On Education And 'Science Literacy'

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | March 26, 2009 12:46 pm

While I’m preparing for Saturday’s education panel, let’s venture back to a related topic discussed here over the past several weeks.  I’m curious to find out how our new readers feel about the term ‘science literacy‘…

science-magic.pngDo you think it’s something learned in the classroom or acquired by way of natural curiosity and keen intellect?  Is a student well versed in facts about photosynthesis and planetary orbits more scientifically ‘literate‘ than the poor test taker who spends afternoons reading about dinosaurs and searching for fossils in her backyard?  In other words, how might we best define the term–even before assessing it?

Comments on earlier threads suggest folks mostly agree that many heavily cited surveys using standard pop-quiz parameters do not convey much useful information about society at large.  So can we ever measure this term satisfactorily?

Furthermore, when does science literacy matter most?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education, Media and Science

Comments (29)

  1. I would think the most important bit of scientific literacy, more important than any individual group of facts, would be an understanding of what the scientific method means. I’m afraid that way too many children and adults who should know better are taken in by garbage that sounds scienc-y, but isn’t provable, or observable, or reproducible.

  2. c-serpent

    who spends afternoons reading about dinosaurs and searching for fossils in her backyard?

    This most closely resembles my sentiments. While memorization of fact is important to succeeding in modern science, it’s importance pales in comparison to the ability to think like a scientist, of which curiosity and critical thinking are essential components. Many creationists, quacks, and other frauds and charlatans and their victims have their heads filled with facts, both correct and incorrect. The problem is that most of the bad actors know they are lying but are driven by greed and avarice while their vicitms lack the critical thinking skills to avoid being taken for a ride.

    So can we ever measure this term satisfactorily?

    The “standard pop-quiz parameters” are easy to generate and it is human nature to follow the path of least resistance. Consequently, the survey field will be flooded with these types of questions. I think survey questions can be written to expose curiosity and critical thinking skills just as they can be written to text memorization of facts. It may require more work on both ends, the writing and the interpreting, than simple fact-based questions but there is no reason to think that it cannot be done. The more serious questions are whether those that write the surveys are willing to do it and are those that want it done willing to learn how to do surveys to achieve that goal?

    Furthermore, when does science literacy matter most?

    That’s tough to answer. When making “important life decisions” is the best answer I can come up with. Now we have to define “important life decision!”

  3. New reader here. I think far more important than being able to cite specific facts (which can be easily looked up) is knowledge of the scientific *process*. This became very clear to me after engaging in a couple of debates in our local paper’s comments section regarding evolution and the scientific method. This biggest obstacle in those conversations was getting across what science actually *is*; the differences between laws, theories, hypotheses, and speculations; how scientific knowledge is gathered; the self-correcting nature of the scientific enterprise.

    How can we expect anyone to understand and/or appreciate theories of evolution, the Big Bang, or abiogenesis without a functional understanding of the underlying process that gets us there?

    Beyond just understanding science, a strong foundation in these concepts can be extrapolated to all areas of daily life in critically evaluating all sorts of claims.

  4. Zane

    What people need to know is that science is not a thing nor a stack of facts: it is a process, a way of looking at things and evaluating the accuracy of statements. Perhaps we need a new term. Since “math literacy” is not the condition of having read a lot about math, so was coined the term “numeracy” to describe a basic familiarity and ability with numbers. We should find a better term than “scientific literacy.” “Scientificity” and “scientificacy” are a bit too sesquipedalian, but some neologist can, I am sure, propose a more accurate term. (I suppose using the word “rationality” is too simple!)

  5. I think of myself as reasonably scientifically literate for a lay person. When I think of what makes me think of that about myself it is the fact that I learned young how science works, and how to use mathematics and science to solve problems. I’ve forgotten too much do something as simple as finding the area under a curve segment, but I have confidence that if I needed to re-learn that in order to do something constructive (like go back to school to be an engineer, for instance) that I could do so.

  6. I hate to shamelessly reference a professor I once had, but science is essentially the study of change over time. If you can understand that on a fundamental level then i’d say you’re scientifically literate.

  7. Canuckrob

    The knowledge of facts comes from curiosity and intellect and requires the person to have that interest. However everyone can learn the process of science and, in my view more importantly, the skills of critical thinking. It is this that will help people sort out the wheat from the chaff when it comes to reading about science and in determining the validity of various claims. I found that Carl Sagan’s BS detection kit (I think it was in Demon Haunted World) was a great help to me in clearing my mind of a lot of junk.

  8. Interesting question. There are a whole bunch of things that you often find together in good scientists, but that are conceptually distinct. Some can stand on their own; some are dependent on others. There’s a motivation/curiosity to learn about the natural world (like the dinosaur enthusiast); knowledge of a canonical body of scientific findings (the “stack of facts”); knowledge of the process by which scientific inquiry works; the critical-thinking and intellectual skills necessary to apply the scientific method; and the regular habit of doing so.

    I don’t think you can dismiss any of those, not even the “stack of facts”. But in terms of where we want society to be, I’d say that the last is pretty important (and perhaps the hardest to get to, because it probably requires all the others). In short: getting people to routinely ask “why do we think that’s true? what’s the evidence?” when presented with assertions about the world around them, and to use scientific methods to try to answer those questions.

    By the way, in response to this sentence: “Do you think it’s something learned in the classroom or acquired by way of natural curiosity and keen intellect?” For the sake of educators everywhere, I hope you don’t mean that as a mutually-exclusive “or.”

  9. By the way, in response to this sentence: “Do you think it’s something learned in the classroom or acquired by way of natural curiosity and keen intellect?” For the sake of educators everywhere, I hope you don’t mean that as a mutually-exclusive “or.”

    Touché. Yes, they are complimentary.

  10. Dr. R

    It’s probably got something to do with knowing how to ask the right questions (or at least some of the right questions) when scientific issues are being discussed and, more importantly, being aware of how scientific knowledge is generated (i.e., through testing and experimentation and data collection, not by hand-waving about things that can’t be tested or debating about the meaning of words like “junk”).

  11. Frankly, the great mass of us don’t need to know a tau meson from a theta meson to get along successfully in life. For purposes of politics, having enough familiarity with the methods and successes of science is sufficient. For everyday living, being able to employ specifically those tools that are called for (usually very basic mathematics and science, for most careers) is plenty. And, of course, for the dilettante, it means having enough knowledge of current trends to feed the hobby horse.

  12. I think a pretty easy way to determine scientific literacy is to do away with all those other questions and ask only one:

    “Do you believe in evolution?”

    If you don’t believe in evolution, as Dawkins says, you are either insane, stupid or ignorant. Again, there’s nothing wrong in being ignorant (we all are to) as long as you are ready to remedy your ignorance. But you cannot be against evolution and still be called scientifically literate. Period.

    I have iterated this before; scientific literacy is not mainly about facts. It’s about science as a way of life and it’s about using the methods of science in your daily life. Einstein said that “all of science is a refinement of everyday thinking” and that saying also works backwards. Nehru’s phrase “scientific temper” describes the phenomenon as well as any other term I can think of.

  13. If you don’t believe in evolution, as Dawkins says, you are either insane, stupid or ignorant.

    I could not disagree with Dawkins approach more.

  14. What’s the fourth possibility? I don’t think he is trying to be condescending here, merely enumerating a list of possibilities.

  15. We’re wading into a very important topic, and certainly one that Chris and I will be writing about here over upcoming months since it’s explored in detail in Unscientific America.

    The problem with calling anyone ‘delusional’, ‘ignorant,’ or (insert demeaning insult of choice) is that you’re giving them justification–even permission–to turn off to everything you say that follows. There is no constructive exchange. It’s not the way to address scientific literacy.

    But I’ll save this subject for later posts.

  16. I am glad you discuss the influence of religious belief on scientific literacy in your book. I was hoping you would since you will agree it’s an important part of the equation and one that is not frequently discussed on this blog.

    I personally would agree with you that based on the person one should modulate the use of his or her adjectives. While the dictionary meaning of the word “ignorant” simply implies a dearth of facts and should not be offensive, in reality the word does sound offensive to most of us. However that does not refute Dawkins’s statement. If one does not believe in evolution then by definition he or she has to be one of the above three. It’s simply a factual assertion. Your point seems to be not about whether this statement is true but whether its use is justly served in debate. In that context I could not agree more; our job is to convince people about scientific literacy, not to turn them off science. At the same time one must call a spade a spade; there are degrees of accommodation here.

    I believe Dawkins would reserve such a statement for those whose religious beliefs have clouded their minds so much that they are the ones who have already stopped listening to us. Unfortunately there are more of these around than we would be comfortable with.

  17. I should also add that Dawkins is probably not as much of an “evolutionary evangelist” as he comes across. His books are much more (in Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s words) “articulately barbed” but in many of his interviews he does agree to the need for some tact and diplomacy in dealing with religious people. Dawkins mainly wanted his books to generate debate and encourage atheists to affirm their convictions. He never meant for his books to be followed like textbooks and is not really against alternative and milder means of debate. His main point is that while that approach may certainly work with a subset of believers, it does not always help and has been tried for many years. You don’t have to bend over backwards when in argument with a believer and agree that some of his or her religious critiques of evolution may be true after all.

  18. I believe Dawkins’ fourth alternative here is “wicked.”

  19. Possible! I was also thinking about “from Mars”

  20. Jason Dick

    Well, when talking about scientific literacy, there are two distinct points, and unfortunately measuring either one is arbitrary:

    1. Scientific thinking. Is a person aware of at least some of the ways in which human biases cloud our judgment? Do they know about the scientific method? Are they willing to be convinced based upon evidence?

    A possible way to test this would be to have an essay answer question, where a couple of paragraphs describing some argument or other are presented, and the person is asked, “Is this evidence enough to convince you of the truth of the premise? Why or why not?” This becomes rather arbitrary because there are all sorts of different ways in which people fail to follow a rational argument, such that there really isn’t a good way to test them all. Francis Collins, for example, is well known for a number of ways in which he thinks rather poorly, but he is also well known for being a fairly well-respected scientist (at least for some things…) as head of the Human Genome Project. Would it make sense to call a working and successful scientist scientifically illiterate because they fail to present proper reasoning for certain arguments? Where would we draw the line?

    2. Scientific facts. Of course, science is not just about a thought process, but also about the body of work of science which has been collected to date. It makes good sense that a person with scientific literacy should be aware of all of the most basic facts of science. Obviously, this is going to be very arbitrary. But one place to start might be to ask questions about the basic facts that affect our every day lives and our fundamental perspective on the world. Here is a short list of basic scientific facts and concepts which I would consider necessary to be understood for scientific literacy:

    1. Newton’s first law.
    2. First and Second law of thermodynamics.
    3. Relative motion of Earth, Sun, and Moon.
    4. The Sun is a star.
    5. We live in the Milky Way galaxy. It’s really, really big.
    6. The universe is really really big, and billions of years old.
    7. The Earth is billions of years old.
    8. The Earth has plates that move around over millions of years.
    9. Some basic, basic understanding of the geologic cycle.
    10. Evolution through random mutation and natural selection.
    11. Common descent and speciation.
    12. Electricity is electrons moving around.

    At least, that’s what I could come up with off the top of my head, trying to narrow things down to sort of the bare essentials. I’m sure others would come up with very different lists, emphasizing different things and whatnot. But I would emphasize that it’s really not useful to have any sort of “pop quiz” type measurement of scientific literacy, which makes measuring this sort of thing at the survey level very difficult indeed. People need to actually be able to sit and think for a little bit, to give them a chance to think, and they need to actually demonstrate a level of understanding, as opposed to purely superficial knowledge.

    For example, with Newton’s first law, the essence of that law is that “motion” and “rest” are arbitrary: something, once put in motion, will stay in motion unless acted upon by some external force, like friction. So you might ask a question that asks, for example, “If I fire a gun horizontally, and there is no air resistance, does the bullet slow down after it leaves the barrel of the gun but before it hits the ground?” or something to that effect.

  21. Mitchell

    A couple of thoughts.

    (1) If you think it’s just the great unwashed with literacy and numeracy issues, you’ve not seen the video of MIT grads handed a battery, lightbulb, and single wire (quite long enough), being asked to make light, and failing. Or heard emeriti bemoaning a lack of quantitative feel among postdocs. Or been following physics education research’s evaluation of current practice (“epic fail” about covers it). You want to see scientific illiteracy? Ask a room of computer science professors an astronomy question.

    (2) An under-taught perspective on science, is science as a set of practices designed to mitigate the common ways individual and group thought go wrong.

    You log because you will forget and misremember tomorrow. You value evidence because people make lousy witnesses and believe silly things. You don’t believe nth hand reports because of, well, the “telephone game”. You get others to check your work because you always make mistakes. Confirmation bias, sampling bias, group think, etc, etc, etc.

    So many phenomena, familiar or easily demonstrated. And with a potentially profound impact on how people conduct their lives.

    (3) Why is everything “science”? Why do we describe all observations about the world, not claimed by another field, as “science”? Can we please stop?

    Why is “lightning is electricity” science, but not “Protestants aren’t spawn of Satan”, or “you will be hurt if you get hit by a speeding car”. Sure, the nature of lightning was science 2 freeping centuries ago. But why still?

    Yes, with policy issues dependent on things at the cutting edge of human knowledge, understanding the nature of that edge, of science, is valuable.

    But perhaps it would be helpful to separate out the vast body of information gathered over the last century, and hand over the keys. It’s now no more science than it is engineering. Give it a name. “How things are”, “general situational awareness”, “having a clue”, “natural philosophy”, whatever.

    The scientific community has its focus on a different task, pushing out the edge. It’s institutions, incentives, and training are all pointed at that. It specifically does not have the institutions, incentives, or training to pass on a century of learning to the public. It is an unambiguous, profound and utter failure at that. That’s just not where its interests or skills lie. Hell, it struggles to even get enough communication going to enable members of its own community to collaborate across disciplines.

    Perhaps we need a new field of endeavor. Not education research, though its results would be important. Not research science, though one would need to read the primary literature of multiple fields. Not science journalism, for journalism lacks the scope. Not education, for it will be necessary to have a broader and deeper understanding than even most of the scientific community requires. Perhaps take some of the best gray beard professors, retask and support them, in revolutionizing how…

    Ah well, not going to happen. At least the web is finally about to get computation and graphics. Perhaps the crowd can dig its own way out from under this mess.

    (4) How to help the crowd improve science education? Most important – free public access to the literature. Nothing is more useless than an article in AJP that the person editing a wikipedia page can’t afford to read. Funding for outreach. And perhaps institutionalizing it – the tiny population of science journalists can go direct to researchers, but that doesn’t scale well as a broader population develops similar needs. And… perhaps most important, recognize this helping the crowd as an important goal.

  22. I sometimes get the feeling that the real problem with scientific literacy is not that it is decreasing per se but that like other distributions, it follows a Bell Curve whose peak is shifting to the left, thus decreasing such literacy w.r.t the left and right tails.

  23. Sheril, your responses to some of the posts here make me think this science blog may hit the target where others miss the mark: accepting that it doesn’t matter how CORRECT you are in your assertion, if you sound like a jerk when you say it your message won’t get across.

    While science literacy is certainly a part of it, I think the bigger issue is to question the sources of information someone is getting on any topic. Obviously, people have to be selective in what they spend their time on, but if a topic is important enough to a person that they want to pass the information on, they need to do a little background research to verify it or at least look at the other sides so that counterpoints can be anticipated.

    Another skill which is more on the social side is to accept that you won’t convince everyone that your opinion is correct, but progress is good.

    Unfortunately, I can’t figure out an effective way to measure this other than perhaps the silly measurement of fewer weird emails in my inbox sent by my friends.

  24. Hi Everyone,

    I’m certainly more in the *process* rather than *facts* school on scientific literacy.

    However, I’m amazed that nobody includes in this discussion the aspect of public engagement with science that I consider most important–namely, citizens thinking about our policies toward science, and whether they’re the right ones.

    This is an aspect of literacy that goes beyond fact, beyond process, and directly into full and immediate political relevance.

  25. citizens thinking about our policies toward science, and whether they’re the right ones.

    Carl Sagan always used to talk about this:

    It’s very important for citizens to have a clear view of policies toward science issues. Key for this is good science education. However the best way to achieve this is to show the direct connection of political-scientific issues to the daily lives of citizens. Unfortunately in some cases this is hard; for instance global warming is a kind of “slow” killer that does not affect people personally right away and even if it does, it’s not like AIDS where you can immediately show a connection to a causative agent. The only way to educate citizens about these issues is to keep on emphasize the long-term perspective, something that generally seems to be lost in this country and around the world, whether it’s people missing the long-term consequences of climate change, or Bell Labs missing the long-term consequence of cutting R & D

  26. Guitar Eddie


    The things, I don’t “believe” in evolution. Evolution is a fact, and the Theory of Evolution explains the fact visa vis the evidence which was discovered over a hundred years, hence.

    I think people forget that the word “theory” is used the same way musicians the term, Music Theory. Music Theory is the accumulated knowledge of how music if practiced and understood, etc..


  27. Dark Tent

    I think scientific literacy amounts to having the necessary thinking skills to prevent one from falling prey to the “something for nothing, too good to be true” predictions and promises of palm readers, astrologers, magicians, Wall Street bankers, Cold Fusion salesmen and other cranks, quacks and fraudsters.


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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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