In keeping with the discussions around here about STEM jobs and education, I wanted to pass along this link from Coding Horror: "Please Don't Learn to Code". It's written by a programmer, as you might guess, and here's his main point:
To those who argue programming is an essential skill we should be teaching our children, right up there with reading, writing, and arithmetic: can you explain to me how Michael Bloomberg would be better at his day to day job of leading the largest city in the USA if he woke up one morning as a crack Java coder? It is obvious to me how being a skilled reader, a skilled writer, and at least high school level math are fundamental to performing the job of a politician. Or at any job, for that matter. But understanding variables and functions, pointers and recursion? I can't see it.
Look, I love programming. I also believe programming is important … in the right context, for some people. But so are a lot of skills. I would no more urge everyone to learn programming than I would urge everyone to learn plumbing. That'd be ridiculous, right?
I see his point. He goes on to say that more code is not necessarily what we need in the world, and that coding is not the proper solution to many problems. On a less philosophic level, the learn-to-code movement also makes it seem as if this is the short path to a job, which is not quite aligned with reality, either.
I suppose I can support learning a tiny bit about programming just so you can recognize what code is, and when code might be an appropriate way to approach a problem you have. But I can also recognize plumbing problems when I see them without any particular training in the area. The general populace (and its political leadership) could probably benefit most of all from a basic understanding of how computers, and the Internet, work. Being able to get around on the Internet is becoming a basic life skill, and we should be worried about fixing that first and most of all, before we start jumping all the way into code.
Now let's apply that to learning about chemistry and biology. It's not going to be a very comfortable exercise, because I (and many of the people who read this site) have put a lot of time and effort into learning an awful lot of chemistry and biology. I've written before about the problem of how much science the "average" person should know, and the least controversial answer is "More than they do now". After that, the arguing starts.
It would be nice if everyone knew enough to make some of the ridiculous scams out there harder to work. "Eat whatever you want and still lose 10 pounds a week with this miracle fat-burning supplement!" would be greeted with "Hey, isn't that thermodynamically sort of impossible?". "New Super-Ionized Oxygenated Water Reverses Aging!" would meet with "How do you "super-ionize" water? And how much oxygen can it hold, anyway? And wouldn't that be, like, bleach?" It would be good if people had a slightly better idea of what causes cancer, how diabetes works, a bit better understanding of toxicology, and so on.
But then we're already supposed to be teaching everyone some of the basics, and it doesn't necessarily seem to be going all that well (evidence, both hopeful and not, can be found here and here). Everyone's supposedly exposed to some simple astronomy, but surveys always show a depressing amount of confusion, when it comes to the earth, moon, and sun, which one of them is going around which. Everyone's supposed to have been exposed to the idea of cells making up living organisms, to DNA, and so on, but you can still seemingly get away with all kinds of off-kilter claims about such things when talking to a lay audience.
Some readers will remember the "Why Are You Forcing My Son to Take Chemistry" guy from the Washington Post. I wish that I could argue that chemistry, and a good dose of it, is prima facie a requirement for any reasonably competent citizen, but I'm not quite there yet. But I'm also sure that being completely ignorant of chemistry is a good indicator of someone whose worldview is incomplete and could use some shoring up. You need some knowledge in these areas, but we could start with getting across the stuff we're trying to get across already.
What I am sure of, though, is that a certain amount of science and math really is necessary, and not just for the bare facts. My daughter, when she was learning the quadratic equation, asked me the classic question "Why am I learning this? When will I ever use it?" My response to her was that I, too, had rarely had recourse to the quadratic equation as it stood. But at the same time, learning these things was good for the mind. I told her that when I went to the gym, it wasn't because I was planning on having to do more repetitive squats with a weighted bar on my back any time soon. But strengthening my back and legs was a good thing in general, and helped out with a lot of other things in my day-to-day life, in both the short and long terms. The same with the mind. Memorized the quadratic formula was not a great deal of use in and of itself, but that realization she had, in one of those thrown-ball problems, that the height of the ball was at the origin at just two points (at the beginning and the end of its flight), and that was why solving for time at that height gave you two solutions - that flash of understanding, I told her, was the feeling of mental muscle being built up, capacity that she would need for more than just her math homework. Everyone could do with some of that exercise.