of books by Morris H. Shamos

MORRIS H. SHAMOS is Professor Emeritus of Physics at New York University. In the 1960s and 70s he studied [piezo]electricity as a fundamental property of biological tissues, the origin of bioelectric effects in mineralized tissues, and the electrical conduction in living bone. He was also an engaged educator developing educational programs for elementary schools and science curriculums at the secondary school level and actively participated in the National Science Teachers Association.

The Myth of Scientific Literacy
by Morris H. Shamos
Rutgers University Press; 1995

Although everybody complains about the decline of public education and lack of science literacy, it is worthwhile to actually ask, if the reasons for complaining are valid. Science literacy and popularizing of science are not the same thing and much of the blame that goes around lies in the confusion about these two aspects of public understanding of science. Shamos concludes that true scientific literacy as proposed by John Dewey's 'scientific habits of the mind' cannot be realized to the degree of reading and writing (alphabetize). If science literacy, however, means a simple awareness of science as cultural literacy, or a functional scientific literacy, prospects of achieving the goal are much better. Shamos delivers an excellent reasoning for his conclusion and the book includes a well written and easy to understand chapter about science (The nature of science; chapter 3). At the end of the day the key to achieving scientific literacy remains the teacher.

Shamos starts out with the simple notion that the 'reasoned approach that supposedly characterizes the practice of science has not carried over very well into science education.' Shamos clarifies the purpose of science education, examines the history and meaning of scientific literacy and explains the reason for failure of achieving the goal, if the goal is for every citizen to be literate in science. Shamos demands a radically new approach to science education if literacy of science concepts is to be achieved. For this, one has to teach the specific mode of thinking in science:

                                observation  --  premise  --  conclusion

Science literacy requires that we understand all three steps: obtaining information, classification of facts, and drawing logical conclusions. We can always come to the 'right' conclusion based on logical reasoning. The conclusions, although logically consistent, are wrong if the premises are wrong or the observations inaccurate. If we lack the means to distinguish correct from incorrect premises, i.e., a scientific method, logic does not help at all. Everything can be rationalized, but is it scientific? Science literacy, for example, means to be able to explain why Darwin's words (e.g. the theory of evolution) for a biologist have a different quality and logical structure than the Word of God (e.g. the Bible, the Koran, the Thora) for a believer. This distinction touches at the core of the problem   --   science literacy does not mean that everybody becomes a scientist, but to know what science is about and what it is not about.

May 15, 1999 /  © 1999 Lukas K. Buehler / go back to Book Review Home