When it comes to ‘scientific literacy’ we see the phrase thrown around by various academics and politicians normally in shock about the lack of it in society. We assume it to mean the amount of science that the average member of our population knows, from whether the Earth orbits the Sun, to what our table salt is made from. We assume these facts are general knowledge, and therefore that any individual who does not know this is representation of the failure of our education system to let our children know the simplest of facts in life.
But really, who actually needs to know what table salt is made of? To begin my argument I will turn to Sherlock Holmes:
“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
“But the Solar System!” I protested.
“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”
Of course, it is very interesting and useful to many to know what the solar system is made of, how it formed and how it works. It is also important that everyone can understand these facts to be able to contemplate, understand and acknowledge such important science such as evolutionary theory and climate change. But do we really believe that scientific literacy, in the form of public science fact-checking is the answer?
What prompted me to write about this? A recent article was released in the International Journal of Science Education on Scientific Literacy and the Public: What should people know? The article detailed the past surveys of public understanding of science, drawing on issues of validity in the questions and questionnaire and comparison of public answers to scientists’ answers to the questions. Interestingly, it was found that scientists were not always right when answering the questions, and often found it difficult to answer questions in their own disciplines.
Take, for example, the question ‘ The continents move slowly about on the surface of the Earth’. This, to most would seem an absolutely easy question, but surprisingly 28% of biologists and health scientists who answered gave the wrong answer (false) and 11% of scientists overall were unsure! Fortunately, 92% of environmental scientists said it was true. Of course, I even find myself thinking…well, I don’t know if its technically the ‘surface’ they ‘move about’ on…but I guess it’s probably ‘true’ in this questionnaire! Its more down to a question of literary style I guess.
The next question provided more debate: ‘The oxygen we breathe comes from plants’. Now, the answer was ‘true’ in the questionnaire, but 27% of scientists who answered got this wrong. Scientists pointed out that oxygen was also present on earth before the rise of plants in compound form, that there are also abiogenic sources of oxygen and that plants cycle oxygen but do not necessarily produce it. Therefore the phrase ‘comes from’ is highly ambiguous. I would wonder whether the first prokaryotic cells that oxygenated the atmosphere back 2.8 billion years ago were plants or animals. As far as I know, they are neither, so I couldn’t be sure.
So does this mean that these scientists are scientifically illiterate? No, it means that these scientists think carefully about their subjects, and have the ability to understand the deeper complexities of these questions. It also demonstrates that scientists know that it is OK to be wrong. It is in some ways reassuring that scientists find it hard to answer these questions, not only because it shows the breadth of thought involved, but also the fact that we really do need to communicate differently to different audiences: dialogue that works for the public may not work for scientists.
What conclusions can we draw from this information? I relate to a recent similar article in PloS blogs on Science literacy and the polarised politics of climate change:
“One possibility is that by emphasizing the nature and process of science more than the “consensus” textbook facts, students will understand what to look for in good science and develop structured, rational habits of mind.”
I believe we do need to provide people with the scientific thinking skills for specific issues including climate change, good medicine and understanding of evolution. We need to help people see the evidence for themselves and develop their own educated opinion on the real research that is going on. I think this is the ‘way in’ to getting complex issues out there. Nevertheless, as I said before, and as Stocklmayer and Bryant (2012) quote in their own article:
“We do not agree that lack of science knowledge does not matter. Rather, we would seek to understand what science knowledge does matter in a cultural and environmental framework”
To this end, there are several excellent organisations which do enhance this kind of learning – to name a few – the British Science Association and Sense About Science as well as a great new resource for free online learning from well known universities and respected academics, Coursera, which even has specific courses dedicated to helping people with their critical thinking skills and how they can apply them to real world issues. I love this because it doesn’t ‘dumb it down’ for anyone. What these academics are doing is using subjects that people genuinely care about as inspiration for helping people understand how to make sense of these issues themselves instead of spoon feeding them propaganda or difficult words (see my favourite course title Science from Superheroes to Global Warming).
In conclusion, I would like to leave you with a question: do we need to begin to rethink the way we communicate science, focus less on outcomes that involve specific knowledge of a subject area and more on scientific process and critical thinking skills to apply to a range of future challenges?
Susan M. Stocklmayer & Chris Bryant (2012): Science and the Public—What should people know?, International Journal of Science Education, Part B: Communication and Public Engagement, 2:1, 81-101, Available online: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09500693.2010.543186