28 July 2009

What is scientific literacy?

I'll fling this open for comment, and hold mine for later so as to not steer things too much. What is scientific literacy? There's enough talk publicly about there not being enough scientific literacy around, and I tend to agree, but I've noticed that it's pretty rare for anybody to say just what they mean by the term. Maybe I wouldn't agree if I knew what they meant.

What are your thoughts on what scientific literacy is? And how important (please compare it to something else, not just 'very', or 'hardly at all') do you think it is for modern societies to be scientifically literate?


Anonymous said...

It seems to be implicitly defined (in terms of Pew surveys and the like) as a grasp of basic "facts" (e.g. dates, names of processes, rough idea of temporal/spatial scales, etc.) pertaining to a sort of "ring" of knowledge, that starts out at the "macro" level of cosmology/astronomy and drills down through planetary-scale processes of both geophysical and biological phenomena to the genetic level and perhaps into particle physics- which in linking back to cosmology offers the appearance of a sort of narrative unity/coherency.

jg said...

Key to lay person's scientific literacy is being able to recognize the difference between a professional journal and the metaphorical equivalent to a science tabloid.

For example, many intelligent people (outside of the climate and science blogosphere) may not know the difference between this story from Astronomy magazine about an NCAR researcher teasing out the influence of the sun on El Nino (Solar cycle linked...) and this story from ABC about someone predicting weather one year in advance based on an undisclosed solar method: Tabloid Science example

I read both with scrutiny, but the Astronomy article didn't alarm me; if the work proves significant, I'm sure I'll read about it in Nature. The ABC news story, however, struck me as irresponsible, so I did a little digging (that eventually put me at
William Connolley's site--very helpful).

From distinguishing between peer-reviewed science and science tabloids comes an understanding of how science is conducted, that current thought is the result of a paper trail of published work, rebuttals, and finally frequent citation.

It asks a lot of people to know every subject any deeper than this, but they should be able to follow up a news story, e.g., find a scientist who was quoted and look at his or her curriculum vitae to see if it merits such news attention and is consistent with the story.

John G

Anonymous said...

I'd also concur that discrimination between media/tabloid "science" and published, reviewed studies and between published, reviewed studies and robust scientific conclusions (dare I say, consensus?) may be more important than a high level of personal knowledge. Although it's obviously difficult to completely untangle the two.

Put differently, it's probably a lot less important societally whether or not people have heard about the McGill University team's proposed oldest rock either by hearing about it in Science or USA Today than it is that they know (roughly) the age of the Earth and what the differences between Science and USA Today are in terms of reflecting the state of the science.

jg said...

I apologize for only answering the first question; here's the second: I think it is obvious that being scientifically literate is not an essential skill for survival or success. And it's irrelevance to survival and success should be fought by scientists and educators.

Understanding scientific methodology and the concept of peer-review, publishing, critique, and citation should be required for a high school diploma.


Hank Roberts said...

Ya know, I'd define the _capacity_ to acquire scientific literacy as being able to cook, do arithmetic and read, and be curious and willing to learn. That's pretty basic.

I tried to answer what one would be expected to know, but while I was fumbling around with that I ran across this, and realized they were right back at college, everything I know is wrong ...

“spintronics without magnetism”—relies on our ability to manipulate carrier spins in semiconductors ...

I don't think I _am_ scientifically literate. I know people who are, and most of them would probably say they're only scientifically literate within their own area of publication, or some subset of that.

But if they took away all the librarians and left nothing but the bloggers, twitters, and tapdancing farting icons, I'd soon have no clue what to rely on.

John Mashey said...

It is inherent that people are rapidly becoming less scientifically literate all the time, simply because there is so much more science :-) Good news, bad news ... but why some institutions try hard to foster interdisciplinary research.

On the other hand, in Singapore,at a Polytechnic I've reviewed, the first thing they teach 17-year-olds is how to search the Web and assess the credibility of what they find. Personally, I think that's a little late, but it's certainly a clear prerequisite.

P. Lewis said...

It’s a good question, which I’d never thought about previously; and that is surprising in retrospect, as being scientifically literate is a requisite for what I’ve done throughout my working life.

So I did some research (ain’t the Web wonderful?); lo and behold, there are definitions of the term from (quasi-)political and academic/pedagogic angles.

There are these from the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada and the OECD.

Wikipedia even has a page on it.

And there are these from the National Science Education Standards and the University of York Science Education Group (also the links to ‘Ideas about science’ and ‘Science explanations’ on that UoY page).

What is clear is that, much like any other form of literacy, there is a spectrum when it comes to scientific literacy: I know people who can just about name the basic constituents of an atom and someone who can espouse on a QM picture of the atom. Both groups are scientifically literate in their own ways – it’s just that the literacy chasm is vast.

However, given the nature of this blog, others of it’s ilk (both scientific and pseudoscientific) and a large proportion of their respondents (and I suspect probably at least part of the reason for raising this question in the first place), while scientific literacy is a necessary requisite to participate properly in, for example, climate-related blog debates, it is most assuredly not a sufficient attribute to ensure that one’s voice on such matters is anything like approaching correct (notwithstanding legitimate differences in data interpretation and in competing truly scientific hypotheses).

No, examples abound in the blogosphere of scientific literates being completely nonsensical when it comes to AGW (I can think of a handful of blog respondents who are, I presume, science majors – who must by definition be scientifically literate – who fit that bill).

No, psychological flaws impinge on many scientific literates, and training and literacy then fly out of the window.

P. Lewis

Thomas Joseph said...

1. What is scientific literacy? Taken from the National Academy of Sciences: Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately. (National Science Education Standards, page 22)

Given this definition, I believe that scientific literacy means that the individual is able to apply critical thinking skills to issues with a scientific bent. I believe that this means that we really need to get away from the rote memorization system of teaching, which IMO crushes critical thinking skills at an early age. People grow up thinking the correct answers are always going to be provided to them. Then when issues get politicized, they're sitting ducks.

2. How important is it for modern society to be scientifically literate?

Extremely important. This country was founded upon the ideas of people who could think for themselves. Just look at the countries that suppress critical thinking. I'd hardly call them "modern societies". There is a lot of blame to go around, and journalism (not science) should take the bulk of the blame. All the major networks, all the major newspapers and magazines ... all put their own political spin on everything. Where have the days gone where people give us the facts, and we make up our own minds?

Horatio Algeranon said...

Horatio's working definition of "Scientific Literacy":

Being able to recognize WUWT for what it is -- and, more importantly, what it isn't.


PS if you don't already know what it is -- and isn't -- you're not there yet, of course, but don't give up hope.

Read some science written for the layman (or laymouse), preferably on blogs like this one (but definitely not on WUWT) and you will undoubtedly eventually make it into the exclusive club of geeks (maybe even get a lab coat).

John Mashey said...

I've been building scales,categories and maps to try to model science & anti-science, especially around climate science.

On Scale K:

K0 = no real knowledge

K1 = knows some math/science basics and critical thinking (can detect common fallacies, knows just enough to detect how to lie with {statistics, charts, maps}

K2 = has at least read a few recent books for the general audience written by field experts (and then keeps up, at least with credible lay science, occasionally).

I'd be very happy happy to get most people to solid K1, since in many fields they can get to K2 fairly quickly.

I'd call someone scientifically literate if they are solid K1, and K2 on multiple science fields.

P. Lewis said...

At least in terms of raw numbers, our (the world's) modern society is more scientifically literate than any other society at any time in history, given the number of people now in scientific, medical and technological employment, for which a scientific education is an inescapable requisite.

But even in this age of increased scientific literacy, even people considered very scientifically literate still believe in pseudoscience. Yes, they do! Look up William Tiller and Marcel Vogel for starters. Why? I refer the honourable members to a previous answer.

Robert Grumbine said...

P. Lewis:

In terms of raw numbers, today's world is more of everything than previous times. That says nothing useful; there are simply far more people around now. So, while it's true that there are more scientists in the US now than previously, that has very much to do with there being 100 times as many people in the US now than previously (US population now, about 300 million, at the time of the revolution, about 3 million). There are also far more people in to any given pseudo-science than before.

For more or less democratic societies, it is the percentages that matter. I expect that the losers of the last few presidential elections received more votes than anybody prior to, say, 1980. And some minor party candidates of the last 20 years had more votes than the winners of the first good many elections.

One of my reasons for interest in scientific literacy is that I think it is important for democratic societies. If the figures drop as percentages, that's a problem for the society.

P. Lewis said...

Yes. I edited my previous contribution just prior to posting it to remove a second para on that very subject of proportion (and preface the first with "At least"). I realised it was leaving me open to that reply.

I did so after thinking about it for quite some time, though.

It spoiled the flow in going from para 1 to the posted para 2, as, certainly at the moment, I don't think scientific literacy is the problem, at least not per se. Reasonable people (by that I mean people without an agenda) who are not scientifically literate can well follow reasoned argument, whether it's a scientific subject or not.

One of the biggest benefits to modern societies, both democratic and non-democratic (thinking back to the Soviet Bloc really) has been almost universal education from around 5 years old to at least the mid teens, and almost all of those students, for the last half century at least, will have had schooling in science (chemistry, biology, physics and maths) for the best part of 10 or more of their formative years. Yet, you get the idiocy that is crystal healing and the likes of (the example I wanted to avoid) the YECs, areas populated by (sometimes lots of and very) scientifically literate people.

In fact, I begin to wonder whether scientific literacy is a double-edged sword, since deluded scientifically literate people can be quite persuasive precisely because of their scientific literacy (referring back to the chasm I mentioned earlier, it might be easier to dupe people -- a lttle knowledge and all that jazz).

No, my hypothesis is that any problem in this regard is rooted in psychology and human insecurites and frailties, not scientific literacy per se. It seems that however scientifically literate a person may be, you just can't tell/persuade them over certain personally held, irrational beliefs. There's an immovable mental block, it seems to me.

Robert Grumbine said...

I'll take up some parts separately, but for now ...

I think there are some issues regarding scientific literacy, and democratic systems, that are wildly different today vs. 60 and more years ago.

One of the things I do is read old books, including old books on science for popular audiences. Also old history and science and technology books. From that perspective, I'll suggest that in the vein of democratic systems, prior to the mid-50s to mid-60s (and for specific dates, I'm primarily talking about the US, but similar issues apply elsewhere with perhaps only slightly different dates), science was treated largely an aristocracy. If the aristocrat said that something should be done, or was good, etc., then it was, and one did it.

Today we reserve that for plumbers and car mechanics.

The alternative to some sort of aristocracy (meritocracy) -- having a class of people who are deemed to know what they're talking about and whom you pay attention to in whatever area they're deemed to be attention-worthy -- is a democracy.

But such a democracy requires that the bulk of the population now becomes knowledgeable about all those areas previously left to aristocrats. In other words, if people (as population fractions) truly were less knowledgeable about science in the 1920s than today (which I can't say either way from hard evidence), it mattered little because they were far more inclined to pay attention to the people who had studied the science seriously.

It's better to call it meritocracy, of course. In that one demonstrates merit (knowledge and ability with the topic), and only then is paid such attention. Again as with plumbers, car mechanics, or professional athletes.

My preference is for democracy, so it follows that I think more people should learn more about the science (and, for that matter, plumbing). As with plumbing, or professional sports, though, there comes a point when it's still best to turn to those who have developed substantial expertise.

The folks you're describing with -- the little knowledge being a dangerous thing (therefore drink deep of knowledge) -- are, I'll suggest, quite illiterate. Namely, they don't realize they've only taken a shallow sip. Such people -- who think they know a lot, but don't -- are the easiest to fool.

Brian Dodge said...

IMHO, there are a lot of building blocks to scientific literacy. The foundation stone is an awareness of the difference between objective reality and belief, and the realization that every person's world view is a combination of belief in what they have learned of objective reality(e.g. gravity, which I believe in), and what they have learned of what I call "myth". These myths are the basis for human value judgment, and important to society, civilization, and so on, but we're talking about science so I'll not get into details about that. Science, objective reality, doesn't make value judgments - if we've screwed the climate up so bad that we go extinct, as far as the science goes, that's not "good" or "bad", it simply "will" or "will not" occur. The next blocks are the awareness that things you believe to be objective reality may be myth, and that you have to rely on the assessment of others, who may be wrong, about things they know that you haven't learned or can't learn firsthand, and that there are bad ways(gut feelings - Al Gore is fat; Jim Hansen is a Republican therefore they are unreliable) and good ways(Eric Rignot's paper on Greenland ice sheet velocity has been cited 282 times, and his paper on mass balance has been cited 199 times, and the highest ranked paper on this google scholar search page not authored by him, cited 101 times, cites him, so he probably knows a lot about Greenland Ice sheet dynamics).
Which leads to Another important building block to scientific literacy - mathematical literacy- one has to know the difference between counting and measuring, and why all measurements have inherent error bars. One has to have some idea of scaling, and how these apply to length, area, and volume, and exponential versus linear growth. One has to have some knowledge of statistics, If only to help judge the reliability of others assessments of reality that you can't experience firsthand. One has to understand enough math to know what an integral is, and why taking the derivative before looking for correlations in trends is a bad idea. One has to know the difference between inaccurate and wrong - a LOT of arguments in science occur because people who should know better conflate the two.
Another important building block is knowledge of physics fundamentals- What power is, and energy, and heat, and how these get transferred by radiation, conduction, convection, momentum, and phase changes. One should know about entropy, heat engines, and the partitioning of energy between power output and losses. Knowing about momentum and phase changes presupposes knowing about matter and mass. one should know about electric charge, magnetism, and the electromagnetic wave / particle duality of photons.
Knowing about charged particles, neutral particles, mass, and the summation of charges leads to atoms, which leads to chemistry. The scientifically literate know about reduction, oxidation, ionic and covalent bonding, the periodic table, metallic and ionic conductivity, and polymers.
One should particularly know about the long heteropolymer DNA, and something about how DNA controls the construction of proteins, and is passed on from one generation to the next, but can evolve over time by mutation, recombination, differential expression, and natural selection. Which of course leads to the scientifically literate knowing about biology, the difference between autotrophs and heterotrophs, cell differentiation in multicellular organisms, plants, insects, reptiles, mammals, and how their interactions define ecosystems.
One also needs to have some idea of areas where one doesn't know enough to make decisions, and where to go to get answers. Most scientifically literate people I know have college level textbooks in physics, math, chemistry, biology, maybe the CRC handbook of physics & chemistry, although with the internet these are no longer essential. I also have a friend who has a PhD from MIT, and is a whiz at calculus, where I'm weak.

Anonymous said...

This is usually a term used in the negative, as in "you are scientifically illiterate" and used to stifle debate. Hoisting oneself up by their own patard, so to speak. The problem is that Science has so many disciplines and sub-disciplines -- having the effect of enabling the "sub-discipline expert" to become Czar of discussions. One may be an expert in one scientific field, but not another -- and therefore selectively labled as illiterate by an expert in some sub-discipline. This language only serves to stifle real debate and progress on important issues.

guthrie said...

I can't think of any time online I've seen the excuse of "your sciencetifically illiterate" being used to stifle debate.

I've seen it used on people who are genuinely scientifically illiterate, usually after people have spent ages spoonfeeding them the science only to have it ignored and the same stupid questions asked again and again.

Maybe it is different where you are? I think I've heard of an example or two at the political level, but online things are much more mature.

Anna Haynes said...

Just want to say, again, that epistemological skills (including assessing credibility) are more important for the populace than is scientific literacy.

re Thingsbreak's "It seems to be implicitly defined (in terms of Pew surveys and the like) as a grasp of basic "facts" " - interesting. I wonder if the Pew folks don't test for real scientific literacy because they themselves don't have it.

Confidential to Pew: call Mashey.

Robert Grumbine said...

guthrie: Sorry about the posting lag.

I can't say that I've seen it often, since I avoid places where it's common, but I have indeed seen the usage 'anon' complained of. It is usually a lot quicker and easier to just call someone 'illiterate' than to explain what it is they've got wrong. And people do fall for the easy route at times.

I tend to think that what you're calling epistemological skills are essential parts of scientific literacy. Science, I think, is perhaps the best area to teach those skills as nature doesn't care about what your political or religious beliefs are. The feedback (of discovering you accepted a false argument) can be more direct.