Einstein without tears

How long ago it seems since people felt chagrined because they could not tell Stravinsky from Bartok. Or because they had never read a line of T.S. Eliot. Or because, in a multiple-choice test, they had checked off Henry Moore as a choreographer.

One's cultural deficiencies used to be a social disgrace. One had to repair them, or at least cover them up, before one went out into polite society. A certain hypocrisy resulted.

Today it is a scandalous lack of knowledge about physics or biology that brings a blush to the cheek. A new hypocrisy is in operation - performing lip service to the sciences - and the faking that goes on among otherwise decent citizens would shock an alchemist. On the grounds that it takes one to know one, we have prepared a list of the ways a scientific illiterate can be caught in the act of pretense.

The most conspicuous books in the home of this poseur will be J. D. Bernal's boxed volumes, ''Science in History,'' casually surrounded with essays by such scientific generalists as Peter Medawar, Stephen Jay Gould, and Lewis Thomas. Works by Carl Sagan will be excluded. Sagan is no longer thought to be ''in.'' These books will be kept dusted. If deemed necessary, pages may be deliberately dogeared.

In conversation our fraud will mention, now and then, the TV program ''Nova.'' ''Nova'' is about as close as your scientific poseur comes to firsthand experience. Just because of this, he or she will make a point of criticizing ''Nova,'' in a contemptuously offhand manner (''I happened to tune in on 'Nova' the other night, and I must say, those folks missed the whole idea in their program on the Mbuti pygmies'').

Through listening carefully to those who truly know, an alert poseur will have learned other fail-safe gambits that can be inserted into almost any conversation. For example: ''That's pretty soft data, if you ask me.'' Or: ''Elegant theory! But I'm sure you know that a revisionist school of thought out of Berkeley has stood your premise on its head.''

Apart from ''Nova'' and the odd TV special (''Walter Cronkite Personally Presents the Universe'' or titles to that effect), the scientific poseur learns most of the little he knows from Discover, Omni, or Science84. The new generation of science magazines has been invented to cater to us poseurs.

Knowing how awesomely ignorant we are, they specialize in a prose just this side of alphabet blocks. Here is a sample: ''Electricity is almost certainly the most elusive of everyday things. It lives in the walls of our houses. . . . Yet very few people understand what electricity is or how it works.''

How these magazines labor to make the sciences ''fun''! - a word they are not ashamed to overuse. They teach us math by examples of gambling odds. They teach us physics through the carom of pool balls. They proffer the robot-of-the-month. Above all, they outdo one another in hailing the Age of the Computer. Nothing betrays their estimate of us poseur-readers more than the way they play up personalities. The ''fun'' disciplines, it seems, are full of ''fun'' guys, like - we quote - ''The Bug Man of Ithaca,'' a Cornell biologist who must have burrowed a small hole himself when he read that he looks like Walter Matthau and sounds like Woody Allen.

Sheldon Lee Glashow, a Nobel Prize-winner in physics at Harvard, gets described in the March issue of Science84 as ''science's version of the Galloping Gourmet.''

Even a ''fun'' reader may wonder if things are going too far. Still, once past the song and dance, this poseur was glad to hear what Professor Glashow had to say: ''We're living in a technological society, and the people are accustomed to the rights and privileges of high technology, but they are technologically ignorant. I blame much of this on the quality of math and science teaching in this country. I have many students in my core course at Harvard who are so afraid of anything to do with mathematics, or even just numbers. . . . You think dyslexia is a problem? . . . Being unable to deal with numbers is both more prevalent and much more serious.''

Blunt words! And they hit a poseur where he lives.

We went home and dusted our Van Nostrand's ''Scientific Encyclopedia'' and resolved to watch the ''Nova'' program ''It's About Time,'' with Dudley Moore as host. Can ''It's About Space,'' with Bo Derek as hostess, be far behind?

But whom are we scientific poseurs kidding? Only ourselves. One of these days we're going to get serious and actually read J. D. Bernal. One of these days.

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