What Is Scientific Literacy?


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?

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

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.

By G.E. Wilker (not verified) on 17 Mar 2009 #permalink

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)