BALTIMORE — A substantial part of the U.S. population is "technologically illiterate" and encounters serious problems in everyday life, a prestigious conference was told Friday.
Experts at the three-day National Technological Literacy Conference said that many people are unable to grasp the significance of issues such as nutrition, the safety of contraceptive devices and the recent space shuttle explosion--and therefore are unable to make informed decisions at ballot boxes and shopping centers.
"We've let science become magic instead of hard technical decisions that everybody has to face," Rustum Roy, director of the Science, Technology and Society program at Pennsylvania State University, told a news conference. Too many people, he added, fail to connect science with everyday activities like buying appliances or voting on environmental issues.
"I guess you don't have to be a scientist or a technician to be able to vote," said Democratic Gov. Richard D. Lamm of Colorado, "but on the other hand I sure do think that it is extremely important to the long-term health of democracy that people know those basic trends that are affecting our society."
The conference, organized by the National Science Foundation and Pennsylvania State University, released a national survey of 2,000 adults, showing that:
--70% did not understand radiation.
--Four of 10 people thought that space rocket launchings make the weather change and that some unidentified flying objects are actually visitors from other planets.
--More than 80% did not understand how telephones work.
--Three-fourths did not have a clear understanding of what computer software is.
--The gross national product was not understood by 72%.
Jon D. Miller, director of the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University, which conducted the telephone survey, defined technological literacy as "an understanding of the application of science and engineering to the solution of concrete problems."
On a scale of 1 to 10 the median score for people in the survey was 4.4. To be "literate," Miller said, a person should score 9 or 10. Only 2% scored a 9 or 10, and 16% scored 2 or lower, a figure the study said represents 28 million adults when the survey percentage is applied to the nation's entire adult population.
Calling the survey's results "disappointing," Miller said that the people in the survey were questioned about items that "were not inherently difficult."
"It is not unreasonable to expect citizens of a modern democratic nation to understand terms like radiation or GNP," Miller said.
The study said that men scored "significantly higher" than women and that people younger than 25 and older than 65 were "significantly less likely" than those in middle years to be "technologically literate."
Shortage of Teachers
Several conference participants said that the inability to produce enough science and math teachers is a large part of the problem. Betty Vetter, executive director of the Washington-based Scientific Manpower Commission, said that by the 1990s the Los Angeles area will need more new math and science teachers than are now being produced in the entire nation.
In Los Angeles, Michael P. Acosta, director of teacher and recruitment selection for Los Angeles schools, said during the next five years the school district will require 2,600 additional teachers. The district must "get in partnership" with colleges to produce more, he said.
A number of experts at the conference called for increased pressure on community leaders and on schools to emphasize technology and science in curricula.