Michael Zimmerman {"Newspaper Editors Are Dummies," op-ed, Jan. 26} appears distressed that fewer than half of the editors he questioned knew that the Earth is 4 billion to 5 billion years old. What a useless fact for most of us! Recall the story that Albert Einstein, asked the value of the velocity of light, responded that he never bothered to memorize data he could easily find in a reference book? Ask editors if a lot of cholesterol in the diet is good or bad. I'll bet they'd get that one right.

Zimmerman is puzzled that about half of his "victims" thought that scientists are atheists. Did he ask them to put that into a reasonable context by comparing their opinions on scientists' beliefs to their opinions on the beliefs of other groups? How about Wall Street traders?

It seems that Zimmerman believes that since the editors got a poor grade on his quiz they showed "scientific ignorance" and harbored "basic misconceptions." I don't buy that. After I earned a couple of degrees in chemistry, I set to work in industry and promptly forgot most of the basic knowledge that my teachers had me cram into my head. I still was able to spend the next 30 years using science to solve real problems.

Newspaper editors, like people in any other section of society, know the science they need in their lives. Zimmerman whines because they don't measure up to some academic criteria. Maybe his criteria stink because they are not really relevant. As for his jibe about people taking Fred Flintstone more seriously than Carl Sagan, that's a more transparent Aunt Sally than anything I ever heard in my school debating club, and I've heard some real lulus!

The truth is that there is a lot about good science being published in newspapers. There is no important advance in science, medicine and technology that escapes the eyes of newspaper and magazine editors. Editors, and readers, are pretty well informed on scientific matters that affect them. They know that smoking is bad. They know that obesity is bad. They know that carbohydrates are found in fruits and vegetables, not hamburger. They know that radon is being found in buildings, and it's not good. They know that acid rain is bad stuff too. They know that ultraviolet light is associated with skin cancer, and that there's a hole in the ozone layer. They're beginning to get the hang of gene splicing.

I guess some folks feel that the age of the Earth is just not worth worrying about, compared with keeping dry on top of a mountain during a storm, knowing how to prepare a hot meal on a cold night in the woods, or choosing the right fabrics and insulation for clothing and sleeping bags.

I have to confess that it upsets me to read studies by authors who make judgments about the "knowledge" and "intelligence" of other people. By what standards should people be judged to be scientifically literate? The dusty science that is in the reference sections of the libraries? Or the science that is part of our food, our houses, our clothing, our health and happiness? Editors seem to prefer the latter, and I'm hanged if I think that makes them dummies.

-- Trevor Smith