What Is Scientific Literacy?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | March 17, 2009 9:02 am


Yesterday, we considered the meaning of scientific literacy in America… or lack thereof. So let’s take this discussion one step further as it’s a particularly interesting topic. According to the National Academies:

Scientific literacy is the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity. It also includes specific types of abilities. In the National Science Education Standards, the content standards define scientific literacy.

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.

Individuals will display their scientific literacy in different ways, such as appropriately using technical terms, or applying scientific concepts and processes. And individuals often will have differences in literacy in different domains, such as more understanding of life-science concepts and words, and less understanding of physical-science concepts and words.

Scientific literacy has different degrees and forms; it expands and deepens over a lifetime, not just during the years in school. But the attitudes and values established toward science in the early years will shape a person’s development of scientific literacy as an adult.

Okay. Now if we assume Monday’s comment thread is representative of Intersection readership at large, most folks agree that quizzing the general populace on a series of facts doesn’t necessarily provide much information. So, let’s continue…

First, are you satisfied with the definition outlined above? Further, how we might more reliably measure the state of scientific literacy in this country?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education, Media and Science

Comments (9)

  1. Cole

    It’s a start. I prorose there’s more depending on context.

  2. G.E. Wilker

    If we’re looking for something you can do on a street corner, how about a short-essay-form test? Rather than quizzing on facts, ask a question like, “If I wanted to determine the mass of the Empire State Building, how would I do it?” or “What would happen if all wetlands in the state were paved over?”

    Of course, this requires the questioner be scientifically literate enough to evaluate the answers sensibly.

  3. I think it’s an admirable definition. But you don’t need to test it. By that definition casual observation would give a resounding answer: most people aren’t scientifically literate. I’m not even sure that I am and I am probably more than most non-scientists because I think science is cool and I am pretty non-scientifically literate. I think it’s a good definition to work toward, to apply as a policy for education, rather than as a testing measure.

  4. The quote given has too much focus on capability, and too little on performance. If I transfer that approach to physical fitness, the entire country is physically fit. Everyone has the capacity to walk, run, play volleyball, etc.. But in practice, few people actually do so and over all we’re in terrible (physical) shape.

    So one family of questions I’d pursue would be related to performance. ex:
    How many science articles have you read in the last week (newspaper/blog/magazine/technical journal/…)?
    How many science books have you read in the last month?
    What (how many, what were they) science ideas have you followed up in the last month?
    When is the last time you had a question about science?

    … and so on. Actually, I’d be a bad person to ask most of my own questions as written. Most of my answers would be ‘bunches’, which is kind of hard for the pollster to quantify.

    A different side is, library book shelves in the science section would have little dust, and the books would be checked out regularly. Library computer terminals would have a lot of visiation to science sites on the web.

  5. From a techncial writing standpoint it’s well written, but entirely too long for normal, everyday use. There’s no 30 second elevator speech in there (or it’s really well hidden). And that’s the problem. Much of what the National Academies produce is really good scholarship, but really bad outreach. I know it is not their function, but if you want to convince people they need to become scientifically literate, you have to say it in a way they can understand.

  6. According to the above definition, many many citizens are scientifically illiterate. Carl Sagan warned about this all his life. Are we now blunt and determined and passionate enough to carry the flame? Are we willing to call people who don’t believe in evolution as either ignorant and dumb? There is of course nothing wrong in being ignorant; we all are to varying extents and as long as we are ready to remedy that ignorance, it’s ok.

    One thing that’s not talked about a lot on this blog is the elephant in the room- religion. Almost nothing else challenges and does harm to scientific literacy as much as religion does, because it teaches people to be satisfied with not knowing.

    Scientific literacy is all about attitude. Jawaharlal Nehru coined a word for it- scientific “temper”- which describes it as well as any other phrase.

  7. Should be ignorant OR dumb (there is also of course nothing wrong in being dumb as long as we try to make efforts to remedy it)

  8. You may find the following post about science blogging interesting.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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