Scientific literacy is a topic I don’t see getting a lot of attention in the press these days, which is a pity, since it’s something that really needs to be widely discussed. In the United States, a majority of adults lack pretty basic scientific literacy, and science is a big scary unknown populated by people in white coats peering into beakers. This despite the fact that scientific advancement has been a huge shaping force in modern society, that we all rely upon and use science on a daily basis. Many of us have little to no idea of how it works, and I find this deeply disturbing.
I’m not really bothered by the idea of people using things they don’t fully understand; after all, despite ample study, the internal combustion engine still remains an unfathomable mystery to me. What troubles me is the lack of critical thinking that comes folded up in scientific illiteracy. Science, fundamentally, is about posing questions and answering them, developing theories and testing them, finding explanations for the world around us. To be a scientist is to be curious. It is possible to be curious and lack scientific literacy, but it’s a lot harder to satisfy that curiosity.
Understanding science isn’t just about knowing how to balance chemistry equations or understanding the various theories about evolution in detail. It’s also about knowing how to set up a critical question and how to respond to that question, how to evaluate information you are presented with and synthesise it in a way that makes sense to you. How to test knowledge and how to query information to arrive at a deeper and more complete understanding of that knowledge. How to argue, too, how to break down the components of a statement or theory or dataset and talk about them in a clear, constructive way.
Critical thinking skills are taught in the humanities as well, but many people aren’t much more literate in the humanities than they are in the sciences, wouldn’t know a thesis if it bit them in the behind any more than they would recognise a rigorously tested hypothesis. This contributes to a lack of understanding about the world around us; when you have trouble getting a grip on how to evaluate and think about information, it makes it a lot harder to understand things large and small, political and otherwise.
We can see the more obvious results of scientific illiteracy in the way people think about science and the natural world. An alarming number of people, for example, believe in creationism, not necessarily because they’ve considered it as a matter of religious faith and have decided it’s true for them[1. And I know a lot of Christians who reconcile creationism and evolution, thinking about a global geologic time scale rather than a literal seven days, and testing the idea that perhaps G-d created the spark of life and let it go where it wanted to.] but because they haven’t really considered evolution and they don’t really understand how the theory actually works; there are a lot of misconceptions about evolution not least of which is a hardline Darwinian approach, which most modern scientists don’t actually take.
Science is about theories in process, exploring them, testing them, discarding them when they clearly aren’t functional or suitable anymore because new information has come to light to challenge them. This creates a fundamentally fluid view of the world and the surrounding environment, a view weighted by the need to constantly test, challenge, and question the things around us. How do I know something if I can’t evaluate it, question it, explore it? I don’t know. Not being religious I am not one to take things on literal faith, but I’m leery of metaphorical faith as well—why should I believe something because someone told me to? Why should I not think critically about stories I read in the news and attitudes I encounter in society?
Because, you see, scientific literacy isn’t just about the literal science of the matter. It’s also about exploring new and different ways of thinking that serve you well not just when you’re talking to a doctor or trying to understand the science section of the newspaper. Scientific thinking can be applied to human relationships, to political news, to world events; to pick up the newspaper and read it with skepticism is to display, to some extent, scientific literacy, because you’re not taking information at face value, you’re thinking about the source, the variables potentially impacting the message being sent, the goals behind the information.
Scientific literacy is behind thinking critically about studies released in the science community and drawing attention to conflicts of interest and questionable funding sources, but it’s also about looking critically about studies produced in the humanities. It’s about looking at presentations of history and asking who is presenting them and what the motivations are and what message is being sent with the information. It’s about pushing the boundaries of information and forcing it to prove itself.
I don’t know what to do about the scientific literacy problem. Our schools are so very broken and so in need or urgent help in so many areas, I’m reluctant to single out and champion one single issue. I do think that schools need to do a better job of conveying scientific information and developing critical thinking in students, and that requires engaging with students in an accessible way. People say kids these days can’t focus or teachers are using bad pedagogy, and I’m not sure either is true. Students are just as capable as they always were and there are some seriously fired up teachers out there, it’s a matter of finding a way to get teachers to connect with students, to get them excited about knowledge and, more importantly, to get them unafraid when it comes to challenging information they encounter, no matter what the source.