Why Science? by James Trefil

The cover of Why Science? by James Trefil. Teachers College Press

The Bottom Line

James Trefil coherently presents an argument that a basic understanding of science is necessary for individuals to take part intelligently in modern social & political discourse. Anyone interested in the role of science education in the United States would find this book a useful analysis of the situation, and why it has come about.

While Trefil clearly presents the need for greater "scientific literacy," he does not lay out a plan to fix the situation, but instead leaves it to the readers to seek their own solution.


  • A clear argument of why science education is necessary.
  • Does not propose that everyone must "think like a scientist."
  • Gives a precise listing of the key knowledge required for "scientific literacy"


  • The book is hardly revolutionary to those who already believe scientific knowledge is important.
  • The book provides fairly little in the way of advice on how to remedy the situation.


  • Teachers College Press & National Science Teachers Association Press, 2008
  • 194 pages, endnotes, references, & index
  • Author is a physics professor at George Mason University and a recognized voice in science education.

Guide Review - Why Science? by James Trefil

In the late 1980's, The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy was published and became quite popular, at least in my middle school. The application of these concepts were applied by my teachers and, I believe, has served me well in life.

One of the authors of that book is James Trefil and in his newest book, Why Science?

, he makes the case for "scientific literacy." This, as he defines it, is the scientific "matrix of knowledge" that one can expect an intelligent member of society to possess.

In his view, the goal of science education is not merely to create scientists, but to provide all citizens with the tools needed to understand the world.

Trefil begins the book with his arguments in support of the need for scientific literacy, specifically focusing on the areas of civics, culture, & aesthetics. Just as one can understand a reference to Noah's Ark without intensive religious training, an intelligent American should be expected to understand a reference to the second law of thermodynamics (for example) without a science degree.

The book's one major flaw is that it motivates the reader to do something, but leaves them with little understanding of what they can possibly do to change things. His one concession is a list of "Grand Ideas," which he presents as a basis for the scientific literacy he espouses.

For those who firmly believe that the need for an educated populace, especially in the realm of science, page after page will find meaningful arguments that you can use when confronted with those opposed to science education, or those who believe it is only useful in training the next generation of scientists.

It is an excellent book and a worthy read for all science teachers and parents. As Trefil argues, all of us need to be scientifically literate ... not just the experts.