Now here is a piece on scientific literacy that I find interesting. The author, Daniel Sarewitz, is wondering why so many people equate it with knowing facts:
We have this belief that unless a person knows that the Earth rotates around the sun and that birds evolved from dinosaurs, she or he won’t be able to exercise responsible citizenship or participate effectively in modern society. Scientists are fond of claiming that literacy in their particular area of expertise (such as climate change or genomics) is necessary so “the public can make informed judgments on public policy issues.”
Yet the idea that we can say anything useful at all about a person’s competence in the world based on their rudimentary familiarity with any particular information or type of knowledge is ridiculous. Not only is such information totally disembodied from experience and thus no more than an abstraction (and an arbitrary one at that), but it also fails to live up to what science ultimately promises: to enhance one’s ability to understand and act effectively in a world of one’s knowing.
This point has often troubled me. I recall Richard Feynman’s attempt to reduce the key insights of physics down to a single sentence. (“If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that: all things are made of atoms-little particles that that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied”) And I still can’t help thinking that some basic scientific knowledge about the world is an essential part of anyone’s mental furniture.
But where to stop? This is the slippery “physics for poets” problem, and I don’t think it’s ever been solved. Yes, everyone should know that things are made out of atoms, and that there are only a certain number of different kinds of atoms. And I’d like for people to know that living things are mostly just made out of eight or ten of those, with carbon being the most important. But at that point, are we already getting close to the borderline between knowledge and trivia? What should people know about carbon? About atomic bonds? About biomolecules? I’d like for people to know roughly what DNA is, and what proteins are, and what carbohydrates are (other than “stuff that’s in food”). But in how much detail? The details multiply very, very quickly.
The same goes for any other science. A hobby of mine is astronomy, and I certainly think that everyone should know that the Earth and the other planets go around the sun, with moons that go around many of them. I’d like for them to know that the other stars are things much like our sun, and very much further away. But should people know about red giants and white dwarves and supernovas? I’d like for people to know that Jupiter is a big planet, with moons. But how many moons? Should they know the names of the Galilean satellites or not? And what good would it do them if they did?
Ah, you say, science literacy should focus not so much on the mass of facts, but on the process of doing science itself. It’s a way of looking at (and learning about) the world. And I agree with that, but Sarwitz isn’t letting that one off easily, either:
A more sophisticated version of science literacy that focuses not on arbitrary facts but on method or process doesn’t help much, either. The canonical methods of science as taught in the classroom are powerful because they remove the phenomenon being studied from the context of the real world and isolate it in the controlled setting of the laboratory experiment. This idealized process has little if any applicability to solving the problems that people face on a daily basis, where uncertainty and indeterminacy are the rule, and effective action is based on experience and learning and accrued judgment. Textbook versions of scientific methods cannot, for example, equip a nonexpert to make an informed judgment about the validity or plausibility of technical claims made by experts.
This is overstated (I hope). The scientific technique of isolating variables is key to troubleshooting of all kinds, all the way down to problems like why the toaster oven isn’t coming on. (Problem with the switch? Problem with the cord? Problem with the plug? Problem back at the circuit breaker?) And the concept of reproducibility has broad application as well. But it’s true that school curricula don’t always get this things across.
One of the responses to the article brings up an interesting analogy – music. There’s being able to listen to music, and decide if you like it or not, or if it does anything for you. Then there’s being able to read sheet music. And there’s being able to play an instrument yourself, and past that, the ability to compose. When I say that I’d like for more people to know more about science, I think that I’m asking for more people to be able to the hear the music that I hear. But is that really what it means?