18 thoughts on “Scientific literacy

  1. @Fiachra

    When you give talks like this, do you get annoying puns about how pellucid you were, as befits your family, that you were in fact “clear as a Bell”? (Glad I didn’t make one, so.)

    I agree that scientific literacy is not a complete answer in itself. But willful ignorance of science, technology, engineering and maths is certainly a widespread problem. And in a technological age, it is a barrier to full participation in society.

    Just one small and annoying example: throughout yesterday there was coverage of problem breast implants on Irish radio. The things were described almost every time as Silicon rather than silicone implants.

    1. alice Post author

      I don’t think the way to deal with “wilful ignorance” is to say people aren’t scientific literate enough.

      As I say in the radio piece, I’m all for people learning more but (a) saying “I don’t know” should be a liberating and exciting statement, the start on the route to learning something new, not something that makes us feel small and (b) saying someone doesn’t know something shouldn’t be an insult, it should be an invitation.

      1. @Fiachra

        I agree about “I don’t know” being a starting point, at least potentially.

        “I don’t know, and I don’t care” is not much of one. And when they tag on “and you can’t make me” or “you’re pretty weird for knowing” then I give up.

        Sorry about the stupid pun, by the way.

  2. Benjamin Brooks

    I read the text-based version so have probably missed an awful lot from the podcast’s Q&A, but I’ve got to say you have a point. That didn’t make it any more comfortable to read mind you!

    It did get me thinking; perhaps there’s a “third way” when it comes to Science Literacy. Sure you cannot make people understand every branch of the sciences, and the scientific method is not anywhere near as simple as it is often portrayed, but if you can make people understand two basic things then you don’t need to:

    Namely that we (the human race) do not know everything and it is foolish to think so, and that scientific enquiry is our best bet at finding out the things we do not know.

    Perhaps I’m being naiive, but it’s like many have said: “To know is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.” – attributed to Confucius.

  3. Jen D (@JenDtweeting)

    Hi Alice, I enjoyed your article (I read the BBC text version). I agree, in principle, with the problems as you describe it of a) defining “scientific literacy” and then b) delivering it.

    And yet, as a chemist I find scientific illiteracy can be troubling. I think that rather than teaching a specific set of facts, for example, it would be good if we taught people (from school level) what science has revealed and the its limits. At school I remember being taught a lot of facts, but not so much about the body of evidence behind the facts or the process of them being revealed. That is, how was the scientific consensus reached? That is problematic because by removing that element you have removed the basis of scientific inquiry and don’t train people to LOOK for the evidence.

    Contextualising science is another important factor. Chemistry gets bad press, for instance. “People” don’t like chemicals and don’t trust chemistry. In some cases with good cause. Yet, the modern world is built on chemistry – everything that you do today will have a chemist and chemistry somewhere in the product chain – from drugs, plastics, energy, clean water, food safety testing, health diagnostics, cosmetics, fabrics, your phone, tv, computer… etc. Even the eco stuff – it’s still chemistry. Anything which has been tested for your safety has had a scientist involved. And so, I think an appreciation of that should be taught.

    I also think it is tremendously important that science education shows the good with the bad. Science needs to be communicated in a way which is relevant to people and socially responsible. When bad things happen, we need to highlight how and why they happened but also how they are being solved. This all involves science and scientists. When good things happen, we’re not helped by over-hyped Press Releases or uninformed media coverage.

    Finally, I think if people were taught about statistics and probability we would be a lot closer to having a scientifically literate society.

    Ok, I’ve blabbed too long. I definitely agree that “I don’t know” is and should be a liberating thought. It’s OK not to know – finding out is exciting!

    1. alice Post author

      I’m not sure scientific literacy actually exists for illiteracy to be something you can spot… you might want to listen to the whole thing. The text based piece is about a third of the length.

  4. andorffson

    Great article, Alice, and timely, given the state of some of the comments left on BBC web items on the Higgs’ Bassoon. I agree completely that any attempt to define what is meant by ‘scientific literacy’ is almost impossible and the wheels really fall off when you consider how that should be delivered.
    I think that one of the problems with the issue is the phrase itself. ‘Scientific literacy’. Because you’re exactly right, the issues to which it pertains are so big and so interconnected. Take the climate change issue; should we have built a Severn Barrage? It’s not just a question for climate scientists – you need to consider conservation, jobs, the law, long-term energy policy and a thousand other things. What we need isn’t ‘scientific literacy’. We need an education system that encourages young people, their parents and anyone else we can get through the door to discard prejudice, identify spin, consider opinions and weight them against an open-minded, considered, philosophical position -and that means, as you so rightly observe, not being judged on your ignorance, but on your ability to ask questions and learn from the answers.
    Perhaps there’s a better phrase than ‘scientific literacy’ that we could get educators to use?

  5. Ali TT (@AWTaylor83)

    I listened with interest to your Radio 4 speech and agree with the general principle that engagement between scientists and the public (+ media and policy makers) is crucial. “Science literacy”, however, remains important as well, although it could do with a snappier moniker.

    I echo both your’s and Jen D’s comments that science literacy should not focus on merely memorising and regurgitating facts. There are simply too many facts to know, even for someone who works in science like myself. I do think that understanding of science methodology is important and is poorly taught, if at all, in school and, more worryingly, even at university. There is the “big picture” of science funding and politics that you mentioned but also the need to understand some fundamental scientific processes, e.g.:

    -why do experiments? Why run a particular experiment over alternatives?
    -what makes a result more valid than another, i.e. what is reasonable error?
    -when scientists talk of error, what does it mean? Are error and doubt or apparently contradictory results a good thing or bad thing?
    -what does risk mean and how is it calculated?

    I think these, and more, questions are poorly understood by the public and get overlooked when discussing the results of science, e.g. GM, climate change, nanotech etc. Obviously, they are somewhat abstract concepts and perhaps more difficult to communicate but it is clear that the lack of literacy in this regard hinders public debates on science. It leads to media misrepresentations, poor policy decisions and allows nay-sayers and skeptics to take scientific error and claim that a theory is simply wrong.

    My argument can be more succinctly summarised by a quote from a talk I recently saw by RIck Borchelt of NIH, in which he discussed science communication. He ended by saying that the debate needs to “move away from science product” and look at “science process”.

    1. alice Post author

      Agree with you on a lot of this here, but there is also the problem I have with sci literacy of tackling the problem the wrong way around – that it starts with knowledge (or lack) rather than looking at problems and finding the right knowledge from there. Now, you might say prevention is better than cure, but I just don’t think such an approach is realistic here – that’s why I say structures.

      1. Ali TT (@AWTaylor83)

        Thank you for your reply. Had only listened to the iPlayer version, but listened to the podcast just now and heard a gentleman ask about critical thinking. I remember learning a lot of critical thinking through my school History and English courses, but never in science. In fact, I didn’t learn any philosophy of science until taking an optional final year undergraduate module. It seems strange to me that scientists can be trained without ever learning the basis of scientific endeavour and put their’s (or others’) research into the wider social and political context. I agree with you that the best way to achieve this is to educate through a combination of science philosophy/politics with real world dilemmas.

        Overall, I think the picture is rosier than 5-6 years ago, it seems to me that science is much visible in the media even if there is a long way to go. Pleasingly, I recently organised a conference for young scientists and
        it was the outreach and education sessions that seemed to get the best response above more academic talks.

  6. Chris Lintott

    Just a thought, but the way you frame this discussion (excellently, I might add) reminds me a lot of the discussion around what ‘code literacy is’. Do we all need to be able to develop a bit in order to cope with our connected world? Is it enough to understand the principles? To what extent should we just trust experts who do need to code? This debate crops up all over the place, but seems most acute around people interested in digital humanities. Not that they have an answer either…

    1. alice Post author

      I’ve been thinking the same a lot recently… actually, supervising an MSc dissertation that’s touching on the question! I have no answer either though.

  7. bridgetmck

    Thank you for a really interesting talk. I quite agree with you. At root of this is a lack of ‘educational literacy’ (ironic use of term). Politicians & commentators make calls for increased public understanding of all kinds of things to solve all kinds of social ills, without understanding how people learn and how they change their ideas and behaviours. Some things are small enough to inject into public understanding (with enough promotion and education, and even then campaigns can backfire or struggle). Most subjects are too big, complex and interdependent for the promotional messaging or didactic approach to work at all. Our social systems for learning (schools, colleges, NGO campaigns, public broadcast etc) need to become much more driven by contextual enquiry, involving people in participatory active learning to explore questions and solve problems together. Where I slightly part company with your thesis is that I think you conflate the movement for ‘scientific literacy’ with ‘calls for a basic toolkit’. There are such calls, of course, and a lot of superficial thinking. However, within science education, the push to include science literacy in curriculae is all about connecting science to other subjects and between the sciences, raising awareness of ethics, increasing skills in science communication, using creative techniques to deepen and broaden understanding, and exploring the applications of science in industry and society. This is part of a bigger movement for multimodal literacies – to increase capacities for enquiry and communication in a variety of modes and disciplines. It broadens the definition of literacy, to include capacities to read and use data of all kinds. This movement is being squashed by Gove’s review of the National Curriculum in England. The new primary curriculum for science removes requirements to explore, question and experiment, only to learn the prescribed facts in chemistry, physics and biology.

  8. aquaticbiology

    Hello, I really enjoyed your podcast – and I was pleasantly surprised to find I’d subscribed to your blog without remembering. I’m very interested in approaching this subject as a museum professional or other educator. I know I was always more interested in biology when I was in an aquarium or zoo than when I was in a classroom, (not that I think classroom learning can’t be fun), and I agree it’s very important to be able to engage in discussion about science and with scientists to nurture one’s interest.

  9. Eric

    Why scientific “literacy”? Sounds just like another trendy word; think of everything today having a “legacy”, once something left in a will. Why not “an understanding of science”? Understanding how a microwave oven works. for example. As for “basic tool kits”, mine consists of a hammer, a screwdriver and a pair of pliers. And when I was at school, “chemistry” had nothing to do with how I felt about the girls I knew.


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