Go to Charlotte Observer front page



Published: Friday, June 7, 1996


Page: 13A

By DANIEL CATON, Special to The Observer

The National Science Foundation reported last week that most adults in a survey failed a quiz of science questions.

Another news story mentions that North Carolina is second only to Florida in deaths by lightning.

Trees are dying on the peaks of the Smokies.

Congress resuscitates the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) project.

What's wrong with this picture?

Taken individually, these are news items dotting The Observer. Together, they comprise a dismal status report on our ability to learn and apply our knowledge.

So we flunked a pop quiz in general science. So what?

This is what:

The questions were mostly fairly basic, the kind that should be answerable by anyone who is functionally literate enough to survive in modern life and contribute to society. The results on particular questions are perhaps not as important as the interpretation that our general scientific and technical awareness has become weak.

If you don't think it matters, consider a few examples.

If you are one of the 25 percent who do not know that light travels about a million times faster than sound, you are missing info that could save your life.

You see the flash of lightning virtually instantly, the sound of its thunder plods along behind the light at about 1,100 feet per second, for about 5 seconds per mile of time delay. Hear it half a second after the flash and it's in your neighborhood. Take cover!

A majority of those surveyed did not understand the thinning of the ozone layer. Had they read the accounts of last year's winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, for the discovery of the cause of the ozone holes?

Your next new car will probably not have the CFC refrigerants that have been found guilty of ozonicide. And perhaps you will have less chance of skin cancer as a result.

Another question touched on a regional issue. Were the 95 percent who could not explain acid rain also puzzled about our concern with our neighbors in Tennessee who have backed out of industrial development agreements designed to protect regional air quality?

The cause of the loss of trees in the Smokies is complicated, but certainly acid rain is playing an important role.

Our blind trust that further advances in science and technology will save us from ourselves is also disturbing.

The proposed Strategic Defense Initiative was put on the back burner a decade ago but is being resurrected by the new Congress. Should we spend $60 billion on a system that would supposedly shoot down enemy missiles?

Since the birth of Star Wars we have tried a micro version of it in the Gulf War, where some experts believe that the majority of our Patriot missiles actually missed their targets.

Do we base our hope on software not testable in battle conditions?

Can anyone who has had their PC lock up ever trust the country's fate to computers?

Could we better spend those tax dollars to prevent wars?

As these larger scientific and technical issues become political, we increasingly need an informed public that can see through political hype, debate the issues and elect leaders who will act upon scientific knowledge. We all need to participate. Over our coffee break, we should be able to discuss scientific strategy as easily as we do baseball statistics, SDI as well as RBIs.

So what can we do? After all, the NSF surveyed adults no longer in school.

It's never too late to learn, or re-learn. If you had a science phobia in school, lose it - there will be no exam. Just as you can gain many of the benefits of exercise with simple daily choices (park far out and walk, etc.), you can rebuild and maintain your knowledge base with small daily doses.

Watch the Discovery Channel instead of yet another network sitcom.

Start light with Nova on PBS on Tuesday evenings.

Check out the science coverage on All Things Considered on public radio while you're stuck in traffic on the way home (WFAE-FM 90.7 in Charlotte).

The Observer carries a science column (page 2A) on Tuesdays, as well as fine coverage of national and regional science issues.

Don't miss the science section in Time or Newsweek!

Visit the library or bookstore: Scientists have been turning out books aimed at the public. Take in Discovery Place regularly. Browse the World Wide Web.

Don't quit there. Act upon your knowledge. Jump into the fray over environmental, scientific and technical issues. Write letters. Vote. Maybe then we can begin to create a news picture that makes sense.

Observer columnist Daniel B. Caton is observatory director and an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Appalachian State University. His column appears on the first Thursday of every month. Write him c/o The Observer, P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, NC 28230-0308 or by e-mail at catondb at appstate.edu

Return to Caton's columns

All content © 1996 The Charlotte Observer and may not be republished without permission.
Questions, comments: charcom@charlotte.infi.net

The Charlotte Observer archives are stored on a SAVE (tm) newspaper library system from MediaStream Inc., a Knight-Ridder Inc. company.