Does it matter? No doubt historians complain of a lack of historical knowledge in society and French teachers of a lack of awareness of French literature. However, I think science is different, for two reasons.
First, many challenges facing modern society involve a basic understanding of science. Issues such as the safety of commercial nuclear power, the ethics of embryonic stem-cell research, or action on greenhouse gas emissions all demand a basic knowledge of scientific concepts, and how scientific facts are established. This latter is the more important point – an understanding of the built-in scepticism of the scientific method builds confidence in scientific discovery.
Instead, public discourse on important scientific issues is often dominated by media commentary that has little idea of the methods of science, and that fails to distinguish between informed and uninformed opinion (not to mention vested interests). For example, much of the current “debate” concerning the reality of human-induced global warming occurs not within science, but in the media – a public scepticism that takes little account of the robustness of modern scientific enquiry.
A second, and often overlooked, reason for a public understanding of science is that science is part of the human experience, just as history and music are. Not everyone may want to partake in the actual discovery of the workings of the natural world, but they deserve to know what has been discovered! This science-as-culture argument was first articulated by the physicist C P Snow when he realised that he could engage in literary discussion with friends in the humanities, while they knew nothing of his subject. Indeed, he felt that the general public was being cheated out of a scientific education.
Actually, it goes beyond just having a set of knowledge to be able to comprehend all of the issues in our lives. A science education, one would hope, will give someone the skill to be able to think analytically and systematically. This allows for someone to know and categorize the degree of certainty of something he/she has accepted. Everything that we have accepted has varying degree of certainty. You may let someone buys you lunch, but you may not trust that person enough to look after your kids. You may read your horoscope, but do you accept it strong enough to be valid as to put your life and the lives of your loved ones on it? Knowing how we arrive at our opinion and how strong of a certainty we can put on that opinion is something very important, and something that one does not hear at all when dealing with complicated social, economic, and political issues. Various people and parties state their point of view with utter certainty. Yet, we always end up with all kinds of mess. If these people believe that they are THAT correct, why are they often wrong? A clear lesson on putting the degree of certainty on any kind of knowledge is something valuable that can be learned from a good science education.