In 1859 Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness ...”. With regard to scientific literacy, we can rightly make a similar statement about today's two-tiered society. It disturbs most biologists that some school systems in the US require that creationism be presented as a legitimate alternative explanation to evolutionary change. However, it is equally disturbing when scientists assume a patronizing 'leave it to the experts' attitude when pushing new technologies or using their scientific findings to influence public policy decisions by governments or other institutions. This latter approach can be counterproductive and has already provoked an international antiscience backlash. Resistance to genetically engineered agricultural products, particularly in Europe, is a policy failure that has its roots not only in the 'Green' political movement, but also in the insensitive approach that companies like Monsanto used to forward their own agendas without appreciating the informational needs and political views of the public. The British Government's response to animal products tainted by the causal agent of mad cow disease only increased the distrust of UK citizens in their government's ability to protect them.
Because science plays such a prominent role in our open societies, it is essential that an informed citizenry participate in these debates from their inception. The human stem cell debate is a positive example of public dialog not yet being outpaced by scientific progress. However, it is also an excellent example of how limited the success of the debate can be if the public cannot evaluate the facts properly. It is in the interest of science that the lay public be schooled in the process of scientific inquiry to prepare them for this role.
The public expects science to provide definitive answers. But it is the nature of scientific inquiry to more often identify uncertainties and gaps in our knowledge. Interpretation of the same 'facts' can legitimately vary, which generates debate among scientists, policy makers and the lay public. Societies use available scientific data to assess the benefits of screening and treatment of chronic or preventable diseases against economic, health and moral issues. The uncertainty inherent in new medical information also affects everyday life, such as individual decisions on the use of genetic information about disease-associated traits or on weighing the risk of potential vaccine side effects versus the likelihood of severe illness from a disease that is preventable by vaccination. Clearly, both individuals and society as a whole need a better understanding of relative risk.
Public interest in science is actually high, as seen by extensive news coverage, science programming on television and the number of science museums. The Internet has also made public access to information faster and easier, providing educators with an opportunity to capitalize on science's current popularity. But the Web varies greatly in quality and harbors misrepresentations and patent misinformation. Only recently, the disproven link between autism and measles vaccines has again resurfaced. Thus, the challenge before science educators is to teach students to think critically about information from all sources, to separate fact from fiction and to see the ramifications of potential outcomes. In short, the lay public must become a savvy consumer of scientific information.
As most attitudes toward science are developed during childhood, fostering a scientifically literate society starts with primary school education. But excellent primary educators in science are uncommon. In the worst-case scenario, students' budding interests in science are stifled by educators not trained in science or who teach science by rote memorization rather than as an active discovery process leading to hypotheses and testing. The science community has introduced newer science teaching methods: some programs, which bring teachers into research settings, are funded by the US National Institutes of Health. In the US, curriculum supplements are available, but not mandatory, to help teachers prepare lesson plans to teach problem-solving skills to children. Implementation of nationwide scientific curriculum standards, common in other nations, would be a laudable goal for the US, but it is unlikely to be realized. Participation of scientists on the local school level is also critical, not just as concerned parents, but as scientist role models and mentors, available to counter views voiced by antiscience advocates.
Fostering public interest through the improved science education of nonscientists and encouraging their participation in policy decisions is a positive move that will lessen the distrust of science. And, as demonstrated by early AIDS advocates, an informed public can exert considerable pressure that causes substantial policy changes. The protest efforts of the ACT-UP coalition in the US led to a streamlined drug approval process by the US Food and Drug Administration, without detrimental effects on public health. By promoting public discussions of science issues, policy changes better reflect the will of the citizenry, as politicians are asked to explain (or defend) their views on health care, technology and environmental topics. That, too, is a good thing.