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Posted by on Oct 10, 2013 in Politics, Science, Skepticism, Teaching | 13 comments

What does Scientific Literacy look like in the 21st Century?

I was posed the following questions by a colleague, and thought I’d take a stab at answering it for all to see:

What does it mean to be scientifically literate in the twenty-first century? How would you measure it? How can we increase it? Should we bother?

In order to answer this question, any good scientist must first operationally define what is meant by “scientifically literate.” Many people automatically think that, if someone is “scientifically literate,” he or she is able to demonstrate knowledge concerning a wide variety of scientific facts in fields such as astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, and so forth. This is, however, not what should be meant by the term. No doubt, someone who is scientifically literate is likely to be well versed in the basic information about a number of scientific fields, but science is not a field of study. Science is, instead, an empirical, rational way of thinking and seeking answers to questions and evaluating claims. It is the application of a specific series of steps to arrive at empirical support for or against an idea. As such, scientific literacy should not be seen as the ability to parrot answers to questions such as “What is the speed of light?” or knowing the steps used to balance a chemical equation. Scientific literacy should instead be seen as the ability to access and use the methods of science when confronted with a question to which one does not know the answer. It should be seen as the ability to minimize the myriad of thinking errors to which we humans are so prone while using those same methods. A scientifically literate society should be able to, in short, think like a scientist about its dilemmas by evaluating the world skeptically.

If we were to create a measure of the above definition of scientific literacy, then it will not be comprised of quizzes of science facts and figures, multiple choice questionnaires, or random surveys of the American public. Instead, scientific literacy will be measured by how our society reacts to new information. What is embraced and what is discarded by a society? Is new information examined critically or accepted blindly? What is valued? Is innovation seen as positive or stifling? Should the discovery of new knowledge be encouraged or dissuaded? If an idea is put forth that shakes the foundation of a society’s beliefs and practices, is it readily dismissed or is it discussed in terms of its own merit? A truly scientifically literate society will not place it’s faith in others’ assessments of issues, but instead will seek information with which to make it’s own, empirically based decision. Such a society would not need to be assessed by an external source, because it would be constantly assessing itself.

Again, based on the above definition of an assessment for scientific literacy, what can be done to raise it in the United States? And, who should be charged with raising it? Politicians can pass laws, television pundits can bemoan the state of the educational system, and teachers can attempt to conform to unfunded mandates, but will any of that actually help? Raising scientific literacy in this country is not a problem that can be quickly fixed by simply throwing money at it. Instead, there must be a fundamental shift in the ways in which our country views the purpose of education, particularly science education. To raise our society into a scientific mode of thinking, critical thinking skills and the methods of science must be instilled in all our citizens, especially our children. What good does it do to know the names of the planets in the solar system but not be able to evaluate the arguments for and against why Pluto lost planet status? If money can be thrown at anything, it should be disseminated to train teachers of science at all levels of education, from primary school to graduate studies, how to effectively impart the methods of science to their students, not just science facts and figures.

As a professor, I am constantly amazed by the students in my freshman level course. Many of them are brilliant and expansive in their knowledge of the science facts, the “what” of science, but when asked to evaluate a claim or test a hypothesis, it quickly becomes apparent that they have never learned the “how” of science. Changing the ways in which science is taught will be an excellent step in increasing the level of our society’s scientific literacy, but it should by no means be the only step. A shift in society, itself, toward appreciating a skeptical, scientific voice is crucial in increasing our scientific literacy.

Not a proper science role model.

Such a shift will not be accomplished purely in the somewhat private arena of the classroom, but must happen in the very public arenas of politics and entertainment, as well. While polls consistently find that scientists and their work are highly respected by the public, that same work is continually under-funded by our government and, if not ignored outright by politicians, poked and prodded until it fits a predefined agenda. If the government does not respect the worth and methods of science, what hope is there for our society to become literate in those same methods? And, why should the youth of today aspire to be the scientists of tomorrow when they lack solid scientist and skeptic role models? For every real life Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and James Randi, there are dozens of fictional Ross Gellers, Professor Frinks, and Emmett Browns stumbling and bumbling their way across the screen, or equal numbers of Frankensteins, Moreaus, and Luthors creeping evilly across thousands of pages. While there are some exceptions, few scientists (or their works) are portrayed in a positive light in popular fiction. Shifting our fictional portrayals of science and scientists will do much to help inspire new generations to explore and take part in the world of science, rather than continue advancing stereotypes of scientists as either mad or evil.

“…am also not a proper science role model!”

But potentially more important and influential than changes in education, politics, and entertainment may be a needed shift in that most private arena of life: the home. Parents exert a tremendous amount of influence over their children throughout the lifespan, especially in areas of values and beliefs. Most people adhere to the same religious views as their parents; parents who value and praise athletic ability typically have children who will do the same. In the same way, parents who view knowledge of science and the scientific method as essential for navigating through life will pass those values to their children. Perhaps by making the shifts in education and public perception of science as mentioned above, more parents will view scientific literacy as being on par with the value of other basic academic skills, such as reading and writing, and instill in their offspring the need for empiricism.

But, why should we go to all this trouble? The myriad of reasons can be summed up in two words: the future. The problems and troubles of today’s world and the world of tomorrow will not be solved by faith, guesswork, or luck. It was science that doubled the human life span, science that allows people to communicate with each other no matter how far apart they are physically, science that developed more efficient means of food production to feed a booming population. If anything solves the looming energy crisis, threats from new and unknown diseases, or dramatic global climate changes, it will be science. Unfortunately for the scientifically illiterate society, such science can only spring from a society that knows about and respects science. Without scientific literacy, our society will find itself struggling to meet the challenges of the remainder of the 21st century and all the centuries to come. As Darwin discovered, the organism that is most adapted to its environment will have the most success, and for the organism that is the United States, those adaptations will most certainly be the result of science.

  • SmilodonsRetreat

    NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) should help with a lot of this. There is a massive emphasis change from ‘content’ to ‘process and skills’. It won’t be a solve everything solution though.

    In my experience most science teachers are science teachers because there is a high demand for them… not because they know a lot about science. They learn facts and teach facts. Science education has to start with the teachers learning these skills.

    • http://www.caleblack.com/ Caleb W. Lack

      I think the NGSS are a great starting point, for those who are going to be exposed to them in their schooling. Unfortunately, that leaves lots of people in the US waaaaay out of the loop. Hence, the more cultural-based changes I think we need. I wonder if, by making science more “cool” (and by cool, I mean acceptable and understandable), that would give us more science teachers that actually care about it.

      • SmilodonsRetreat

        In terms of teachers, first, they need better pay. I increased my salary over 50% by moving from teaching to a corporation. A Ph.D. chem engineer could probably triple their pay making the same move.

        Teachers work twice s hard for half the pay. Mandatory overtime is a given in teaching. Between grading, lab prep, football games, UIL coaching, etc (all of which is done ‘outside’ of the normal 8-4 hours) teachers make, on average, about $4 an hour. Plus we have to use our own money for classroom supplies.

        The other problem is that a lot of science teachers have less than 24 college hours in science (6 courses usually). They are ‘education’ majors who are told that science teachers are in demand (which they are). They aren’t scientists.

        I don’t have a solution for that, except to make science education classes better.

        • http://www.caleblack.com/ Caleb W. Lack

          I completely agree about pay. It’s insanely low, not just compared to other professions but also compared to what other first-world countries pay.

  • Shatterface

    I’m not sure that the portrayal of scientists in popular culture is as one sided as you suggest given the popularity of forensic detective shows like CSI, Bones, Bodies of Evidence, etc. in the USA or Silent Witness in the UK.

    It’s important that those shows all feature strong roles for women too so that’s challenging another stereotype.

    • Shatterface

      I could add that most of these shows feature teams of experts rather than single geniuses which shows science as a collaborative process; and most of their work is publicly funded rather than entrepreneurial

    • http://www.caleblack.com/ Caleb W. Lack

      I do not watch any of those shows with any regularity, so I can’t speak much to them. I will say, though, that what I’ve seen seems to paint forensic science in an almost superhuman light compared to what is actually done. I’m reminded of this clip from Superbad:

      http://youtu.be/7C3RrvZMx-M

      My university has recently added a Forensic Science major (cross disciplinary) and master’s programs, and many of the undergrads wanting to go into the area have very unrealistic expectations, ala the CSI effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CSI_effect).

      • Shatterface

        Intake your point about unrealistic expectations (people who have had their car broken into assume that there’ll be a team of forensic experts on the scene in moments when in reality they’ll just be given a crime number for their insurance claim) but prior to this we had a decade where the image of the scientist was dominated by The X-Files, which, while marvellously entertaining, was not just anti-science but anti-rational.

        As an aside I should add that the forensic shows are ethnically diverse and often have positive portrayals of people with disabilities: I’d actually watched CSI for years before I realised the pathologist was a double-amputee.

        When I grew up we just had Quincy!

        • http://www.caleblack.com/ Caleb W. Lack

          It was Matlock, Columbo, and Perry Mason during my childhood :)

          • Shatterface

            In the UK police shows were largely about police officers beating confessions out of people which, while a fairly accurate portrayal of the police at the time, weren’t very inspiring.

            We did have a show called Doomwatch which featured scientists as heroes and, of course, Doctor Who, but they were deeply ambiguous as the villains were generally scientists too.

            There were a lot of pop-science programmes though: I think the astronomy show The Sky at Night is possibly the longest running show in the world: presenter Patrick Moore presented it from 1957 till his death last year and he was probably one of the most recognisable faces on British TV.

            We have had quite a few public figures who have become famous for their promotion of science (James Burke, Magnus Pike, Stephen Hawkins, Richard Dawkins, etc) and I assume their are similar figures elsewhere: Carl Sagan, obviously, but we don’t seem to have imported many science programmes. How famous was Richard Feynman? We know him mainly for his writing over here.

  • Shatterface

    Has the US got an equivalent of Brian Cox? He’s a youngish, very handsome physicist who presents science programmes and radio shows in the UK who has done a lot to promote the image of science in the UK.

    A modern equivalent of, say, Carl Sagan.

    • http://www.caleblack.com/ Caleb W. Lack

      I’d say Neil DeGrausse Tyson is our equivalent.

      • Shatterface

        I have heard of him as he’s doing the Cosmos sequel. I heard him talk on Cox’s Infinite Monkey Cage podcast too: very enthusiastic about astronomy.

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