Scientific Literacy is Overrated

Do not adjust your screens; this is my weekly science post, written with love by someone who really loves science. Yet I stand by my assertion that scientific literacy, at least the way scientific literacy is frequently talked about and measured now, is completely and totally overrated. And it’s not without reason: a recent study in the Nature Climate Change journal finds that scientific literacy doesn’t make people more likely to accept man-made climate change.

Let’s get into why the current concept of scientific literacy is, to take a phrase from a very vocal kid in my fifth grade class, “totally bogus.” As the National Science Foundation puts it, “Scientific literacy is defined here as knowing basic facts and concepts about science and having an understanding of how science works.” Many of the questions they and other groups, like the Pew Research Center and the Christian Science Monitor, ask when evaluating scientific literacy focus only on facts, some of which are relatively unimportant. Go through and take the Christian Science Monitor quiz. Do you feel like it is testing your knowledge of science? I certainly didn’t.

In my experience, what matters is not the number of facts people can memorize but rather a person’s ability to engage critically with a text or study. To clarify, I am not knocking facts; knowing facts is one of the first steps towards the creation of new knowledge. But, knowing facts requires a pretty basic level of understanding and learning. Heck, just ask any educator about the hierarchy of learning – facts are always at the bottom of that formidable pyramid.

Being able to engage critically with a subject shows much higher understanding and learning. In terms of evaluating scientific papers and knowledge, this means knowing to look at the methods, at the researchers, and at the actual effect sizes. It means acknowledging that science is created by humans and humans inevitably come in with their own biases and perspectives. It means understanding that science is not infallible, that it is a process which involves both steps forward and steps backward. It means reading a paper or a study with all of this background shaping and giving context to the findings.

A test of true scientific literacy would focus not on some minute scientific findings, but rather on the process of creating and evaluating those findings. It is ridiculous to expect people to remember high school biology, or be experts in facts from all scientific domains. It is much less ridiculous to look for the application of critical thinking to scientific findings.

So for me, it comes as no surprise that whether or not someone knows whether an electron is bigger than an atom has no impact on how they view climate science. Even extremely well-educated people with huge scientific backgrounds reject climate science. Scientific literacy is not the issue here and pushing scientific illiteracy as a plague on this nation, as opposed to encouraging an open dialog and critical exploration of scientific findings between everyone, further isolates scientists from the rest of the general public. This is not a useful conversation to have any more, if it ever was, and it is time to move on.

10 replies on “Scientific Literacy is Overrated”

Yeah, on that CSM quiz I scored about an 80%, mostly getting physics facts wrong because that’s where my formal science education is the spottiest (my high school only required a semester of physics to graduate, whereas it required full years of biology and chemistry, and I chose biology as my IB science so I took an additional two years of it – and being a music major meant I got hardly any science in college). But regardless, I feel like I have pretty good science literacy, because I’m pretty good at evaluating when I can take someone’s word for a statement or where I should investigate further, and I know where I have a good amount of science knowledge for someone who’s not a scientist (for example, biology, paleontology, meteorology and astronomy) and where I need to learn more (classical physics).

Another thing I think is important is knowing the difference is that being a critical thinker doesn’t mean you necessarily end up disagreeing. It means carefully evaluating the whole situation to see where the truth is. Sometimes you end up where you started. But knee-jerk dismissing something is just as much NOT critical thinking as blindly accepting it is (which is why Jezebel has issues with science literacy – they mistake disagreeing with a study for being critical of it, when it’s clear they have no idea what it really said).

Also, I think it’s important for people, if they’re reporting a science story for an audience, to look at the original study rather than looking at what another journalist had to say about it. If you don’t, you end up with a sort of game of Telephone that ends up looking like this:


Christian Science quiz? I’m not sure I’d trust a religious organisation to test my scientific literacy…

Key components of scientific literacy are: knowledge of the scientific method; basic statistics, as well as factual knowledge and critical thinking.

I’m confused about your main point, though… You say “A test of true scientific literacy would focus not on some minute scientific findings, but rather on the process of creating and evaluating those findings”… but then you say “Scientific literacy is not the issue here….it is time to move on”, which seems like a contradiction. Do you mean that the definition of scientific literacy should be expanded beyond ‘facts’? Do you think people in the US are scientifically literate enough, according to a facts-based definition?


The Christian Science Monitor is a well-respected newspaper with little connection to Christian Science. Google it. ETA: the “google it” sounds way more flippant than I intended. I just meant that if my explanation was not satisfactory, there are good discussion of CSM elsewhere online that address your concerns.

“Do you mean that the definition of scientific literacy should be expanded beyond ‘facts’?” Yes.

When I read the title of this post I was all like “throwdown time.”, but then I saw it was by you and relaxed a little figuring there had to be a good explanation in the actual post.

The most I get into the interdisciplinary working of climate change science, the more I think that whether you believe or not is in no way a knowledge-based decision (or predictor). A lot of it now, in my opinion, comes down to psychology. Which is why there is an entire burgeoning field of “conservation psychology”. Conservation is a big, scary, overwhelming kind of thing; so is climate change. These kinds of big, scary, overwhelming concepts do different things to different people. Just like how some people can know a lot but still do terribly at tests, or have all the book-smarts and seemingly zero common sense, or how people react differently in disaster or crisis situations than they do in normal life.

But also, I don’t culling down the fact that scientific literacy isn’t an indicator to believing in/accepting climate change means that scientific literacy in general is overrated. In some cases, I would totally agree (sidebar: totally didn’t go to the CSM test, so I don’t know what they’re gaging “scientific literacy” as), but knowing how scientific theory works, knowing basic principles, knowing the difference between “theory” and “principle” and “law”- yes that counts. I have had plenty of people try to challenge what I know and what I do by something along the lines of “well, it’s just a trend. it’s not 100%- you don’t know it’s absolutely true.” And I agree- they are correct. No scientist *knows* anything. But that’s not how science works, no one talks about anything as 100% true.

Somehow, somewhere along the line, there became this misconception that science only states things that are absolute fact. And that’s where critical thinking comes in- of which I absolutely 100% agree that critical thinking is a necessary (and seriously lacking) skill set. When did people stop knowing how to ask questions of things around them – whether they think they’re true, false, or otherwise? I’m starting a new teaching gig this fall in a biostats class, and you’d better believe those kids are going to get a heaping helping of critical thinking…

You make a really great point about the effect of psychology in determining people’s reactions to these issues. The psychology of conservation/climate change/huge ecological issues is really fascinating. It’s a subject that’s starting to get more play, too. I definitely do not know enough about it, but I have been finding the subject popping up more and more in my reading.

I guess it depends on how you define literacy.  I took the CS quiz, and I get the feeling that they measure literacy as “having the basic skills and vocabulary to engage in the critical thinking that science requires.” That’s not necessarily a bad definition.  You make the point that “knowing facts is one of the first steps towards the creation of new knowledge” and “knowing facts requires a pretty basic level of understanding and learning.”  Without those basic facts, though, even beginning to engage in serious scientific discussion would put someone at a serious disadvantage.  I mean, you can’t really discuss Chaucer until you know your ABCs either.  (Unless you just bs, like I do, of course.)  It would be difficult to engage in a discussion of climate change without understanding some of the basic composition of our atmosphere, too.

Full disclosure: I didn’t finish the quiz because it took a while to load and I was getting bored of dredging up minute scientific trivia (or making my best educated guess…)

I kind of felt like, though, that’s ALL they were making the idea of scientific literacy about. Sure, you will need to know a lot of those facts if you’re going to be able to do science. For instance, if you’re going into mathematics, that’s the whole reason why you have to learn so many mathematical systems BEFORE you can start talking theory. But on the other hand, I think there’s a lot more that goes into being “scientifically literate” than what we saw in that quiz. Sure, even if I immediately knew the answer to every question, that doesn’t mean I will necessarily have the know-how to even interpret a study or the required critical thinking skills to determine whether or not you want to actually BELIEVE the results of said study.

As you say, though, this is probably a difference of definition!

“But on the other hand, I think there’s a lot more that goes into being “scientifically literate” than what we saw in that quiz.”

Exactly. So many surveys bemoan how horribly scientific illiterate people are, but they use these types of quizzes to gauge that scientific literacy. Like you said, that is definitely not the whole picture at all, and to me, they show so little of the whole picture that I find these quizzes to not be useful tools in assessing scientific literacy at all.

You hit the nail on the head. Critical thinking skills are what is lacking more than scientific literacy.  However, general American literacy does seem to be limited on the fronts of science, history, geography, and international affairs.

The quiz at the CSM was cool…it seemed more like science trivia instead of literacy.  I would think literacy could be measured more by some sort of reading comprehension type questions…

Sociology M.A. here – It was definitely more about trivia than literacy – although I didn’t get a great score overall, I got more correct answers than I might have if I weren’t applying critical thinking skills (e.g. on the question about an English physicist and moving an object 1 meter: I know wattage applies to electricity and hertz to sound – pascal I wasn’t sure of, but I also know that this is a French name, not English – hence the only option left was joules).  See – critical thinking! :)  Or, you know, basic problem solving, which is critical thinking in its most fundamental form…

Was a fun quiz though – will show it to my Physicist bf, I’m sure he’ll ace it!

Leave a Reply