What is Scientific Literacy?

By Mark Trodden | March 13, 2009 8:37 am

Via scientificblogging, a new survey reveals something about how much people understand about the natural world. A survey carried out by Harris Interactive for the California Academy of Sciences discovered, among other things, that

Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.

Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.

Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water.

Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.

and, to get more specific

… less than 1% of U.S. adults know what percent of the planet’s water is fresh (the correct answer is 3%)

Like many scientists, I do feel that there is something deeply depressing about numbers like this. However, I can’t help but feel that such surveys don’t get to the heart of the problem. Certainly the first two questions are things any person should know – not because they’re wonderful at remembering facts, but because an understanding of the underlying science should be a basic part of any education. But a focus on having numbers on the tip of one’s tongue isn’t really what science literacy is all about.

What we really lack is a population that is educated in scientific and critical thinking and problem solving. It really doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t know a specific answer to a question, as long as they know where to look for the answer, and how to understand the data and reasoning behind the correct number. Most importantly, they need the tools to be able to distinguish a robust answer from one that isn’t backed by any solid arguments.

Undoubtedly, most people would perform depressingly poorly on that kind of measure also. That’s the problem we need to tackle.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society
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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.

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