Dec 14 2015

We Need Both Science and Critical Thinking

civic scientific literacyA recent commentary published in the New Scientist addresses the issue of scientific literacy and civic decision-making. The author notes:

We have a long tradition of allowing civic affairs to be settled by persuasive rhetoric. That is inadequate for our modern society. Science and technology shape our world and, as a society, we need to make well-reasoned and scientifically literate choices about everything from genetic engineering to geoengineering.

But many of the tools used to make science-heavy decisions are also needed to properly evaluate a much broader range of subjects: in particular, critical thinking and numerical analysis.

I completely agree. The process of public decision-making should default to an objective and critical analysis of the relevant evidence. That should always be step 1. Rather, it seems that all sides of an issue feel empowered to have their own facts, their own interpretation of reality.

This hits upon a key aspect of the skeptical community. Often I encounter scientists or just members of the general public who think that science alone is all we need, that skepticism has no particular or additional value. Even a casual look at the issues facing our society today shows how vacuous this position is.

Without critical thinking skills, the ability to think philosophically about science, and some knowledge of pseudoscience and how it operates, scientific literacy alone is not enough. Just ask any biologist who had their asses handed to them by Duane Gish in an evolution debate – having science on your side is not enough. You have to understand the ways that science is distorted for ideology.

There are many important issues that face society today that demonstrate this unequivocally: vaccine refusal, regulation of GMOs, climate change, alternative medicine, toxin hysteria, teaching evolution, gun control, and eating “clean,” to name the most prominent.

All of these issues have, to varying degrees, a significant scientific angle. Saying that all we need is science, and therefore all the public needs is scientific literacy, misses a huge aspect of these controversies.

Make no mistake, scientific literacy is an important issue. A survey earlier this year found that 80% of Americans support mandatory labels for food containing DNA.

Any of the issues I mention above, however, are great examples of how scientific literacy itself is not enough. There are anti-vaxers who understand the science well-enough, their problem is that they are lost in conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. Their problem is not with basic scientific literacy, but with critical thinking skills.

Anti-vaxers, anti-GMO activists, global warming deniers, and proponents of bizarre medical treatments often cite their own studies, have reasons for dismissing studies that disagree with their conclusions, and feel they are science-based.

So how are we doing? The New Scientist author refers to a recent Pew poll of scientific literacy, quoting some favorable statistics.

A Pew survey released in September concluded that “most Americans can answer basic questions about several scientific terms and concepts”: that Earth’s core is its hottest part, for example, or that uranium is needed for nuclear energy and weapons.

Take a look at the poll, in fact you can take the quiz yourself. Do that before looking at the answers.

OK – back?

My reaction was – these questions are way too easy. I understand I am a science enthusiast, but seriously those were easy questions. The Earth’s core question, for example, could have been influenced by the colors they used – in the picture, the core looks hotter.

Considering that a grade-schooler should get a 12/12 on that test, the fact that only 6% of the public got all the questions correct is not reassuring. More than half taking the test got four or more questions wrong. Many of the questions could be answered by remembering simple associations (this is a picture of a comet, for example) without demonstrating any real understanding.

This was also not the correct survey to use when discussing civic scientific literacy. Jon Miller has been tracking civic scientific literacy for a couple decades. The good news is that the numbers have been getting better, but still the number of people qualifying as scientifically literate is less than 30%.

The questions are more relevant, such as not just identifying what astrology is, but agreeing that astrology is “not at all scientific.” (Only 59% agreed with that statement.) Even still, we are talking multiple choice or 50/50 questions, so in many cases 50% is random guessing. Only 54% of people correctly agreed with the statement “electrons are smaller than atoms.” That was up from 46% in 1999.


The issue of civic scientific literacy, and critical thinking literacy, is perhaps one of the most important issues we face as a society, because this issue impact all other important issues.

Scientific literacy and critical thinking skills impact more than obviously scientific questions. It is important to simply understand that a political question has an empirical aspect to it, and the debate is best served if we have the most objective and accurate data as possible.

That does not mean there is no meaningful debate. People still differ on values and priorities. That is where the debate should be focused – not on disagreeing over the basic facts.

While there appears to be some awareness that scientific literacy (and to a lesser extent awareness of critical thinking) is important, there is not nearly enough. I do think surveys are important to show where we are.

The current surveys that I have seen, even the “good” ones, are inadequate. They need to do a better job of capturing real understanding of science at a level that is necessary for civic decision-making. They also need to capture the ability to think critically about science and civic issues, including some understanding of pseudoscience and logic.

Properly measuring the issue is just one step. We need to prioritize teaching of scientific literacy and critical thinking skills much more than we do.

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