Why “scientific literacy” is silly, again.

scientific literacy klaxon

The prize of smugness for anyone who can correctly guess which event caused a friend to text me this last year.

I spent an evening earlier this month doing some public engagement about public engagement. Or, talking about scientific literacy in a pub in Bloomsbury as part of the regular “Big Ideas” debates. If you don’t mind the sound of a load of pub chairs moving around, here’s a podcast.

It’s pretty similar to the stuff I covered for the BBC last summer but with added Boris Johnson and much longer (and better) Q&As at the end. Especially good first question from a chap who works for a biomedical charity.

6 thoughts on “Why “scientific literacy” is silly, again.

  1. Jim Grozier

    If by “scientific literacy” you mean, as you say in the podcast, the idea that someone in authority decides that “people need to know about science”, and, moreover, decides *what* people need to know about science, then I think I probably agree with you. However I am not sure that that justifies the statement that “scientific literacy is silly”. Actually it was a term I hadn’t come across much before, but in the blog piece you sort of equate it to “public engagement”, which is a term I am much more familiar with, having been a Cafe Scientifique organiser for 5 years (2005-10 – I thought 5 years was enough).

    The point about Cafe Sci is that it exists, not because someone somewhere decided that “people need to know about science” but because there are people out there who *want* to know about science. It’s a grass roots thing – if the punters didn’t keep turning up for more it wouldn’t happen. So I can’t really agree that it’s silly or pointless. I am not suggesting that in such fora (and there are many – including Skeptics, Philosophy in Pubs, and “Big Ideas” – which I had not come across before today – are all variants on the same thing) people necessarily learn anything useful – it’s more a case of demystifying science, finding out how it is done, etc etc. Let’s face it, although it has had a bit of a PR boost in recent years, science is still marginalised far too much and it’s still seen as “cool” by many people not to know or understand it. So I think getting some of these ideas across to ordinary people can only be good; however I admit that the idea of scientific literacy/public engagement/public understanding or whatever you choose to call it is not problem-free. (For more on that, see for instance my blog post: http://jimgrozier.wordpress.com/2013/01/15/is-the-public-understanding-of-science-a-waste-of-time/).

    Whenever I hear arguments like these I am reminded of another forum I attended a few years back (“Greenspeak”, which was very similar to Cafe Sci but covered a wider range of topics) when, after a very informed talk on nuclear power by an expert, a member of the audience (who I’m sad to say went on to become a councillor) was heard to exclaim: “I don’t care how small the [radiation] dose is, it’s still dangerous!” which is the sort of attitude that makes public consensus on such issues pretty well impossible. If scientific literacy can at least get people thinking a bit more rationally about these things, then it can’t be that silly.

    1. alice Post author

      Yeah, you’re right I slipped on numbering my laws of thermo. Decade since I did history of physics.

      I do know my sci com terminology though. If you think I’m equating public engagement with sci literacy then you misunderstand. You may also like to read up on the history of differences between public engagement and public understanding. Apologies if that’s my lack of coherence in the podcast. See also https://alicerosebell.wordpress.com/2011/04/08/whats-this-public-engagement-with-science-thing-then/

      Jargon aside, I don’t have a problem with people learning stuff/ sharing knowledge. See also my BBC piece. That might help.

      On the people wanting to know point, I agree that’s often missed in talk of PUS and PEST but… it’s more complex than top down vs interactive. Some historians – Fyfe and Lightman – had a nice take on this with their idea of “Science in the Marketplace” not long ago, though they needed to pick at the relative agency of a consumer a bit in their ideas. That’s a more complex issue though. Another blogpost.

  2. Jim Grozier

    It wasn’t in the podcast – it was in the blog: “I spent an evening earlier this month doing some public engagement about public engagement. Or, talking about scientific literacy in a pub in Bloomsbury …” That was what made me think I knew what you meant by “scientific literacy” – if I misunderstood, it’s because I took that as your definition of the term! Also re understanding/engagement, I do know there’s a difference, although, as I said in my blog, the word “engagement” is over-used to such an extent these days that it has become almost meaningless.

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