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.

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