The Myth of Scientific Literacy

1392198655_15cb81a60a_b Alice Bell over at her blog:

Every now and again, the term “scientific literacy” gets wheeled out and I roll my eyes. This post is an attempt to explain why.

The argument for greater scientific literacy is that to meaningfully participate, appreciate and even survive our modern lives, we all need certain knowledge and skills about science and technology. Ok. But what will this look like exactly, how will you know what we all need to know in advance and how on earth do you expect to get people trained up? These are serious problems.

Back in the early 1990s, Jon Durant very usefully outlined out the three main types of scientific literacy. This is probably as good a place to start as any:

* Knowing some science – For example, having A-level biology, or simply knowing the laws of thermodynamics, the boiling point of water, what surface tension is, that the Earth goes around the Sun, etc.

* Knowing how science works – This is more a matter of knowing a little of the philosophy of science (e.g. ‘The Scientific Method’, a matter of studying the work of Popper, Lakatos or Bacon).

* Knowing how science really works – In many respects this agrees with the previous point – that the public need tools to be able to judge science, but does not agree that science works to a singular method. This approach is often inspired by the social studies of science and stresses that scientists are human. It covers the political and institutional arrangement of science, including topics like peer review (including all the problems with this), a recent history of policy and ethical debates and the way funding is structured.

The problem with the first approach is what IB Cohen, writing in the 1950s, called “The fallacy of miscellaneous information”: that a set of often unrelated nuggets of information pulled from the vast wealth of human knowledge is likely to be useful in everyday life (or that you'll remember it when it happens to be needed). That's not to say that these bits of knowledge aren't useful on occasion. Indeed, I remember my undergraduate science communication tutor telling us about how she drowned a spider in the toilet with a bit of basic knowledge of lipids and surface tension. However, it's unrealistic to list all the things a modern member of society might need to know at some point in their life, get everyone to learn them off in advance and then wash our hands of the whole business. This is especially problematic when it comes to science, as such information has the capacity to change (or at least develop). Instead, we all need access to useful information when it is needed.

[H/t: Jennifer Ouellette]