don't you tell us," Clinton said.
As she spoke, Clinton shooed away aides, who were peeved because Shapiro had made him late for other appointments.
So Shapiro taught the Cabinet members that genetic engineering goes on in nature all the time: Bacteria can pick up genetic material from other bacteria and add it to their own, all without human intervention. In fact, she said, nature added a toxin gene to the E. coli that made killers out of some Jack in the Box hamburgers in the '90s. And it is nature that encourages the evolution of bacteria into antibiotic-resistant forms. The lesson: We have more to fear from nature than from international terrorists.
During a videotaped talk to the National Academy of Sciences, Shapiro delivered the same message. The videotape is one of the most commonly requested in the academy's collection.
Before she began speaking to the public, Shapiro "worked very hard to do it right." Early on, she practiced her speeches on her physicist husband, who had to stop her "every two seconds to ask what a word meant." She eventually learned that she need not use complicated lingo to get the information across.
Though her research involves bacteria, Shapiro also speaks about other scientific subjects. A few years ago she decided to address people's fears about breast cancer. She made it her business to learn everything she could about breast cancer, and she started speaking to groups of women about it. "This is what is real," she told the women. "Only 5 percent of breast cancer is inherited."
And in the early '90s, she reached out to educate even larger audiences about science and scientists. Along with other board members from the Scientists' Institute for Public Information, she met with John Lithgow and other prominent Hollywood figures. "We told them to stop presenting images of mad scientists and to make them human," she said. "It didn't work, but we tried."
Materials provided by Stanford University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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