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.