03 August 2009

Scientific Literacy

I'll suggest that literacies, scientific and others, are something like physical fitness. If you only know how to lift weights, or run, or exercise in general, you're not physically fit. You have to do the weight lifting, running, and other exercises to be physically fit. So it goes with literacies. If you have a knowledge to do something, whether that's reading, math, or bringing a scientific way of looking at scientific problems, but you don't actually do so on a fairly routine basis, you're not really literate at those things. You could become so, same as I will become physically fit again. But I haven't been exercising regularly, so I'm not physically fit at the moment.

Something mentioned in the comments I invited was there being a progression to scientific literacy. I'd never thought about it before, but that does make perfect sense. In physical fitness, there's a progression from getting out a couple of times a week and doing 20-30 minutes of something constructive, to 3-4 times a week at 30 minutes, to ... well quite a range. So it goes for scientific literacy -- a couple times a week reading and thinking about it, several times a week and applied to more challenging materials, and so on.

Related to that, though, is that the bulk of the population does not need to be at professional levels of activity to be 'fit', or 'literate'. I'll be in pretty good shape when I'm exercising my 5 hours or so a week. For running, that'll be about, oh,
20-25 miles per week with other activity, like weights, thrown in. But a competitive runner would be going 70-150 miles per week. I won't be doing that. And I'll be running at, say, 10 minutes per mile, as opposed to the 6 minutes of the elites. Still, I'll be fit -- even if not ready to challenge professionals to a head to head race. The scientifically literate person won't be ready to publish in the professional literature, but they can certainly read reports about it, and even (at higher levels of literacy) read the original papers themselves and gain from the reading.

A number of people mentioned particular items that should be known. Sometimes with the mention that there was too much, any more, to be known for possibly anybody to be truly literate. I'll disagree, really on both sides. Going to literature, for the moment, 200 years ago there were rather few books being published. At that time, one might have a sense that being literate meant that you'd read some notable fraction of the books being written (or that had been written). Then comes modern publishing and far too many books published each year for anybody to read any significant fraction of them. Did a reading rate that was literate 200 years ago become illiterate today? Or was that just not a good way of defining literacy? I opt for the latter. It has probably never been the case that anybody could know all that there was in science, and certainly not any time in a very long time.

My own take is that scientific literacy is less a matter of the fraction of all knowledge that you know, and more a matter of how you react to new knowledge that is offered up to you. The scientifically literate person, for example, may well not know that ozone is also a greenhouse gas. But, on encountering a claim that it is, be able to tell that it is important to the argument at hand that it is, and know how (and carry out) to check as to whether it is.

In this vein, I agree strongly with the folks suggesting that one of the skills of a scientifically literate person is that they can (and, I'll add, do) evaluate whether the source they're looking at is scientific or not. Things like my 'weeding sources' suggestions become second nature to the scientifically literate people. Acquiring new knowledge is no help if that new material is false. In that vein, as I've commented elsewhere with John Mashey about his K index (do take a look at it in the comments already linked to), I think there's such a thing as negative knowledge -- thinking things that are not true. For example, thinking that the earth is flat, or the sun circles the earth are negative knowledge. That's much worse, to my mind, that merely not knowing that the earth is round and circles the sun.

Where, then, does knowing science factoids come in? Certainly all the scientifically literate people I know (and I do consider that I know several nonscientists who are scientifically literate) do know a fair number of science factoids. My feeling is that this is a result of being scientifically literate, not the cause. For fitness example, right now I'd probably cover a mile in about 15 minutes, mostly walking. As I become more fit, I'll cover that mile faster, eventually getting somewhere around 6 minutes. But running the mile faster is not fitness -- I wouldn't necessarily be more fit if I ran 5:51 instead of 6:20. I might actually be in best fitness at a time when I was running the mile in 6:40 -- better endurance, strength for trail running, better core strength, etc..

The process of evaluating a report about some scientific work is, for scientific literacy, then, like going for a training run is for physical fitness. The training runs are where you improve your physical fitness -- build and train muscles, your cardiovascular system, and so on. The evaluation process -- which will involve learning the meaning of terms, some elementary facts, connections between facts in that field -- is the training run for scientific literacy. After you've done the training, you know facts. But they're the byproduct, same as a better mile time is for being more physically fit.

There is a serious practical problem in this, and maybe some teachers (hint to my sisters) will add some comments on that. Namely, state and local curriculum requirements are heavily oriented towards memorizing facts, rather than 'how to do science', 'how to evaluate scientific claims', and the like. Teachers who simply started running their classes in the direction of my notion of scientific literacy would probably be fired for failure to do their job (as the states and local school boards see it).

Still, maybe teachers can chime in with their observations of either what the literacy is, or how to implement ideas like this in the classroom.


quasarpulse said...

While I generally agree with you that the number of facts one knows is less important than the way in which one approaches new information, I'd still assign a certain level of importance to knowing some facts.

One of the shifts in education over the last few decades has been away from teaching facts and toward teaching critical thinking. Critical thinking is of course a wonderful skill. But it's one that can't be taught in a vacuum; people need something to think critically about, and they need some sort of foundation for their criticism.

Taking your example of someone being told that ozone is a greenhouse gas: in order to evaluate the relevance and credibility of this statement, one needs a grasp on a few basic scientific facts. What is a gas? What is a greenhouse gas? What is ozone? Is it a gas? Is it or could it plausibly be present in Earth's atmosphere? These are all things that can be researched, but the more layers of research one has to do to evaluate a claim, the more difficult it is, and there comes a point where it's simply no longer possible.

I'd like to draw an analogy to reading. Say we define someone as literate in a language if they can sound out the words and look up the ones whose meaning they don't know in a dictionary. By that standard, I'm literate in any language that uses the Roman alphabet. But in English, I can read most non-technical material confidently without ever using a dictionary; in Spanish or French, I might have to use one once per page; and in German, I need to look up at least one word out of every sentence to read even children's books. In, say, Finnish, I find it nearly impossible to extract any sort of meaning at all out of a sentence longer than two words. So my definition seems to be missing an essential element; in order to be literate, I need a basic vocabulary. I argue that the same is true in science.

John Mashey said...

"I think there's such a thing as negative knowledge -- thinking things that are not true. For example, thinking that the earth is flat, or the sun circles the earth are negative knowledge. That's much worse, to my mind, that merely not knowing that the earth is round and circles the sun."

We all know that math and science have long chains of knowledge dependencies that require most people to start early and keep at it. This shows up as a dependency graph (typically a DAG, or a PERT-like chart) in which certain levels require multiple chains of prerequisites.

he K-scale I use is a simple scalar approximation of the above. I feel OK there, because real science does build.

I've tried several different models of "negative knowledge", trying for one that might be objective, and useful. It hasn't been easy, but I've got a new approach that seems to help. I'm trying to validate it versus various examples, although I've suspended that temporarily to study the social network behind that "Open Letter to APS".

If it holds up, in a week or two, I'll send something over for comments and/or possible guest post, as per your earlier kind offer.

As a hint of the issue, consider the meme "but Mars is warming, so no AGW", like @ Skeptical Science.

IF someone says that, one might be tempted to say K-1 or K-2 ... but then, Richard Lindzen (~K9?) also says it. Non-intuitive, because while real knowledge/skills can usually be assigned some plausible place on the K0-K10 scale, something different is going on with "Mars...".

Anyway, real knowledge, compared to "negative knowledge" reminds me of Tolstoy's

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

ms. susan grumbine said...

NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND = we drag them all down together. Oh Dr. Bob, what a provocative topic scientific literacy is. While I collect my thoughts and lower my raised hackles, I will leave note of having read and been affected by your post.

Scientific literacy is at an all time low, in my opinion, due to the funding of education as a product oriented "industry." I appreciate that there are still people in the world who believe in a 'shift in education over the last few decades' toward critical thinking and would like to know where they went to school. We have done so poorly in science education in the past several decades that we no longer have a pool of scientifically literate teachers capable of facilitating the education of students toward scientific literacy.

More to come...after I finish my morning coffee (and maybe down a valium.)

llewelly said...

Knowing lots of facts is like have a lot of legos (or a lot of erector-set pieces). You can build bigger structures, and you can be more expressive, if your architectural skills are sufficient. But if you've no legos at all, you can't build anything (ignoring, for the sake of argument, other building materials). What you can build is not driven primarily by either quantity of legos or architectural skill, but by the product of the two. Likewise, the ideas you can understand or conceive, is determined not primarily by either your base of facts, or your thinking abilities, but by the product of the two.

Robert Grumbine said...

quasarpulse, llewelly:
Remember, I'm not taking the line that scientific literacy is some abstract art that requires nothing further. Literacy only occurs where there is a regular application of those skills. And if you regularly apply the skills, you'll regularly be adding to your stock of facts as well. Unlike with physical fitness, the facts don't die away in a matter of weeks and months. Though, as with physical fitness, if you're exercising more often, you'll keep more of them, longer.

So in my ozone example, I'd hope that an adult will have previously encountered (and retained) the meaning of 'gas', 'greenhouse gas', 'oxygen', the principles that even if an effect exists, it might not be large enough to matter in a given situation, and a couple other such things. In this case, what needs to be added is only the ozone-specific things, and it's a relatively quick and easy job. Agreed that the more of this one has to learn at the time, the less likely they are to wade through it all.

But this isn't a matter, I think, of 'learn more facts and all will be well'. Because it's relatively easy to make a classroom memorize definitions of 'gas', 'greenhouse gas', etc. -- which they will then forget a few minutes after the end of the test. If the focus, as it so often is on standardized tests, is on fact lists, so goes the teaching.

If the focus is over on 'regularly learn about the world', that, I think, has much better staying power. If you are regularly learning about the world, you will acquire a bunch of facts. Between the facts and the regular habit of exercising, it's easier to acquire the next batch of facts, and understand the next part of the universe (or at least the next science story in the paper, on the blog, or whatever).

I say these things with little time actually trying to teach it in the classroom. So I hope that Susan has a chance to relax and come back with comments as she has been teaching jr. high science students.

She's also the originator of Grumbine Science, Quasarpulse is Even More Grumbine Science. (Until Llewelly contributed, this was an in-family discussion :-)

More voices welcome!

John Mashey said...

My high school had good math and science, but for the critical thinking element of scientific literacy, the best class I had was junior year, AP American History:

1) ~hour homework/night.

2) Emphasis on balance of knowing facts and being able to understand/weigh and synthesize views.

3) Text books and reading assignments were chosen to often disagree with each other, which of course, is fairly easy to do in historical explanations. Some students found this *very* disturbing at first.

4)5 75-minute class periods/week.

5) Most class time spent not in lectures, but socratic style.
Teacher: "Student X: from your reading, why do you think event XYZ happened, where and when it did?" Student X could say *anything* if they could back it up, but a fluffy answer wouldn't get far. Inevitably, someone else would have studied deeper or found some more sources in the library and would gleefully tear X to shreds.

Tests had the most brutal multiple-choice questions I've ever seen, combined with essays that required clear exposition and marshalling of evidence.

6) Of course, it also contrasted social science with physical science, i.e., that the former might well have current books by experts taking opposite viewpoints on major issues, whereas the latter tended to disagree mostly at the edges.

7) The closest I've seen to this was 2 years ago, doing an external review of Republic Polytechnic in Singapore, which uses an intense version of Problem Based Learning for its 17-19-year-olds:

- 5 5-student teams/class

- everyone has laptop

- minimal paper, every classroom has WiFi projector

- 5 courses/semester, but each "class" in a course lasts all day (9-5), so course A would be every Monday, for example:

- First hour is part lecture, part presentation of some related problem sets (like Poisson arrivals of whales, for 18-year-olds).

- Teams start talking about problems, looking things up. A first-semester course includes "How to find things on Web and assess credibility, and get beyond Wikipeida", probably first week.

- About a half an hour for any clarifications.

- Teams spend next ~3 hours solving problems, creating Powerpoints/spreadsheets/charts, using WWW and physical library.

- Then, each team gets about 20-25 minutes to present its solutions to the class, with much probing by teacher of how they got the results they got.

- Then, an hour wrapup, maybe with an (individual) quiz, and perhaps some discussion by teacher of areas where students had trouble.

- As they are presenting, teachers entered notes into database; every student gets a grade for that day's work. Every student enters a paragraph every day "What did I learn today and how did I perform?".

- Course material all electronic, prepared by the senior teachers and faculty. Individual teachers mainly focus on coaching, not course material preparation, i.e., there's less need for them to be domain experts.

It's unclear how well this translates to USA, but it felt more like group projects I used to give when I was teaching computer science. Every student was quite engaged, no one was sleeping back of room. Of course, this was Singapore, not necessarily typical of anything else.

But, in a weird way, the most impressive thing about this was their philosophy. Some students will go on to university, many straight to jobs. The faculty said they generally get 2nd/3rd-quartile students. Hence, they do not expect to see the very best students in Singapore very often, but they try to make average ones be the best they can be.