Jan 12 2016

Real Scientific Literacy

miracleequationWhat does it mean to be scientifically literate? There is no completely objective answer to this question, it can be defined in multiple ways and the bar can be set anywhere along a spectrum.

Many tests of scientific literacy essentially ask a series of scientific facts – they are tests of factual knowledge, but not scientific thinking. This glaring deficit has been pointed out many times before, and was so again in a recent editorial by Danielle Teller. She writes:

There are a number of problems with teaching science as a collection of facts. First, facts change. Before oxygen was discovered, the theoretical existence of phlogiston made sense. For a brief, heady moment in 1989, it looked like cold fusion (paywall) was going to change the world.

I agree. A true measure of scientific literacy should be a combination of facts, concepts, and process. Facts are still important. Concepts without facts are hollow, and facts without concepts are meaningless. Both need to be understood in the context of the process that led us to our current conclusions.

It is shocking that 25% of Americans do not know the Earth orbits the sun. That means that 75% do know the basic fact that the Earth goes around the sun, rather than the sun around the Earth. How many people, however, understand that the Earth and sun actually orbit around their center of gravity (which is within the sun’s surface), that this causes the sun to wobble and provides a method for searching for exoplanets? How many are familiar with Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion? How many people know how we know that the Earth revolves about the sun, and how certain we are of this conclusion? To me, that is scientific literacy.

After a long discussion of the problem, Teller ends with a quick recommendation for what we can do to fix it – we should teach children (to paraphrase) that reproducibility and consensus are important, that data can be manipulated, and that science is more of a process than a collection of facts.

What I want to do is pick up where she left off and discuss in detail what people should know about the process and principles of science. I don’t think it is possible to come up with a list of scientific facts or even concepts everyone should know. That list would be long, subjective, and changing. (At the very least such a list would be book-length, not blog post length.)

Here is my list of what I think everyone should understand (truly understand, not just “know”) about the process of scientific thinking. This will still be a somewhat long list, and may need to be broken up into multiple parts.

True Scientific Literacy. 

1) Scientific Knowledge

The most basic principle to understand is that science itself is not just a collection of facts. It contains a collection of facts, but those facts are organized into theories, laws, and categories which reflect our understanding of those facts and of the universe. Science is a human endeavor, not a static or objective thing. It is our best attempt to understand the world.

In order to think about scientific knowledge it is important to understand that science builds on bits of data or evidence. The term “fact” can be vague, and can refer to data, collections of data, or even theories (like the fact that evolution occurred).

It is also important to understand that there are depths of scientific knowledge. As science advances, usually only in the beginning of a question or area of investigation do our conclusions wholesale change. As a science matures, complete changes in ideas become less and less likely or common. Our knowledge then tends to advance by becoming deeper; not invalidating existing ideas but showing that they are a special case of a deeper more fundamental rule or a more complex system.

2) Science is an empirical and logical process

Science is not one method but a collection of methods that build our understanding of the universe brick by brick. Ideas are tested in science in multiple ways, and those tests comprise the processes of science.

Scientific ideas can be looked at for internal logical consistency – do they make sense? Are there any apparent contradictions? What are the logical implications of a scientific idea? Do the numbers add up (does the mathematical model work)? Is the idea elegant, or is it a complicated mess?

Scientific ideas can also be tested against reality. Is the idea consistent with established scientific facts and existing data? This is actually a low bar and by itself not that compelling, but it is necessary.

Perhaps most importantly, how successful is the idea at predicting new data? Does the idea predict what will happen in the future, the result of future experiments, or the findings of new observations?

Finally (a step often neglected), how does the idea compare to competing ideas? Is it better or worse at predicting new information? Are there any experiments or observations that can distinguish the idea from competing ideas? How many new assumptions does the idea require to work (Occam’s razor) compared to competing ideas?

3) Science uses multiple logical methods

Science is partly, but not entirely, deductive. Deductive reasoning begins with well-established premises and then draws a conclusion that must be true if those premises are true. Often (but not always) deduction begins with general rules and then concludes a specific fact that must be true if those general rules are true.

Science also uses inductive reasoning (perhaps even more than deductive). Inductive reasoning also starts with established facts, but then draws generalized conclusions from those facts – conclusions that may be true but do not have to be true. The more facts support the general rule, and the more accurate predictions we make based on the rule, the more confident we are that it is probably correct.

A conclusion based on inductive reasoning, however, can always be disproved with new information. All swans are white, until we find a black swan.

Science also uses inference – figuring out what is likely to be true based upon what we know to be true. Inference uses facts and logic to come to the most likely conclusion, and can use a combination of induction and deduction. If evolution is true, then what do we expect to find when we look at patterns of genetic inheritance, for example.

4) Science is tentative, and always has error bars

Perhaps one of the most important and neglected aspects of science in the public consciousness is the tentative nature of scientific conclusions. There is a tendency to treat scientific claims with a false dichotomy – true or false, fact or myth. This is a convenient shorthand for claims that are almost certainly true or almost certainly false, but it can obscure the fact that many scientific claims are somewhere in the middle.

Rather, we should teach people to reflexively think of every scientific fact or claim as attached to a degree of certainty. The fact without the certainty is meaningless. Putting a number on it may be difficult, but may help some people grasp current certainty. As an alternative, here are some basic categories:

Rock solid – We know this as much as we know anything. The probability of being true is >99.9%. It can comfortably be treated as a fact.

Very Confident – There is a strong consensus of scientific opinion with no serious competing opinions. The probability is >95%, and we can treat it as likely to be true but there is a tiny possibility future evidence may change our thinking. At this level or higher it is reasonable to take actions based upon the scientific conclusion, and to teach it as probably true in textbooks.

Somewhat Confident – This idea is more likely to be true than not, or at least is our best current hypothesis. There remains serious opposition or alternative views, however, even if they are in the minority.

Controversial – The idea is new, or evidence is ambiguous. Further, there may be two or more competing theories with equal validity and no one theory has the clear upper hand.

Speculative – This is an entirely new idea with little or no evidence. It is just a hypothesis that has yet to be significantly tested.

Minority or Fringe idea – This is a scientific idea that is most likely not true. It has significant problems with evidence and/or logic, is fighting against disconfirming evidence, or requires massive new assumptions that are just not warranted. Ideas in this category may range from damn unlikely to impossible. They are best treated with extreme skepticism.

Disproved and rejected – These are ideas that have been thrown on the trash heap of scientific history. They have already been rejected by evidence or displaced by newer better theories. We can confidently reject them. They may be of only historical interest, or they may linger as fringe ideas.

This concludes part I of this topic. Feel free to give me suggestions for part II in the comments.

17 responses so far

17 thoughts on “Real Scientific Literacy”

  1. banyan says:

    Some examples of theories in your categories would be helpful. Here’s a shot, but I’m not at all confident these are all sorted correctly:

    Rock solid – common descent of life on Earth, the “Big Bang” theory, the germ theory of disease

    Very confident – Human-caused increase in greenhouse gas emissions as dominant cause of global warming?

    Somewhat confident – Dinosaur mass extinction being triggered by a massive meteor strike?

    Controversial – String theory?

    Speculative – Use of cooling vests for weight loss?

    Minority/fringe idea – Energy surplus from [insert latest proposed mechanism here]?

    Disproved and rejected – homeopathy, astrology, acupuncture, etc.

  2. idoubtit says:

    I’d prefer schools teach, and society emphasize, “science appreciation” which can connect those concepts above to real-world examples that would resonate with non-scientists (which most people are). High school science is still a exercise in memorization and kids hate it. I would be fine if most skipped chemistry, biology and physics IF they were required to have a general science appreciation course. In speaking to Dr. Andrew Read (for a Skeptical Inquirer online column) who teaches a general education course for non-science majors at Pennsylvania State University called “Science in Our World: Certainty and Controversy”, he told me that he can get across how science really works using examples that connect to the students’ everyday lives. He says getting them engaged in topics of their choice serves to illustrate the points the class is designed to emphasize—how to think critically and to get used to using a scientific approach to thinking.

    I think Steve has mentioned before that science education in today’s schools is NOT optimal. Obviously, it’s not working well. I feel such an approach that deemphasizes facts (which can change) and teaches process and big picture ideas in ways that are MEANINGFUL to the students, is the way to go.

  3. John Danley says:

    And much of that staggering illiteracy comes from those who belligerently believe the scientific method is an exclusively American phenomenon engineered by liberals to discourage “patriotic” values.

  4. Johnny says:

    Steve, when you write about “science”, is that confined to the natural sciences, or does it include social sciences as well? For example history, economics, and sociology?

    Here is a test for one’s scientific literacy which you might and might not like: http://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/SciLit.html

    I think the most important thing to emphasize is that science is a method (or methods), and not just a collection of fact. Or as Carl Sagan put it, science is a way of thinking.

  5. Gareth Price says:

    I notice that my non-scientists friends have little idea of what doing experimental science is like – in particular how difficult it can be and how much effort goes into it. And I think this is not entirely surprising. When I was an undergraduate, the practical classes were mainly designed to elucidate things we had learned in lectures. The practicals had been performed time after time in university after university and were supposed to “work” although it was common for us to mess them up. But we still had to go away and try to write up a screwed up experiment. In the final year, most students did a research project in a lab but not everyone: consequently, it was possible to graduate and then become a high school science teacher without really knowing what research science is truly like.

  6. BillyJoe7 says:

    “How many people, however, understand that the Earth and sun actually orbit around their center of gravity”

    I can’t remember the last time I said this and did not get back a blank stare.
    (Unless I misunderstood the relevant bit in his “book”, Marcus Morgan is one of those people who does not understand this).

    But I think part of the problem with science illiteracy, especially in the USA, is that there are a lot of ideologues out there for whom the spread of science illiteracy is essential for preserving their ideological viewpoints. For example, creationists, climatic change “sceptics”, anti-GMO activists, and anti-vaccinationists. And republicans.

    As for the list, the only thing I can think of adding is that the underlying assumption of science is that everything has a natural explanation. This is not specifically to exclude the supernatural, but just that supernatural explanations that do not have actual real world effects cannot be studied by science. Of course, the word “supernatural” remains undefined and un-exemplified to date.

  7. BillyJoe7 says:


    In part 2, Perhaps you could go into more detail about the differences between theories (as explanations of observed facts), theories as facts, laws (as descriptions of observed facts), hypotheses, facts (in the usual sense of data/observations/evidence); direct and indirect observations.

    Perhaps also a section on the importance of replication by different groups of scientists; the value of evidence from multiple disciplines converging on one conclusion; and the idea of consensus and its common misunderstanding.

    Maybe also a section distinguishing between trust, belief, and faith and their relationship to peer review and evidence.

  8. Paul Parnell says:

    “And much of that staggering illiteracy comes from those who belligerently believe the scientific method is an exclusively American phenomenon engineered by liberals to discourage “patriotic” values.”

    What the hell?

  9. Willy says:

    First of all: HELP!!! Why ITF do the posts appear in groups of 50 now and how can I navigate backwards to retrieve older posts?

    Second: Those of you engaging with hardnose–my sympathy and (no offense) my scorn. If ever I have seen an idiot and someone undeserving of recognition, it is hardnose. (My favorite line from him recently was something along the lines of “my purpose here…”) PLEASE–Ignore him. By comparison, ME is a saint. (OK, hyperbole there)

  10. ccbowers says:

    The problem with the lack of appreciation regarding the uncertain/tentative nature of scientific explanations is that this is often misinterpreted as a weakness of the process instead of a strength. To people who tend to think in black-and-white terms, this appears to make scientific conclusions easy to dismiss with ‘they don’t know what the hell they are talking about.” Why listen to scientists when (insert ideology) never wavers? It is hard to reach people like this, especially those who have a hard time with uncertainty.

    Other people just were never taught the more accurate, nuanced view of science. I’m not sure that it is routinely taught in this manner, and typically occurs to those who have spent time thinking about science, or who were fortunate to have someone influence them towards this way of thinking. Even very intelligent people, who may have very good factual knowledge in science, can fail to appreciate the big picture understandings of the how and why science works.

  11. Damlowet says:

    @ Willy, I feel your pain about the ’50 comments’ thing. Someone typed out how to get back to the first page of replies, but that was in the second set of 50 which is no longer displayed!! I’m sure someone will let us know again. 🙂

    @ CCB I have been thinking something similar for the last couple of days and haven’t had a chance to post my musings till now.

    In my opinion, the most important thing that needs to be taught to the general public (and more so in schools before any serious science education even starts) is logic and critical thinking. People need to understand that what is believed to be true and what is actually true can be very far between. Perfect example is the logic test that Steve blogged about in the past. A very easy way to show how easy it is to be wrong when everything question that is asked correlates with what ones pre determined belief is.
    As you have pointed out, it is the exact same thing with religion. ‘They’ believe it, everything ‘they’ read backs it up or gets discarded (usually opposing views don’t get read at all), all ‘their’ questions get confirmed and ‘they’ can’t possibly be wrong. So when ‘science’ says ‘we are 99% sure’, that is as good as not knowing at all, because it is compared to flawed 100% dead certainty of the opposing view.

    People need to learn what certainty is before the facts of science are presented to them.

    ‘Science’ can’t even say with 100% certainty if the sun isn’t going to explode between now and the morning, to some that my be troubling, to ‘science’ it is just the way it is.


  12. Pete A says:

    To get the comments 1-50: ArticleURL/comment-page-1/
    Comments 51-100: ArticleURL/comment-page-2/

  13. Willy says:

    Thanks, Pete A.

    Is there a “good” reason that this change has occurred? I am so tired of things in the ether being “improved”.

  14. Damlowet says:

    Champion Pete A!

    Just for an interesting thought experiment, I would like to get and idea of what others would put the probability of ‘God’ doing ‘Creation’ at.

    Knowing what I (think I) know about science, I would be as certain as ‘we’ are about evolution. Less than a 1% chance that god-did-it.


  15. Damlowet says:

    That probably would have made more sense if I wrote greater than 99% chance ‘He’ didn’t.


  16. BillyJoe7 says:


    “Those of you engaging with hardnose–my sympathy and (no offense) my scorn. If ever I have seen an idiot and someone undeserving of recognition, it is hardnose. (My favorite line from him recently was something along the lines of “my purpose here…”) PLEASE–Ignore him. By comparison, ME is a saint. (OK, hyperbole there)”

    I am finally totally with you.
    I have been following that thread but refused to participate even though I was sorely tempted by that line you quoted “my purpose here…”.
    The hubris coming from this idiot is astounding. He is here to inform us of the alternative view as if we’ve never been exposed to the alternative view! As if we’re here to have our “mainstream” view reinforced. As if none of us have ever been religious, or denied climate change, or had doubts about GMOs!
    We’re here becuase it’s a good source of reliable information.

  17. tmac57 says:

    hardnose is just an extended (interminably) Monty Python ‘Argument” sketch.

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