So What's So Great About Scientific Literacy Anyway?

By Chris Mooney | January 25, 2010 12:34 pm

In the new version of the Unscientific America talk, I also tried to make more explicit the reasons why we think “scientific literacy,” broadly defined, is essential to American democracy, and something every citizen should strive for. What’s so great about it? Well, here are my answers:

1. Knowledge is a good in and of itself. The more anyone has of it, the better.

2. Empowerment: The more Americans know about science, and the methods of critical thinking about evidence that it imparts, the better off they’ll be when it comes to making choices in their own lives, e.g., in the medical arena.

3. Citizenship: The more scientifically literate our citizens are, the more they’ll be able to access and engage with the scientific aspects of key public policy issues like climate change.

4. Policy: There is a reality out there, and we need our decisions to be aligned with it. Ultimately, 3 should lead to 4, as more citizen engagement with science reverberates in the decision-making process. And that’s what matters most of all.

Any questions or objections? Or does that about encompass it?

I think that traditionally, most of the emphasis in “scientific literacy” discussions has been on 1 & 2. What I like think is different about the approach that we take in Unscientific America is that it much more strongly stresses 3 & 4.

Knowledge is a good in and of itself.
Empowerment: “Scientific” Americans will be better equipped to make the right choices in their lives, e.g., in the medical arena.

Citizenship: Greater science literacy = greater engagement in the science underlying public policy issues, like global warming, stem cell research, etc.
Policy: There is a reality out there, and we need our decisions to be aligned with it….
CATEGORIZED UNDER: Unscientific America

Comments (16)

  1. GM

    I didn’t really see Unscientific America as promoting 3 & 4, although I do agree to a certain extent that those are the most important things from a purely practical point of view.

    However, if you yourself were following those principles, you wouldn’t be holding the position you are about what has to be done to improve the state of scientifically literacy. Because the sneaky way of doing it that you are suggesting will take many decades, while decision making has to happen here and now as we don’t really have much time left. Which means that a lot more drastic measures are needed, but with everything you do, you are actually decreasing the chances of it happening…

  2. Gaythia

    I’d start with the concept of empowerment and expand outward from there.

  3. The difficulty with scientific literacy is that it is perceived as an unattainable goal, by the public at large and perhaps even by many in the scientific community. The public, even the ‘educated’ public, is aware– indeed is frequently reminded– that its members are not experts, and are are in no position to be able to evaluate scientific claims unless they are a member of an inner circle. Even experts in one field concede that they cannot really judge claims made in a different area.

    Typically, by the time the issue of ‘literacy’ comes up, it is already too late– it is no longer a question of being able to grasp *science,*, but of trying to understand (or determine) some particular set of facts. In any remotely contentious or controversial matter– the places where the citizenship and policy issues become pressing, after all– where the vast crowds of nonexperts feel themselves itching for a valid opinion, they can feel their own ignorance pressing upon them. One sees this, for instance, in disputes about climate change, or stem-cell research, or even the demolition of buildings (witness the ‘9/11 truth’ movement): the question ultimately devolves to the matter of “who do you trust?” Unfortunately, this works both ways; just get a dispute going about ‘Intelligent Design’ and soon enough one will hear scientists of a certain stripe switch tracks from encouraging literacy to “*We* know what is scientific! Just get out of our way.” Needless to say, this does not endear them to their opponents, who hear this sort of thing as a conversation-stopper. There is, it seems to me, a confusion here (on both sides) between scientific content and scientific process. When one is unfamiliar with scientific process, and one senses that a given policy issue turns upon a matter of scientific content, one’s first instinct is to look for a reliable interpreter of that content, but this choice cannot itself be scientific unless one is already “literate.”

    But scientific literacy ought not to be thought of as the mastery of every current or past scientific theory (any more than, say, French literacy is having instant recall of the plot of every French book ever written); it is the ability to access and evaluate a scientific assertion. This, indeed, would not suffice to resolve disputes (say, ethical ones, or questions about ‘fringe science’, and so on), but it would at least clarify what the *scientific* part of a dispute is about.

  4. Dennis

    I’d suggest starting with the important policy issues – not the current ones, but relatively recent ones where hindsight gives the best look. Show examples of inappropriately informed policy decisions and their effects (who got hurt and why and what it cost) – connect the need with the reality. This can lead into the need for informed citizenship on the individual’s part – emphasize the differential between what we have now and what kind of difference just a few more informed individuals can actually have. This might then lead to the discussion of empowerment, demonstrating with examples where policy decisions done well due to informed citizenship have created a better situation for everyone. This can lead into the area of knowledge – we rarely know for certain where our researches might take us and the more knowledge we have, the more significant relationships between bits of information can become and those significant relationships can ultimately rise to the level breakthroughs that change the way we all live.

    Some folks are into denying the benefit of knowledge-for-its-own-sake because of their perception of it as a burden or a hindrance rather than a tool or an aid. If you structure an argument from the goal backward toward the individual choices required to achieve it and they might get on board instead of feeling turned off by being preached at or being made to feel inferior.

    We’re never going to make great strides with the folks who are religiously committed to ignoring science. But if we can make the argument with those not yet committed then we might make some incremental strides. Any successful strategy with even a small growth rate eventually wins…

  5. Adeist

    Surely the most obvious benefit is that *science works*. The scientific method is the best way yet devised of not fooling yourself.

    It can be applied to simple everyday matters as well as complicated/advanced ones. It doesn’t necessarily require any deep knowledge of technicalities. Does the cheap washing powder clean as well as the expensive one? Do a double blind experiment, and see if you can tell the difference. No chemistry required.

    Another clear benefit is economic. Scientific knowledge fits you for a wider range of higher paid jobs. Even jobs that aren’t directly ‘scientific’ benefit from it. That’s why the education system is tax-funded.

    Knowledge is not a good in and of itself. You can memorise the first ten thousand digits of Pi, but there is no Earthly use to any beyond the first twenty or so. People can (and do) learn all sorts of stuff other than science. The question is, why should they learn science *instead of* those other subjects?

  6. gillt

    There’s no difference between 2 and 3. It’s all increased science literacy. The only thing separating them is the examples Mooney gave for what can be accomplished.

  7. moptop

    To read your blog, I would say that your definition of “Scientific Literacy” is obeisance to authority. Funny how most of the skeptics around the web have a foundation in math and science, and most of the believers have a righteous capacity for belief.

  8. Luke Vogel

    Well, as my deleted post demanded, unless you can transcend the “religion and science” discourse in a rational manner you’re missing something.

    I’ve “rated” (something I picked up at Dawkins’ site) unwilling, only doing what you demand of others not to do. In this way, you are no less an “apologist” then the “new atheist apologist”, decisive, unclear, unwilling and useless on an important subject. Unless of course you rate me as “uncivil”?

    I will play your adversary until you make something nearing a rational statement on the subject.

  9. Luke Vogel

    decisive(?) Ha!, divisive maybe.

  10. Busiturtle

    Complete agreement on Points 1, 2 and 3. Point 4 is a red herring.

    The fundamental issue with public policy is to what extent it infringes on individual rights. Who could reject a public policy of buying every American a Toyota Prius? Well most people could and would. First there is the cost. Second is the fact that not everyone wants to drive a Prius, both for personal and practical reasons. The reality that a Prius consumes less oil than other automobiles does not justify a policy that everyone should drive one.

    Science can discover and explain natural laws. It can increase one’s understanding of the world and the better choices one can make. But science is not a justification for subverting the democratic process. Rare is it that public policy does not require compromise between conflicting scientific truths. Such is the nature of scarcity – the pursuit of a good thing must be forgone to accomplish something better. Science has yet to demonstrate it is equipped at making these complex, societal determinations.

    Disagree with me? Consider abortion. Science has revealed the undeniable truth that a fetus is viable human life in the second trimester. Yet has that knowledge produced a consensus policy? No it has not and it probably never will.

    Put another way public policy should be based on sound reasoning, a scientific fact is

  11. CW

    “Science has revealed the undeniable truth that a fetus is viable human life in the second trimester.”

    I don’t think science has done this. Science can tell you when brain activity is apparent, when a fetus can feel pain, when a fetus’s circulatory system is working, etc.

    But what constitutes “life” That’s a moral (and political) issue. Science doesn’t know when “life” begins, because it’s impossible right now to know what constitutes life (since we know of many cases in various different states that are technically alive – but have minimal to zero activity.

  12. CW

    *we know of many cases [of people] in various states…

  13. GM

    The fundamental issue with public policy is to what extent it infringes on individual rights. Who could reject a public policy of buying every American a Toyota Prius? Well most people could and would. First there is the cost. Second is the fact that not everyone wants to drive a Prius, both for personal and practical reasons. The reality that a Prius consumes less oil than other automobiles does not justify a policy that everyone should drive one.

    Hmm, I would say that the science advises against doing this on the grounds of there not being enough raw materials and energy to give every American a Prius, and that it tells us that all Americans should pretty much completely stop driving instead…

  14. Busiturtle

    “it tells us that all Americans should pretty much completely stop driving instead”

    And what, pray tell, does science suggest we substitute as a form of transportation?

  15. Sheena

    Sounds all good, but what are the steps necessary to achieve scientifically literate populous? Sure we can start with education, teaching our students (PreK-12 and beyond). I know the National Academies Press has the National Science Education Standards (1996), but how do we know if we’re meeting those goals? Wasn’t there a report not too long ago that had said our 7th/8th graders did not perform as well in math and science compared to other countries? If that’s the case then I don’t know if we’re meeting the goals of achieving science literacy in our PreK-12 education programs.
    Also, with people who are not in school, how do we who care about science encourage them to care about it too? Do we just make information available? Do we hold town hall meetings to address their curiosities and concerns?
    I do agree the science literacy is important. Perhaps what I’m having a hard time grasping is what is out there, how to get involved to promote scientific literacy, and more importantly what are the goals we need to achieve to ultimately get a scientific populous?

  16. Brian Too

    While I think you make a good intellectual argument Chris, I think what’s missing is motivation and affinity.

    Consider the religious, and for the sake of clarity and brevity, only those who are not friendly to science. That’s a substantial group. Why do they have that affinity? From what I understand, they consider religion to be warm and appealing, and science to be cold and unfeeling. They are certain that there is “something more.”

    Now consider the scientific, and once again for the sake of argument, only those who are not religious. Again, that’s a substantial part of the population. Why do they have that affinity? Speaking as a member of this group, I’ve always found science to be rational and religion to be strange and somehow alien.

    However the conversation repeatedly breaks down as the religious attempt to have a conversation based upon religious principles, and the scientific attempt to have a conversation based upon scientific principles.

    Science is not appealing to a significant sector of the religious. On the other hand, religion is not appealing to many of those with a scientific bent. I can explain my affinity, but I’m aware that I do so in terms that are fundamentally scientific. And, if I attempt to reframe the debate in more religious sounding language, it comes off as conceding the matter as ‘simply a matter of opinion.’

    How else can you rationally explain the statement that ‘I believe in science’, when belief is fundamental to religious thought? Even stating that my ‘belief’ is different from a religious belief just sounds like rationalization. In fact notice that the word ‘rational’ comes up repeatedly, while the deeply religious do not require this notion at all.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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