Aug 26 2014

Scientific Literacy

I was recently interviewed for an article on Medical News Today by David McNamee regarding Why is scientific literacy among the general population important? The topic, of course, is very important to me, as I have spent a great deal of my time attempting to promote scientific literacy generally, with an emphasis on medical science since that is my specialty.

Carl Sagan articulated the basic issue well (of course) – to paraphrase, we live in a civilization increasingly dominated by science and technology, and with a populace less and less able to understand current science and technology. This is a recipe for disaster.

There are many examples that should be readily accessible to regular readers of this or other science blogs: are vaccines safe and effective, how much of our resources should we invest in reducing carbon emissions, are GMOs safe and are they a benefit or risk to the environment, should we put fluoride in public water supplies, how should alternative medical treatments be regulated and how should we invest further in clinical trials of their efficacy?

There are countless other examples, but these are some of the most prominent. In every case, understanding of how science works, of critical thinking and how people generally form and maintain their opinions, and of the specific factual details are important to arriving at a practical decision, at the personal and societal level.

Imagine the profound waste of resources (time, money, effort, media attention, raw material, land, etc.) resulting from coming to the wrong conclusion on these and other questions. Imagine the potential loss of quality and duration of life.

Now imagine we lived in a society where the vast majority of its citizens had a high degree of scientific and critical thinking literacy. This would not be a utopia, people are still people and life is complex and necessarily involves many trade-offs and compromises. But it would be nice if we could avoid the greatest sources of waste and harm from demonstrable nonsense.

To give just one example, we were a hair’s breadth from eradicating polio from the world about a decade ago. It would have gone the way of smallpox. But fear and superstition got in the way, and “evil was allowed to endure,” to quote Lord Elrond. Now we are dealing with further polio outbreaks, and the possible development of new strains resistant to existing vaccines. 

In the Medical News Today article I give some thoughts on what can be done about scientific illiteracy. I do feel that it needs to begin at a very young age, with excellent teaching of science and critical thinking in grade school through high school. Although there has been much discussion of supporting STEM education, I don’t see that anything meaningful has really happened.

I have two daughters going through the public school system, in a fairly affluent part of the country, with excellent public schools. Let’s just say I have not been impressed with their science education. It is all but neglected in the lower grades. It is getting somewhat better in the higher grades, but nothing near where it should be. Often lessons are superficial, don’t really teach how to think scientifically, and as far as I can tell do not contain any hardcore lessons in critical thinking.

I know there are some excellent science teachers out there, and they make all the difference. What we need, however, is for all science teachers to be excellent – specifically trained in science and how to teach it.

Textbooks are a disaster. Often, political and social ideology get in the way, such as with the teaching of evolution.

School is only part of the equation, however. In order to attain and maintain scientific literacy, we need lifelong learning. Most adults get their information from mass media, which means it is in our best interest to have very high standards of science journalism (something which has been waning of late).

There are two basic approaches to improving science journalism. Either we need to train journalists to better understand science, or we need to train scientists to be able to communicate to the media and the public. Both skill sets are required.

I don’t know how to fix science journalism, but perhaps it can start with the public demanding better science reporting. Of course, this requires scientific literacy in the first place. One approach is for those who do have a science background to bootstrap the process by providing critical public feedback to science reporting. Social media is an excellent venue for this.

This suggests that much of the impetus for change needs to come from the scientific community. Historically the culture of science and academia is to look down on popularization of science. Today it is perhaps more tolerated, but generally not valued. If academia placed a great value on the popularization of science and critical thinking, then scientists would have an incentive to spend more time and effort on popularization. This, in turn, could result in a higher standard of science journalism, and ultimately to greater scientific literacy in the public. This further would create more public support for improving STEM education at all levels.

The political will has to come from somewhere, and if not from academia (those in the best position to understand the nature and importance of scientific literacy) then from who? I do think the skeptical movement can play a critical role in promoting scientific literacy, but we need to make inroads into journalism and academia. Social media has helped with the former, but the latter remains a tough nut to crack.

I do see progress, but it feels like two steps forward, one step back. Just when we are starting to have some impact, for example, ideologically motivated pseudoskeptics try to steal the mantle of skepticism to deny established science. Social media has also been a double-edged sword. It has greatly expanded our reach, but unfamiliarity with the medium and a lack of filters has also exposed some poorly considered and unflattering opinions among some science promoters.

A lot of ideological opinion is getting mixed in with the science, and this can be divisive and distracting.

Like many things, however, promoting scientific literacy is a journey not a destination. We will never “arrive,” rather we are best served by keeping up the efforts to promote the role of science and reason in our society and spreading appreciation for and an understanding of the process and findings of science.

23 responses so far

23 Responses to “Scientific Literacy”

  1. BillyJoe7on 26 Aug 2014 at 8:48 am

    …so I click on the link to the article and find advertisements for Horoscopes and Luminosity Brain Training

  2. RCon 26 Aug 2014 at 9:52 am

    “I don’t know how to fix science journalism, but perhaps it can start with the public demanding better science reporting.”

    Science reporting is generally pretty bad, but I’m not sure it’s all that much worse than the rest of the journalism world. Nothing seems to get fact checked anywhere.

  3. Vendetta88on 26 Aug 2014 at 10:07 am

    The science curriculum in public schools has troubled me as well.

    Do you have any resources you can link to that you have used to supplement your children’s science knowledge and critical thinking?

  4. tmac57on 26 Aug 2014 at 10:25 am

    I wonder what the actual trend is for science literacy? On the one hand it’s easy to see terrible examples of bad science reporting in the MSM,and a plethora of pseudo scientific blogs and social media memes,but there are also a growing number of good science blogs and social media,and there appears to be a renewed interest in high quality science entertainment.
    Recently,the ‘You Are Not So Smart’ podcast had an interview with Joe Hanson (episode 027),where he made the observation that there are a lot of YouTube channels that present good science communication in an accessible format,and they often have greater views per episode than Fox News,or Game of Thrones.
    If all of that is true,it is great news,and we might be focusing too much on the bad stuff (well,I guess you can never ease off on the criticism of bad ‘science’),and not enough on the good news. But like I said,I wonder where we really are on this issue?

  5. oldmanjenkinson 26 Aug 2014 at 10:54 am

    The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science are championing this cause by educating scientists how to communicate more effectively.

  6. MaryMon 26 Aug 2014 at 10:54 am

    I fully want more people to appreciate the process of science. And I would much love to see courses in critical thinking and statistics for any high school student. This would benefit them on a lot of fronts–not just medical decisions, but financial ones, and more.

    But increasingly I’m not blaming the confused individuals as much. And I see plenty of decent science journalism, and science journalists are actively discussing with each other the best ways to discuss issues.

    It seems to me that the shouty, active, malignant misinformers are responsible for seeding the misconceptions. And there’s no way to hold them accountable. Even Mike Adams’ recent call for cleansing of GMO science writers got very little attention aside from the folks on his list and a small circle of skeptics.

    I don’t know how to intercept that. They appear to have plenty of financial support to spend all their time spreading BS, while scientists and supporters of science do sort of ad hoc, volunteer fly-swatting.

  7. idoubtiton 26 Aug 2014 at 10:58 am

    Are we any worse at science education that a decade ago? We may be slightly better now that the internet is more prevalent. But with the good comes the bad information as well.

    I recall talking to a colleague who was in school during the Sputnik era. There was a genuine push for science in THOSE days. I was out of fear. I’m saddened to see how few cultural leaders recognize the economic and social benefits to emphasis on science education.

    Straight science classes is not going to be the answer. Not many kids will become scientists. They are not going to be interested in chemistry, biology, physics. I agree what is needed is early exposure to scientific processes – a science appreciation curriculum. From experience, critical thinking and science ideas can be taught using subject areas kids are personally interested in – medical claims and cures, natural disasters, paranormal, animals, nature, things they are exposed to every day. This keeps their attention and they have motivation to learn something. Kids need to be taught early what science is good for and how it makes their lives better. (They, in turn, school their parents sometimes.) This may spark a positive attitude towards science that can last a lifetime.

    Improving education in America is such a multifaceted problem (funding, family/culture influence, media content, economic conditions, etc.) There is no easy fix but several strategies are needed to make overall improvements.

  8. idoubtiton 26 Aug 2014 at 10:59 am

    Correction above “I recall talking to a colleague who was in school during the Sputnik era. There was a genuine push for science in THOSE days. It was out of fear.”

  9. evhantheinfidelon 26 Aug 2014 at 11:20 am

    A great parallel, I think, is the push from some philosophers to keep scientists philosophically illiterate. This is not a majority opinion, but it does exist. They often argue that both enterprises are served better by being kept separate, but they strangely argue that philosophers can handle both while scientists should just stick with the testable stuff. I think that even if their arguments are empirically valid, it is condescending and still does not serve individual intellectual nourishment at large. I think there may be a similar push or attitude from some scientists and much of the media. It is okay for people to hear about scientific topics, but not for them to get involved, whereas it is okay for scientists to get involved in public affairs. This may be tangentially related in parts, but it is an interesting phenomenon if it indeed exists.

  10. mrandredparison 26 Aug 2014 at 11:27 am

    Can you recommend any books that discuss this very subject for children?

  11. jirvin927on 26 Aug 2014 at 2:23 pm

    One could also blame the fetish we have with education being a direct benefit to business and capital. When over half the workforce is engaged in worked that has been divided and dumbed down so much that little intellectual power is necessary to perform a job, it is no surprise that we would not need well-educated, critical thinkers coming out of our schools.

    Business wants workers with basic readin’ and cipherin’ skills, along with “soft skills”–a euphemism for kow-towing and taking orders.

    A critically thinking and scientifically literate community would mean the wholesale destruction of one wing of our polity, which thrives on ignorance, superstition, and cheap unskilled labor.

    The phrase “good enough” exemplifies our business community, and too many political leaders. Marry that attitude to religions that want to keep us bowing and scraping before a bronze-aged megalomaniac in the sky and you have the recipe for anti-science and anti-reason.

    Those that rule the economic and political roost know they only need just enough people trained in “STEM” to keep the machines running, machines that have contributed to the economic dislocation of all those we would like to see trained in science and reason, not because we want them to get jobs–not a bad goal, but because we want them to live the fullest life possible, which can only be achieved when we appreciate through science and reason the untamed beauty of the universe and of ourselves.

  12. RickKon 26 Aug 2014 at 2:27 pm

    “Straight science classes is not going to be the answer. Not many kids will become scientists.”

    Many kids are becoming scientists (academic, government and corporate). And many are interested in science. Just not as many American kids.

    Education is indeed the key – but not just science education.

    Two excellent books that paint a picture of the current state of American education and show that it is absolutely possible to do much better:

    “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way” by Amanda Ripley
    “Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire” by Rafe Esquith

  13. BBBlueon 26 Aug 2014 at 5:05 pm

    Couldn’t agree more on your observations regarding public schools.

    My son had an awesome science teacher as a freshman in high school and was very excited about the subject. The teacher wound up taking an admin position in the middle of the school year, and my son’s interest in science waned as a parade of subs to over the class.

    I’m sure we can all think back to special teachers who motivated us. Unfortunately, many school systems value admin roles more highly than classroom roles in terms of wages and working conditions, so bright, ambitious teachers see becoming administrators as the way up the ladder.

    On way to improve science education, and perhaps education in general, would be to flip that system and create a situation that rewards good teachers who choose to remain in the classroom. School systems in my neck of the woods are way too top heavy, in my opinion.

  14. WalterWon 26 Aug 2014 at 5:14 pm

    Speaking as a journalist myself, although not a science writer, the problem with science journalism is science doesn’t sell papers, at least in numbers that can attract advertisers. One sobering statistic, the number of newspapers with science sections have declined from 95 in 1989 to 19 last year. That means a lot of experienced science writers have been laid off — they’ve usually been among the first to get cut as newspapers slash expenses. The same trend is true for TV news. These cuts were not made willy nilly: News organizations collect data on what the public is reading/viewing, and public interest in science is very low compared to nearly any other topic. In fact, according to the Newspaper Association of America, the science/technology section is the least viewed part of a newspaper, with the exception of fashion:

    The mistake I often hear people outside the industry make is if you give the public good science journalism, they will eat it up and that will somehow raise science literacy. But there is no evidence of that being the case. There is good science writing out there: There are, for example, a number of science magazines that generally do excellent jobs. But science magazines tend to be low sellers (by a quick count, only five science magazines are on the list of the top 100 magazines in the U.S. by circulation). There is simply no economic incentive for most media outlets to offer quality science journalism.

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t call out bad reporting, as you suggested. But there needs to be greater demand for science news in general before most media organizations will start investing resources in reporters who do the job adequately. How do you create that public demand? Wish I had the answer.

  15. Johnnyon 26 Aug 2014 at 5:35 pm

    I love the way you spice blogposts with LOTR references. Keep it up!

  16. RCon 27 Aug 2014 at 1:07 pm

    Science education in the USA suffers from the same issues as our education system as a whole – we don’t pay teachers enough, and we don’t think teachers are important enough – so instead of having subject matter experts teaching what they love, we’ve got a system that picks up mostly english majors and forces them to teach things they don’t understand, and don’t enjoy.

    Science is a framework to hone curiosity into a useful tool – and unless teachers are scientists, they don’t understand that – they think its a set of steps and facts to be memorized. Sciences classes are an awful lot like history classes, and that’s profoundly wrong. Labs are never experimental, they’re procedural busy work. Science classes are BORING, and that’s absurd.

  17. shifty803on 27 Aug 2014 at 1:27 pm

    I have perhaps better insight than most into the elementary school side of things. My wife is a teacher in one of the counties with the highest median household income in the United States. Even here, the school policies are almost entirely driven by standardized (read: government-mandated) tests for literacy and mathematics. While those subjects are obviously important, the administrations force teachers to adopt a schedule that emphasizes these to the detriment of science and social studies.

    I do have sympathy for the school administrations, because they are being required to do this whether they like it or not. A principal would need to be singularly courageous to tell their respective county/state government to shove it and go their own way. That is basically career suicide, which most people are obviously not willing to do.

    The most frustrating part to me is that young children are all scientists. They are infinitely curious about the world – the sense of wonder has not yet been beaten out of them. Primary school is the perfect time to instill critical-thinking and the scientific method.

  18. thedfa46on 27 Aug 2014 at 9:01 pm

    This was a great article! Are there any folks out there who both work as scientists and attend high schools/universities to give talks themselves? What avenues to you follow to get into the classrooms? In addition to academics, there are those who work in industry which could have something to contribute as well. I work as a geophysicist and have visited high schools via outreach programs maintained by one of the local professional societies (Canadian Society for Exploration Geophysicists).

  19. Aon 28 Aug 2014 at 6:38 am

    Speaking as an elementary teacher from NY, I agree that science has been pushed out of our classrooms. Each year it is harder to get to science and social studies due to reading and math instruction that can take hours-and this is early elementary. Why? We are prepping our children to take ELA and Math tests in 3-8th grade. I have been told by a principal that he doesn’t care about science or social studies or if we teach it.
    Our literacy block is usually 90 minutes but we spend another hour teaching writing-and math takes at least 90 minutes also. It may not seem like a lot of time, but we have children pulled out of the room all day for extra help in reading instruction or math instruction. We have 40 minutes for recess and 40 minutes for art, music, gym, etc.
    We have to use Common Core instruction and evaluate teachers based on the curriculum our district has approved. Teachers are not autonomous anymore. We are obligated to do what our higher-ups tell us.
    This last year, my district was able to incorporate science with ELA and it was magical. We focused on the solar system for weeks! There was debate, there was excitement, and I know my class walked away with a deeper understanding of what is out there. I was excited to teach too.
    Was social studies addressed? Sort of. We had a boring textbook and I had to pick and choose lessons that I could work into the day.
    Our country needs to get away from Common Core and do more of what I did last year.

  20. Ekkoon 28 Aug 2014 at 2:13 pm

    A recent headline in Canada made me think of this blog post.

    I find it a bit alarming that 42% of Canadians having a basic level of scientific literacy somehow ranks #1 amongst the 35 countries surveyed. Equally alarming is that Canadians coming out on top this way included the fact that 13% did not know the Earth revolves around the Sun…

  21. RickKon 28 Aug 2014 at 6:37 pm

    Sweden’s school system turns out students who do much better in science and math than American students. According to “The Smartest Kids in the World…” by Ripley, they do it with a fraction of the homework that American students suffer through.

    I read this a while ago, but in summary I believe Sweden did it by (1) dramatically raising the bar required to get a teaching job. By government mandate, only large universities could issue valid teaching degrees, and only the top half of the teaching class could get qualifications to teach. This shut down many small, less effective education programs. (2) Standardized high school graduation exams were instituted and made quite difficult, but standardized testing during high school was dramatically reduced. (3) Principles and school administrations were given more autonomy to determine how they would use their budget to best teach the students to be ready for the graduation exams. And (4) sports are not sponsored by schools – you’ll never see a school trying to recruit a football coach, or a faculty member who is a baseball coach first and a math teacher second.

    Rafe Esquith manages to teach non-English-speaking immigrant 5th graders science, math, economics and enough English to not only read Shakespeare but to perform a Shakespearean play each year. His classroom is awash in supplies, equipment and volunteer time donated by former alumni.

    It can be done – bad neighborhoods are no excuse, American cultural diversity is no excuse – it’s just about priorities and political will.

    The funny thing about the countries that ranks above the US on the PISA tests – almost every one pays less per student than we do. So a great way to lower taxes is to improve our school systems.

  22. RAnton 30 Aug 2014 at 1:42 am

    I’ve been thinking for awhile now that what is needed is an AIA or AMA for journalists. Some form of licensing ‘guild’ that sets standards for journalism. It could set standards for education, factual content, etc. With benefits for joining and costs for violating ethical codes.

    The _bottom up_ approach of “citizens demanding better science reporting”, when those citizens can’t even properly define what science is will never work.

    The only thing that will work is if journalists adopt a code of their own that is transparent and objective. Good luck getting that done.

  23. RCon 02 Sep 2014 at 4:49 pm

    “Even here, the school policies are almost entirely driven by standardized (read: government-mandated) tests for literacy and mathematics.”

    The reason we have standardized tests is because schools in this country were routinely graduating kids who couldn’t read or do basic math. Testing whether kids can read and write is unfortunately the simplest way to combat that.

    And yes, a lot of it is cultural. People in this country aren’t willing to accept that their kid needs help, or is below average – instead of helping, or pushing the kid, they go after the school, or the teachers, so the schools just keep pushing these kids out the door so their parents can become someone else’s problem.

    I went to a top 25 university (according to all those lists) and there were students in several of my freshman classes that couldn’t read (mostly hockey players), or could barely read. There’s simply no excuse for a kid who can’t read being graduated from a highschool. None.

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