Last summer, presumably in place of a humor column, the Washington Post ran a public-opinion survey sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. Among other things, the Post reported that only 39 percent of the people polled cared much about “botany”–but 77 percent expressed an interest in “plants and trees.”

Should we care? Is this the leading edge of a landslide of ignorance that will bury us if we don’t do something? Worrying about scientific literacy has spawned a whole social-science industry, one of whose leading practitioners, Jon Miller, plies his trade under the auspices of the Chicago Academy of Sciences in a nondescript building a couple of blocks from the academy’s museum in Lincoln Park. A political scientist by training, Miller came from Northern Illinois University’s Public Opinion Laboratory three years ago to be the first director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy. Its annual budget, mostly from the National Science Foundation, is about $1 million.

Miller’s take on his issue is decidedly nontelegenic. He won’t cry wolf. His knack is for describing the world as it is, not ranting and raving about how it should be. He describes the lack of scientific literacy in the U.S. as a problem but not a disaster. (And to the extent that it is a problem, he says it’s not the fault of teachers.) “Some people are involved in this field because they think the sky is falling,” he says. “I’m not of that school.” Try to get a sound bite out of that.

Scientific literacy isn’t advancing much, according to Miller’s numbers, which have changed little in 15 years. In a 1979 report for the National Science Foundation, Miller divided scientific literacy into three parts: an ability to define scientific inquiry, an understanding of the basic concepts, and an awareness of the broader issues involved. About 14 percent of Americans, he found, could define scientific inquiry adequately (as theory-building, or open-minded investigation of all evidence, or experiment and systematic observation). About half understood it well enough to recognize astrology as unscientific: that is, “eight percent [of those polled] thought astrology was very scientific; 34 said it was sort of scientific; and half recognized that it is not scientific at all.” As for basic scientific concepts, “about half the respondents thought they had a clear understanding of radiation, about a third thought they understood GNP, and only one in five claimed knowledge of the meaning of DNA.” People seemed to do best on issues: some 41 percent could list six alleged benefits or harms in controversies over food additives, nuclear power, and space exploration.

When he combined the three dimensions, however, Miller found that “only 7 percent of the respondents–primarily males, individuals over thirty-five, and college graduates”–had made the grade on all three. “Even among holders of graduate degrees, only a quarter could be called scientifically literate.” More sophisticated analysis (in a paper Miller presented this year to the American Association for the Advancement of Science) shows that when other factors are controlled it’s not gender that affects scientific literacy. It’s formal education.

Miller has defined and measured scientific literacy more carefully than most. “The thinking he’s done about what scientific literacy means is a very useful contribution to the field,” says Senta Raizen, director of the National Center for Improving Science Education in Washington, D.C.

But is there really a problem here? I don’t need to know whether an electron is bigger than an atom to start my car. And I certainly don’t need to know how Alexander Graham Bell formulated and falsified hypotheses so I can phone for help when the car doesn’t start. The oh-so-earnest authors of the book Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy, Robert Hazen and James Trefil, insist that news stories about superconductors and genetic engineering “deal with issues that directly affect your life–issues about which you, as a citizen, will have to form an opinion if you are to take part in our country’s political discourse.” This “citizen” stuff is kind of funny if you think about it. When was the last time someone called you up to get your vote on, say, whether the genetic engineering of frost-proof tomatoes should continue on schedule?

Miller doesn’t traffic in such absurdities (which may be why he’s doing some of the heavy lifting in this field), for much the same reason that he doesn’t join the goo-goos’ lament that we don’t have 95 percent voter turnout in every election. Democracy doesn’t work that way. These days, like everything else, it’s specialized.

In person Miller is brisk and imposing, a fast talker who doesn’t hesitate to explain things the long way around. Within minutes of our being introduced, he was telling me about the tenth essay in The Federalist, in which James Madison explained how to keep disagreeing factions from tearing the country apart. “You have crosscutting loyalties and multiple defining issues,” says Miller. “Today’s society is far more complex than Jefferson and Madison imagined–there were around 17,000 people in Boston in 1776! But it’s still true, in general, that societies with one single defining issue turn to bloodshed.”

The fact is that most Americans don’t care about most issues, and that’s OK with Miller. “When I lived in De Kalb, sometimes it seemed like I was the only person there who didn’t know how much a bushel of corn cost. But it is pure fantasy to expect any issue to generate 80 or 90 percent attention or knowledge. It’s not a New England town meeting. What you want is not required voting but easy registration–so people can vote when something really matters to them. That’s the safety valve of democracy.”

In the slightly jaded way of political scientists everywhere Miller explains what we all know if we think about it: most decisions are made by small, far-off groups of experts, bureaucrats, and politicians. Only occasionally, when something goes badly wrong or when the elites disagree, do the people (or, more accurately, the “attentive public,” which is much smaller) rise up to have their say or veto the decision outright. That’s what Miller says happened in the Korean and Vietnam wars: “The elites were overruled by the people.” Getting back to science, that’s arguably what happened to nuclear power.

If the U.S. is only 7 percent scientifically literate and ought to be 100 percent, it’s a crisis. But Miller acknowledges that 100 percent is hopelessly unrealistic and that there is no ideal percentage. So why worry at all? “Seven percent is 12 million people or so. My judgment is that when you have a debate and you get people writing letters to Congress, that number gets awfully thin spread across 435 congressional districts and 50 states.” Especially since not all the scientific literati are going to care about any particular issue. “We’ll make [these contested] decisions with 6 or 7 percent literacy; we’d probably make better ones with 15 to 20 percent.” Because if it’s one of those big issues where the usual decision makers are split or stymied, there will be more letter writers, and more of them will have opinions based on Scientific American and not on the National Enquirer.

This may not be a stirring call to arms, but at least it makes sense. And politics is not the only reason to encourage scientific literacy. There are also:

Personal and cultural reasons–your life will be richer if you know that DNA is not a toxic chemical or “something criminals use.”

Consumer reasons–your children will be better equipped to decide whether they want gene therapy practiced on their babies if they know what genes are.

Economic-development reasons, should scientific literacy prove to be as important to the 21st century as reading and writing have been to the 20th.

Environmental reasons. Says Miller, “If people are going to be asked to pay five times as much or more for their favorite products in order to save ozone levels, they’ve got to know why. ‘I told you so’ isn’t enough.”

But, surprisingly, not international-competitiveness reasons, because basic scientific literacy is pretty low everywhere.

One reason the National Science Foundation keeps Miller’s hand on the public pulse is that folks inside the D.C. beltway want to know if the rest of us still trust scientists, even though we have only vague ideas of what they do. More to the point, they want to know if people beyond the beltway support continued federal funding for scientific research.

So far, the answer to both questions is yes. Miller’s latest findings show that 93 percent scientific illiteracy has not significantly eroded people’s willingness to believe or to fork over the dough. According to his survey, more than 80 percent of American adults last year agreed with the statement “Even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research which advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the federal government.”

Of course that wasn’t enough to save the superconducting supercollider. No wonder the nation’s scientists and science bureaucrats are edgy. They may enjoy some of the perks of a secular priesthood, but they’d prefer them to be based on knowledge rather than reverence–especially given that (according to Miller’s 1990 survey results published in Science & Engineering Indicators–1991) 41 percent of the reverent don’t believe that human beings developed from earlier species, and three-quarters of the environmentally attentive public can’t explain acid rain beyond referring vaguely to “pollution.”

At this point in our discussion, Miller surprised me again. Even though the center is more of a research center than a hotbed of activism, I expected him to throw off academic caution and launch into a jeremiad against U.S. science teaching. He didn’t. Of course he thinks it could be improved; he points to systems and probability as two key concepts that are rarely taught, and then badly. “Most teachers don’t see systemic relations in social or even biological phenomena–or things like the difference between self-correcting systems, like democracy, and non-self-correcting systems, like cancer.”) But Miller would be happy just to see plain old physics and chemistry and biology become required high school courses again.

He can almost tell the story of U.S. science education just by reading the percentages of different age groups that understand scientific terms and concepts. “For ten years or so after Sputnik [1957] U.S. students learned more science than either their parents or their children.” The Soviet Union’s technological breakthrough panicked the educational establishment into encouraging a host of new high school science curricula, such as PSSC (Physical Science Study Committee) physics. “They required people to think,” says Miller, “and that was hard for kids who’d come up through grade school memorizing the words at the end of each chapter.”

When students began to fail the new courses, school administrators–not teachers–faced a historic decision. They could either hang tough and upgrade elementary and junior-high courses or make science an elective. Most chose the course of least resistance. “Now just half of our high school graduates have taken chemistry, only 20 percent physics, only 9 percent calculus. You could say we’ve had a 30-year experiment in osmosis: is being in the same building with science classes enough?

“It’s not primarily a failure of teaching. It’s primarily a political, administrative failure. The school systems bought short-term peace at the expense of long-term satisfaction. My sense is that the bottom half in achievement in schools feel they’re being catered to: ‘Don’t tear the place down, and we’ll give you a piece of paper after four years.’ And they do get a piece of paper.”

Having explained that science literacy and science courses are problems–but not the kind of problems I’d thought they were–Miller adds that he spends a good deal of his time on the reverse problem: encouraging political literacy among scientists. “I’ve joked with colleagues that every scientist thinks ‘the public’ is made up of cabdrivers. And I’ve been asked by scientist groups if we should try to start precinct organizations for science. Linda [Pifer, the center’s associate director] and I spend as much time telling science professionals about politics as we do telling nonprofessionals about science.” Miller thinks it would be a good idea if each group knew more about the other’s subject. But to expect everyone to know, or care, about everything is to set yourself up for a lifetime of disappointment.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.