Science literacy strengthens opinions and decisions about science-based issues. Photo: March 2009 BioScience magazine cover, courtesy AIBS.
Newspaper headlines on November 21, 2002:
- Boxing the genome code (Sydney Morning Herald, Australia)
- Scientist to attempt creation of living cell (New York Times, USA)
- 2 black holes may collide, say astronomers (Times of India)
- Ottawa unveils updated Kyoto plan (Toronto Star, Canada)
- ‘Death gene’ discovery (Daily Telegraph, UK)
We live in an age of constant scientific discovery — a world shaped by revolutionary new technologies. Just look at your favorite newspaper. The chances are pretty good that in the next few days you’ll see a headline about global warming, cloning, fossils in meteorites, or genetically engineered food. Other stories featuring exotic materials, medical advances, DNA evidence, and new drugs all deal with issues that directly affect your life. As a consumer, as a business professional, and as a citizen, you will have to form opinions about these and other science-based issues if you are to participate fully in modern society.
More and more, scientific and technological issues dominate national discourse, from environmental debates on ozone depletion and acid rain, to economic threats from climate change and invasive species. Understanding these debates has become as basic as reading. All citizens need to be scientifically literate to:
- appreciate the world around them
- make informed personal choices
It is the responsibility of scientists and educators to provide everyone with the background knowledge to help us cope with the fast-paced changes of today and tomorrow. What is scientific literacy? Why is it important? And how can we achieve scientific literacy for all citizens?
What is scientific literacy?
Scientific literacy, quite simply, is a mix of concepts, history, and philosophy that help you understand the scientific issues of our time.
Scientific literacy is not the specialized, jargon-filled esoteric lingo of the experts. You don’t have to be able to synthesize new drugs to appreciate the importance of medical advances, nor do you need to be able to calculate the orbit of the space station to understand its role in space exploration.
Scientific literacy is rooted in the most general scientific principles and broad knowledge of science; the scientifically literate citizen possesses facts and vocabulary sufficient to comprehend the context of the daily news.
If you can understand scientific issues in magazines and newspapers (if you can tackle articles about genetic engineering or the ozone hole with the same ease that you would sports, politics, or the arts) then you are scientifically literate.
Admittedly, this definition of scientific literacy does not satisfy everyone. Some academics argue that science education should expose students to mathematical rigor and complex vocabulary. They want everyone to experience this taste of “real” science. But my colleagues and I feel strongly that those who insist that everyone must understand science at a deep level are confusing two important but separate aspects of scientific knowledge. As in many other endeavors, doing science is obviously distinct from using science; and scientific literacy concerns only the latter.
Surprisingly, intense study of a particular field of science does not necessarily make one scientifically literate. Indeed, I’m often amazed at the degree to which working scientists are often woefully uninformed in scientific fields outside their own field of professional expertise. I once asked a group of twenty-four Ph.D. physicists and geologists to explain the difference between DNA and RNA — perhaps the most basic idea in modern molecular biology. I found only three colleagues who could do so, and all three of those individuals did research in areas where this knowledge was useful. And I’d probably find the same sort of discouraging result if I asked biologists to explain the difference between a semiconductor and a superconductor. The education of professional scientists is often just as narrowly focused as the education of any other group of professionals, so scientists are just as likely to be ignorant of scientific matters outside their own specialty as anyone else.
In considering what scientific literacy is, it’s also useful to recognize what it is not. Scientific literacy is often confused with technological literacy — the ability to deal with everyday devices such as computers and VCRs. Technological literacy is important to many pursuits in modern society, but it is distinct from my definition of scientific literacy.
The scope of the problem
By any measure, the average American is not scientifically literate, even with a college degree:
- At a recent Harvard University commencement, an informal poll revealed that fewer than ten percent of graduating seniors could explain why it’s hotter in summer than in winter.1
- A survey taken at our own university (George Mason University), where one can argue that the teaching of undergraduates enjoys a higher status than at some other institutions, shows results that are scarcely more encouraging. Fully half of the seniors who filled out a scientific literacy survey could not correctly identify the difference between an atom and a molecule.2
I suspect that these results are the rule, not the exception. Most colleges and universities have the same dirty little secret: we are all turning out scientifically illiterate students who are incapable of understanding many of the important newspaper items published on the very day of their graduation.
The problem, of course, is not limited to universities. We hear over and over again about how poorly American high school and middle school students fare when compared to students in other developed countries on standardized tests. Scholars who make it their business to study such things estimate the numbers of scientifically literate Americans to be:3
- fewer than 7% of adults
- 22% of college graduates
- 26% of those with graduate degrees
The number of Americans who are scientifically literate by the standards of these studies is distressingly low. The numbers, then, tell the same story as the anecdotes. Americans at all academic levels have not been given the basic background they may need to cope with the life they will have to lead in the twenty-first century.
Why is scientific literacy important?
Why should we care whether our citizens are scientifically literate? Why should you care about your own understanding of science? Three different arguments might convince you why it is important:
- from civics
- from aesthetics
- from intellectual coherence
The first argument from civics is the one I’ve used thus far. We’re all faced with public issues whose discussion requires some scientific background, and therefore we all should have some level of scientific literacy. Our democratic government, which supports science education, sponsors basic scientific research, manages natural resources, and protects the environment, can be thwarted by a scientifically illiterate citizenry. Without an informed electorate (not to mention a scientifically informed legislature) some of the most fundamental objectives of our nation may not be served.
The argument from aesthetics is less concrete, but is closely related to principles that are often made to support liberal education. According to this view, our world operates according to a few over-arching natural laws. Everything you do, everything you experience from the moment you wake up in the morning to the moment you go to bed at night, conforms to these laws of nature. Our scientific vision of the universe is exceedingly beautiful and elegant and it represents a crowning achievement of human civilization. You can share in the intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction to be gained from appreciating the unity between a boiling pot of water on a stove and the slow march of the continents, between the iridescent colors of a butterfly’s wing and the behavior of the fundamental constituents of matter. A scientifically illiterate person is effectively cut off from an immensely enriching part of life, just as surely as a person who cannot read.
Finally, we come to the third argument — the idea of intellectual coherence. Our society is inextricably tied to the discoveries of science — so much so that they often play a crucial role in setting the intellectual climate of an era. For example, the Copernican concept of the heliocentric universe played an important role in sweeping away the old thinking of the Middle Ages and ushering in the Age of Enlightenment. Similarly, Charles Darwin’s discovery of the mechanism of natural selection at once made understanding nature easier. And in this century the work of Freud and the development of quantum mechanics have made our natural world seem (at least superficially) less rational. In all of these cases, the general intellectual tenor of the times — what Germans call the Zeitgeist — was influenced by developments in science. How can anyone hope to appreciate the deep underlying threads of intellectual life in his or her own time without understanding the science that goes with it?
So what to do?
The problem has been defined and the need for a solution is real. How can you and your family become scientifically literate? Fortunately, science educators the world over have spent the last decade in an all-out assault on the problem, and a number of solutions are at hand:
At the level of K-12 education, the National Research Council, in conjunction with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and national teacher organizations, produced the sweeping National Science Education Standards.4 This farsighted document serves as a building code for new science curricula for elementary, middle and high schools — curricula that emphasize an inquiry-based approach in the context of concepts and principles rather than vocabulary and rote memorization. Gradually, school systems around the country are retooling their science courses, while numerous programs at the local and state levels seek to retrain teachers in this powerful new educational approach. Soon, educators hope, our nation’s students will demonstrate a richer appreciation of science than ever before.
Reforms have also been targeted at the college level. In 1990, I joined forces with physicist James Trefil in developing one integrated science course, “Great Ideas in Science.” A companion textbook, The Sciences: An Integrated Approach, is now used in approximately 200 colleges and universities.5 And hundreds of other institutions of higher education are engaged in their own experiments to foster scientific literacy among college graduates.
The General Public
And what about those of us who are beyond college years? Today there are amazing resources for continuing education. Scores of books by scientists and science journalists present every field of science to general readers. Wondrous television and radio programs explore the latest advances in scientific research. And the internet abounds with science web sites that elucidate every conceivable scientific topic, from the pure research of space exploration and particle physics to applied aspects of medical technologies, environmental hazards, materials development, drug design, and hundreds of other important topics.
Thanks to these efforts the ball is in your court. With a little effort, you can share in the most extraordinary, transforming challenge of the human species — the adventure of science.
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