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Scientific Literacy: Where Do You Stop?

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?

55 comments on “Scientific Literacy: Where Do You Stop?”

  1. VIrgil says:

    Off topic… NCATS finally got around to publishing the list of 58 proprietary compounds that will be available in the “new uses” program…
    A lot of the “usual suspects” in there: nitric oxide pathway, ion channels, CB1/2 agonists, things that hit PPAR and other metabolic regulators. Given that all these things appear to have well characterized MOA/target (always up for debate of course), it appears that application of such compounds to new diseases will require, de-facto, the implication of said target in said diseease. That’s where the gamble comes in for the academics – proposing the involvement of a thus-far unmentioned pathway in a disease of interest. That’s going to require some pretty hefty prelim’ data in the applications to this program, unless the application is written as a gamble… “this might be involved, we have no evidence but hey let’s try”.

  2. barry says:

    I don’t think it’s possible to wholly divorce scientific method from some particular body of knowledge (although Karl Popper came as close as anyone will). More recently Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” makes a good run at showing what a scientific mind can make of all sorts of disparate inputs.

  3. Hap says:

    1) The assumption that “scientific method requires laboratory experimentation” is problematic – lots of questions (weather, astrophysics, and evolution for example) succumb to the scientific method where no (or incomplete) laboratory validation may be possible.
    2) Technical judgments depend on lots of particular knowledge that most people don’t have, but there are plenty of other judgments that fail at more simple levels. Does your logic make any sense? is it consistent? Are you leaving out major problems? These questions can be asked by anyone, and things would probably be better if they were asked more often.
    I think the basis of scientific knowledge is that experiment and data is the test of all theory. Without it, all there is is hypothesis, akin to dreams, but with less imagination. If people insisted on data, and not just anecdote, the supplementeers would have to find some other scam to sell.
    It would also help if people understood that our knowledge is incomplete – some of the things we think we know may be wrong and other things we don’t know (the Rumsfeld theory of knowledge). We base our theories on what we know, but the theories aren’t written in stone – new facts may require them to be changed. Data is the working fluid of science, but it isn’t immutable, and it isn’t the reason for what people do – the ability to snow people under with facts should not be equated with intellectual authority.

  4. RKN says:

    I share the apparent aggravation expressed by the author in the concluding paragraph, that science literacy has become a mark of human virtue.
    I think it’s led to a related problem, people committing themselves to the belief that something is true, even when it is clear they don’t understand the scientific basis for the belief. They believe it simply and only because they want to be seen as being on the “right side of science.”
    I’m not saying people are foolish for believing that Ibuprofen will relieve their headache if they can’t explain its MOA.
    What rankles me is to see a person brandish their so-called belief in the scientific basis of X, as a basis to ridicule others or deride their virtue, whether or not they actually understand the scientific basis of X, but especially when they don’t.

  5. Brian says:

    I agree that to a non-scientist, our expectations for scientific literacy can appear to be a set or arbitrary bits of trivia. That we in the scientific community have difficulty defining the size or content of this set is evidence that it is indeed arbitrary. But I think this feature also has to do with Hap’s point about the incompleteness of our knowledge (We don’t know what all should be in this fact set because we don’t know all the facts).
    In the context of formulating stances on (for example) public policies, I think relying on only accrued learning/experience is a mistake. I think a prime example of this is how the term ‘chemical’ has gotten hijacked by chemophobes. If, as a non-scientist, your only/recent learning/experience of chemicals comes from NYT or Environmental Working Group, you’d understandably think all chemicals are evil. There is a body of facts/principles which the public should include as inputs in order to make informed judgements regarding certain public policies (energy/pollution/conservation/etc).

  6. paperclip says:

    I agree that the process of science for lay people should not be dismissed so easily. Thinking like a scientist can a help a person in so many facets of life: health, finance, etc. It keeps one from falling into mental traps. “I wore my magnetic bracelet, and now my headache is better!” “Bill and Sally come out ahead when they gamble, so it’s Las Vegas for me!” Of course, a skeptical mindset is not just the domain of science, but studying this aspect of science is certainly useful to appreciate this attitude.
    Every field can undergo Sarewitz’s type of interrogation. How much history should we know, and why? Should we focus on the “big men”, or the broad social trends?

  7. luysii says:

    Just being convinced of a particular fact can profoundly change one’s worldview. Consider Copernicus.
    I have a (very fuzzy) mental picture of the way the molecules in a cell are disposed and interact with each other (fuzzy because we don’t know all the details or even all the players).
    I do think that an accurate model of the (eukaryotic) ribosome munching along mRNA, at say 1 hydrogen atom per foot would have a significant effect on Joe six-pack’s view of biology, and its inherent complexity (and improbability). The ribosome has a molecular mass of 4,200,000 Daltons (Molecular Biology of the Cell Ed4. p. 343). Even assuming each atom has the phosphorus mass (32), that’s still 131,000 atoms. Such a model would probably fill Times Square, but it might be possible to do holographically.
    Perhaps it could be computer generated, and viewable in the privacy of you own home. The (fairly simple) chemical models viewable by link from Clayden’s book allow you to blow them up in size, and better, rotate them in space.

  8. Rick Wobbe says:

    As nicely described in the recent book, Unscientific America, which I highly recommend, in addition to the generally low level of understanding of what the discipline and process are, there is complementary problem: a lack of understanding of what they are NOT. Scientists and the process of science are NOT what is presented in movies, on TV and in many books and magazines and by most politicians. I would venture to guess that more than 90% of the depictions of science and scientists that the average person gets are wrong in some fundamental way and a decent fraction of those are perniciously, misleadingly wrong. That means that fixing the problem is much, much bigger than most people realize. It requires UNteaching misinformation before you can teach the facts, process, trivia or whatever you think constitutes “scientific literacy”.
    Unfortunately, many good faith efforts to shed light on the problem and its solutions only make things worse by creating new carcicatures that need to be untaught. I will be charitable by saying Sarewitz’s article falls into that class by erecting some very contrived and not entirely correct straw-man constructs of “scientific literacy” that he feels comfortable disputing.
    And THEN there’s the issue of advertising, which deliberately uses misdirection to sell products or persuade people to take a particular political position for profit, which appears to be several miles above truth as the highest value in our society.

  9. ScientistSailor says:

    Here’s a couple of examples that completely disprove the statement “The scientific method does not help one solve real-world problems.”
    My son was vaccinated, one week later he developed autism. Therefore vaccines cause autism. Now I will start a crusade to end vaccination…
    I can talk on my phone in the car, as long as use a hands-free device. (Look up the data, holding the phone isn’t the problem…)
    I could go on, but you get the idea. I
    I think the most common thing that lay people get wrong is that temporal proximity is related to causality. We really need to work on that.

  10. Alex says:

    Sarewitz discourages citizens from learning which controversies have or even can have factual content. “Everyday problems” are becoming amenable to research conducted online, and “trivia” knowledge does not hurt when it comes to quickly evaluating the class of truth claims at play in abbreviated search results. Where search outcomes touch on “home truths” about the commonsensical everyday, sense has left the building.
    Apologies for the term-paper language; I am out of my depth hereabouts, but it struck me that writing like Sarewitz is producing here is a symptom of something cynical and repulsive.

  11. DLIB says:

    Let’s not take the Enlightenment Period for granted!! Taken to it’s logical conclusion, the idea that since most people don’t have to deal with atomic theory everyday they might not need to know that everything we see is made up of atoms interacting with light and everything we feel is made up of atoms or certain wavelengths of light is a dangerous notion that takes us pre-Enlightenment. Not a world I’d like to be in. Phlogiston will make a comeback 😉

  12. Phil says:

    As many of the previous commenters have noted, Feynman’s argument seems flawed because just saying “things are made up of interacting atoms” doesn’t help much. Science is a bit bigger than that. I would suggest looking at W.V.O. Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”. How can you say what “ceteris paribus” is, unless you can say what “ceteris” consists of. If time matters, you’re already in trouble.

  13. Puff the Mutant Dragon says:

    Thanks for pointing out this article, it’s interesting. If you hang out with journalists/PR people/science bloggers/others in the science communication field, you’ll often hear this mantra that “we need more science literacy”, and usually people will cite climate change or evolution as examples of why lack of science literacy is a problem. But you’ll seldom if ever hear anyone ask what exactly science literacy means, i.e. how much does someone need to know to be “scientifically literate”, so it’s a really good question. A lot of the stuff that seems really important to me might seem like trivia to someone who doesn’t work in the field — it’s not information they can use, and it’s not directly related to their daily lives. (Not that celebrity gossip is directly related to anyone’s daily life either, but most people seem to find THAT kind of trivia much more interesting.)

  14. It depends on the exact fact under scrutiny, doesn’t it? Knowing that the earth goes round the sun is such an elementary fact that its ignorance cannot be excused. Most of us would be rightly suspicious of the very sanity of anyone who has trouble remembering this. Not knowing the exact number of elements or the definition of isotopes or even the number of bases in DNA is not as big a sin.
    Ultimately the question is one of attitude. I agree that not knowing these things is not necessarily a sign of a weak or uncritical intellect, but statistically speaking, it is a sign of someone who is not curious about the world and does not bother to know simple facts about it. It may not mean the person is dumb but it does say something about his ability to be an informed citizen. And in a democracy that’s kind of important (we simply need to look at the politicians we have).

  15. Victor Rosas says:

    I think that this push for “scientific literacy” has more to do with being democratic, although in a somewhat misguided way. Given that public policy affects pretty much everyone, some people may feel left out when decisions are made about a policy that requires specialized technical knowledge that they lack. But, how can anyone ensure that everyone affected is able to make informed decisions about a certain policy? Even I, with a PhD in Chemistry, don’t feel able to make fully informed decisions at the present moment about, e.g., reforming the health system or about the best way to bring fresh water into dry regions of the country. I want to believe that, if I really wanted to, I could reach an informed decision provided the relevant information was available to me. So, to me, it not so much a matter of “scientific literacy” but more of transparency and openness of the information relevant to a particular case. I have seen that the lack of this openness greatly complicates matters, because there is no agreement about what the relevant information is.

  16. Anonymous says:

    “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”
    Arthur Conan Doyle might disagree – Sherlock Holmes was explicitly ignorant of Copernican astronomy, and mildly upset that Watson had caused him to devote even a handful of neurons to a piece of trivia so devoid of practical utility. Like you I would like to disagree with Doyle and Holmes, but I find it hard to articulate a convincing counterargument.
    And no, “ensures people have a proper perspective on the human race’s (lack of) cosmic importance”, isn’t it. There seems to be no shortage of proper Copernicans who still believe that Man is the pinnacle of evolutionary achievement and the moral center of the universe.

  17. RKN says:

    Ultimately the question is one of attitude. I agree that not knowing these things is not necessarily a sign of a weak or uncritical intellect, but statistically speaking, it is a sign of someone who is not curious about the world and does not bother to know simple facts about it.
    It may be attitude, but I think it’s an indication of bias to say that someone’s not curious about the world merely because she’s indifferent to the scientific facts of the world. There’s a great number of things in this world to occupy one’s curiosity, and by which to measure their competency, that have nothing to do with science, per se. Which is the overriding point I think the author tried to make.

  18. Gareth Wilson says:

    I’ve often thought about this in relation to evolution. The public needs to understand that variation in organisms is constantly generated, and that a change in environment will lead to a change in the population as different variants thrive at the expense of others. They also need to understand the application of that idea to disease organisms and drugs. They also need to understand that all living things are related, and can be be grouped in nested sets by their degree of relatedness, and that this applies to human beings too. I don’t have any problem with them also believing that God created all living things in their present form 6,000 years ago. They’ll have problems becoming biologists if they believe that, but how many biologists do we need?

  19. John Schilling says:

    #9: “Here’s a couple of examples that completely disprove the statement ‘The scientific method does not help one solve real-world problems.’
    [vaccination causes autism]
    I can talk on my phone in the car, as long as use a hands-free device. (Look up the data, holding the phone isn’t the problem…)
    I could go on, but you get the idea.”
    I get the idea that you think the scientific method consists of “looking up data”. I hope that this is not really the case, but consider your examples. If an actual, practicing scientist is faced with the question of vaccinating his son or not, driving with a hands-free cellphone or not, to advise his friends and family re: same, how is the “scientific method” applied? When, e.g., an astronomer is contemplating vaccination, what experiment or observation does he perform to prove or falsify the hypothesis, “vaccination is safe and effective”?
    The ability to look up data is useful. The ability to evaluate the credibility of data and data providers is perhaps more useful. Scientists certainly do these things a great deal, but they are not alone in doing so and these things are not properly characterized as “the scientific method”. Nor is it clear to me that the way scientists obtain and evaluate published data is generally superior to the way e.g. journalists or housewives do so.
    The scientific method is useful for people who plan to spend a great deal of time determining the correct answer to a question which cannot be reliably answered by Google or even a good library. It probably is on the list of things laymen should understand, but not with the expectation that they will actually use it more than once in a blue moon.
    And how we arrange for people not to believe falsehoods re: vaccination or cellphones, is an entirely different question. I am pretty certain that the correct answer is not, “the general public should be taught to know and believe whatever scientists say”. I suspect scientists themselves spend far too much time believing what scientists have to say.

  20. RickW says:

    To take the autism example a step further, many people don’t seem to understand that “vaccines cause autism” and “vaccines don’t work” are two different statements. Yet, they are regularly convoluted. Makes life easier for the frauds.

  21. partial agonist says:

    Science teachers need to teach skepticism as being core to the scientific method.
    People should have an intrinsic “prove it to me” position when someone claims to have a magic plastic bracelet to improve your health, or claims that vaccines are evil, and other such woo.
    It won’t hurt to drive home the principle of “it is the dose that makes the poison” while we are at it.

  22. LittleGreenPills says:

    I have to agree that we usually want people to know more facts (data), but I think the area that many people are lacking in is critical thinking.
    Critical thinking is obviously more effective with more data, but having data is not nearly enough. Much of our education today is memorizing facts, while to teach critical thinking would require time and discussion and questions…that might not have an answer.

  23. John Schilling says:

    “People should have an intrinsic “prove it to me” position when someone claims to have a magic plastic bracelet to improve your health, or claims that vaccines are evil, and other such woo.”
    Or when someone claims that vaccines will prevent measles, or that anthropogenic global warming is real. I would hope that this goes without saying, but it is dangerous to think only in terms of examples in which false and antiscientific claims are being made.

  24. James says:

    “Science teachers need to teach skepticism as being core to the scientific method”.
    Exactly. Core not just to the scientific method, but to life. The challenge is to try to maintain that sense of skepticism while at the same time teaching a scientific subject that teaches a large number of “you’ll just have to take this on faith for now” facts. That’s a tightrope walk.
    Unrelated, but if I taught third grade, I always thought it would be fun to start with a standard recipe for cookies, from Good Housekeeping or something, and have each student make one (and only one) modification to the recipe What happens when you leave out flour? Add twice as much baking soda? Add margerine instead of butter? It would be a fun way of teaching the importance of different variables, and be edible too.

  25. Proteus says:

    “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.”
    Unfortunately, that’s *really* not what the so-called ‘scientific method’ taught in schools is.
    If they actually taught it, education would be a lot better.

  26. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    Above all else, I think the average citizen today needs to have a working crap detector. Information about nearly any subject is now instantly available. But how does the non-specialist tell what is trustworthy? Donald Trump still says vaccines cause autism. Bill Gates says the vaccine-autism link is a lie which has killed many people. Having read much of the relevant scientific literature myself, I agree with Gates. How does somebody who lacks the background I have decide whether to believe Trump or Gates on this subject?
    Because my wife and I hold doctorates in biology and work in the pharma R&D world, relatives frequently ask us medical questions. They don’t expect us to know the answers ourselves, they know we’re not clinicians, they just want us to do some online research and summarize what we find. They trust us to evaluate available sources for them.

  27. ScientistSailor says:

    Yes, looking up data is not the “scientific method.”
    It is critical thinking that is lacking from much of the world, scientific or otherwise. Many people too readily believe that if A preceded B, then A caused B, and don’t stop to ask if there could be another explanation. So it becomes easy for ideas like vaccines cause autism to spread.

  28. Watson says:

    These sorts of questions about scientific literacy would probably be best addressed by requiring an introduction to Logic as part of high-school core-curriculum.
    Everyone could use logic in their everyday lives to improve their understanding. More specifically, understanding fallacies, determining whether or not an argument is valid, and having a good grasp on inductive/deductive reasoning would at least provide students with the tools necessary to recognize the limitations of their knowledge and exactly how they are manipulated by the umwelt.

  29. Rock says:

    Although the scientific literacy in this country is appalling, I see a broader issue as it relates to public policy. That is, emotions and bias generally override logic and reason. Pick any hot-button topic like climate change. Have you ever heard anyone, particularly politically minded individuals say “I don’t know enough about the science behind it to have an informed opinion.”? Wouldn’t that be refreshing to hear. Unfortunately, the information they hear is often from either right or left wing pundits, or professional scientific “deniers” with an agenda to create what appears to be a controversy among scientists where none exists. Read “Merchants of Doubt”, it is scary to see how much damage a few rogue scientists can do.

  30. Rick Wobbe says:

    Rock 29 et al, another good read on the phenomenon you described is “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. Isn’t it ironic that politicians, advertisers and media outlets (e.g. Fox and Slate) have taken what science has learned about human behavior and what influences it and used it against science to turn a profit? Another sad irony is that the people most likely to say “I don’t know enough about the science behind it to have an informed opinion about it” are scientists. Two things seem pretty clear about us: persuading is more valued than informing and profit is more valued than knowledge.

  31. ACriticalScientist says:

    That’s a wonderful topic for a blog, Derek. I’d like to bring some other aspects to this discussion, which have been widely neglected by previous comments, though I would consider these are valuable things to equally consider, when talking about scientific literacy.
    1. It is often claimed (mainly by scientists), that those unfamiliar with the details of a subject, are not able to properly judge about it. What is lacking here is the fact, that people generally make judgments based on knowledge AND experience. There we humans are all the same. The key point though is, that we generate a model of the circumstances, upon which we base our hypotheses, judgments and so forth. Now, even if this community here tends to appraise itself to be more scientifically literate than the average citizen of this planet, it is essential to realize, that “science” is nothing more than a model, helping us to conceptually perceive what we experience all around us.
    Bluntly speaking, the claim to be a somewhat “better human being” is slightly arrogant here.
    2) The scientific model demands, that it is never representing the truth as such. Scientific discourse itself is based upon the foundation, that science can never prove, that a hypothesis is right, but rather, that there hasn’t been found a counterexample (yet). Science failed very often here to deliver “the truth” and we scientists are still far from being very literate about natural phenomena. Just consider the once-in-a-decade paradigm shifts in molecular biology topics: one-gene-one-protein vs. one-gene-many-proteins, all information coded in the DNA base sequence vs. inheritance of parental DNA methylation patterns. At the time, when a model was dominant, there were often many scientists, who claimed it to be the truth, where they should have better said, that this is our current best explanation and accept, that there may be different explanations. After all, even if scientists claim different, they are JUST believers themselves. And being conform with a belief seems to make oneself scientifically literate.
    3) Do not forget the psychology of the mind. Depending on which pieces of information are transported to us, there is a great impact upon our judgment on these. I do not recall exactly, where I read it, but the example was demonstrated by asking the question, what the global average price of a new car would be. The people to asnwer this were divided into two groups, where one group got the background information, that a fully equipped car in India is available for less than 4000 Eur. The other, that a new german Mercedes brand limousine would cost around 90000 Eur. You can guess, that the estimates of both groups were significantly different.
    4) Real-life relevance: My point here is, that although additional background knowledge might probably have given rise to better estimates regarding above-mentioned question, but this additional knowlegde would be completely irrelevant for close to 100% of the people (car salesmen excluded). So why care ?
    Same with climate change. Most people are not affected personally, so why bother with it? Do they have a life benefit, y knowing what causes the climate change – not that the scientific community could REALLY explain what is going on. We can only deduce trends there based upon previous observations and currently we have a loads of models for those. What IS the truth there, I would be curious myself, but if I take any of those models for granted now, I am a believer again.
    The lesson for us scientists should be from that, that it is not our sole duty to create knowledge (or shall I say scientific models), but we should also pay attention to carefully explain, why it would be important for average people to pay attention to it. My feeling is, that with our own arrogant demand of scientific literacy in average lay people, we are doing exactly what religion and politics have done over centuries before. We claim, that it would be important, what we do, but at the same time we exclude people from what we are doing. We are building an ivory tower, a church of science, where only we grant those people access to, which we find worthy.
    We seriously have to reinvent ourselves there and certainly OpenAccess publishing may pay a significant role in making the science process more readily accessible for all those people out there.

  32. matt says:

    I find it outrageous and a little ironic the author uses betting strategies at a racetrack to launch the discussion of whether scientific literacy is useful. It’s funny, he DOES successfully make the point you can be an utter scientific fool and be utterly ignorant of statistics and probability (and their usefulness) with apparently a PhD in geology. He effectively makes the point that more education is not a solution, because look how he managed to shed both common sense and scientific literacy.
    His assumption there are people out there with no scientific training converting their common-sense knowledge (or experience, or training) into sustained “big wins” in gambling is ludicrous and flies in the face of data, common sense, and logic.
    He says classes in statistics or risk-analysis wouldn’t have helped the people, but again he’s not just wrong, but embarrassingly wrong. Statistics and risk-analysis wouldn’t help them bet successfully, it would help them know that either a) betting on horse races was an inappropriate strategy for gaining money or b) the racing charts are just sop to make them feel more enthusiastic about the spending of gambling cash for entertainment. True, they probably know B, but likely only if they have friends who DO understand some statistics, who will rely on data generated by scientifically literate people to validate the point.
    @Watson: I agree logic is useful, but the logic thrown out in philosophy classes is devoid of facts. A key part of science is knowing that there may be two equally compelling, logical, theories about what causes something, and we simply must have data to know which corresponds to what is happening. And knowing which corresponds to actual fact then has a ripple effect to rule out other explanations of other phenomena. You don’t have to be able to cite all these facts on command, but some are necessary for bullshit-testing, and you have to be able to get the rest while stepping over the useless junk.
    @John Schilling #19:
    Agree looking up data is not purely the scientific method, but wanting data (NOT anecdote) in a framework of solid logic as a method for verifying facts is a characteristic of scientific thinking. I think you are using a very constrained idea of purely experimental science.
    Both the desire for data and the means for getting the data and the personnel to generate good data are all products of scientific literacy. You act as if only the person running a test, or collecting a data point, is using the scientific method: that is not true. The person paying for the test, and the consumers looking for the result of the test, both need some scientific literacy to know what the data means and how to use it and why it is needed.
    Perhaps the difference between our viewpoints is you are using the words “scientific method” and thinking of generating data; I am using the words “scientific literacy” and thinking of, as you say, the “ability to evaluate the credibility of data and data providers.” For many situations in our society, some knowledge of scientific facts and familiarity with the methods that produce those facts is necessary to evaluate credibility. Those who lack that background must trust someone literate enough to evaluate. Of course this can be done, with risk of picking the wrong person to trust, so most people delegate to those who share their world view on most other topics. Hence the political bias.
    For example, how do you evaluate the claims of homeopathy without any knowledge of atoms or the nature of hydrogen bonding in water? I don’t see how, other than relying on the opinions of others. You could look for actual data on its efficacy without passing judgment on the merits of the explanation, but distinguishing between anecdote and data is another hallmark of scientific literacy.

  33. Paul says:

    Scientists and the process of science are NOT what is presented in movies, on TV and in many books and magazines and by most politicians.
    XKCD had an amusing take on this.

  34. Shivoa says:

    I don’t want people to memorise that the Earth goes around the Sun. I want them to have a thirst for knowledge that leads them to Newton’s equation for gravitation, to the data for the celestial bodies, to understand the limitations of that equation in approximating the real world to point masses. I want everyone, without having any pre-existing knowledge about Alpha Centauri, to be able to make a sane estimation of that complex system based on being introduced to the limited data (masses, etc) from their understanding of the equations involved. I want everyone to understand how Newton’s equations were derived from the data and (ideally) they’d be able to do the same without ever having looked them up, but I will settle for the understanding of how to reject false equations that don’t match the observed data rather than having the time (and potentially spark of genius – YMMV on if everyone can discover everything, just many couldn’t do so in a timespan less than their lifetime vs some things are discovered by those ‘gifted’ and that knowledge is rare by that spark) to recreate existing discoveries.
    The conflict here is with how much knowledge (data) we expect everyone to amass. I don’t care if people know the final results off the top of their head (Earth goes round Sun, although in this situation it’d be weird for someone to not recall that from previous enquiry), I care they can derive them from a more elementary set of data (Newton’s laws) combined with being given the raw data of the situation (masses and positions of Sol system) and they know enough about verification to show where data is likely false due to conflict with existing ‘accepted’ data (equations). The problem is an issue of if either the laws are wrong or the data is, that’s actually a quite involved exploration of which is likely if you have no idea of the supporting data for the equation vs the trustability of the new data source.
    Being able to spot a falsehood assuming the data being provided isn’t false should be a core skill for everyone; familiarity with this process should create a ‘sense’ that is a decent bulls* detector for a lot of things that get blindly accepted. The major issue in the real world is actually of time. How often do we read reports and news items and generally ‘accept’ what is reported vs going over the actual paper and any cited papers we aren’t already familiar with that are required and comb through the data? You either verify everything you read and only have a very narrow area of understanding but a high confidence of its veracity or you read widely but have to manage the confidence you have in every bit of information that may be true as you build your unified vision of how reality is. I think that’s the killer issue, even assuming quality of recollection/memorisation was one day offloaded to reliable man-machine interfaces. Teaching everyone critical thinking and how to apply rigorous methods to analyse statements is only the start of the fight.
    In mathematics the core data is thought of as the axioms and built up from there everyone has to travel to where the derivation of a proof needs to be. But I’m looking at this integration and applying simplifications and conversions that themselves would require pages of proof to actually tie down to the core. I know these are sound, I can look up a load more transformations that are correct but almost all of this is something I could prove is right but at this moment I am trusting my memory and possible even others (yes, I occasionally use equations without ever having looked over their proof or the chain of proofs if that proof uses something more elementary but which I have not seen the proof of; it’s the chain that’s the killer). It’s an onion of truth and trust when we’re doing anything practical where we talk in equations and proof steps that we agree on but are actually non-trivial to show as true in many cases. It’s all based on how well we remember those proofs. I want everyone to be able to work out those proofs from the axioms, that’s a requirement for any understanding; the low level basics. I’d also like to build the largest tower of knowledge on top of those basics and for everyone to understand how precarious the tower is based on the quality of their memory and exactness of the links that bring it down to the very ground floor.
    In the end, I’d like everyone to understand how everything is built up and how the chain of understanding shows the rather cohesive massive set of equations building our understanding of reality and the data collected that verifies it. And how to best look at new data or new equations and see if it fits.

  35. jtd7 says:

    What we know is not the whole story. How we know it is equally important. But I have enough trouble getting that across to my research associates. Convincing the general public to think about public policy issues that way is too big a problem for me.

  36. Paul says:

    Isn’t the problem really that there’s no incentive for a member of the general public to have an informed opinion on public issues? It requires effort to acquire knowledge, and the benefit (if any) of each individual doing so is diffused over the whole population.
    It’s the same reason it usually doesn’t make economic sense to vote: the benefit (to you) of voting is miniscule, on the margin.

  37. jtd7 says:

    “Scientists and the process of science are NOT what is presented in movies, on TV and in many books and magazines and by most politicians. ” @Rick Wobbe
    I agree with this. Some years ago an actress friend asked me if I knew of any movies that depicted scientists in a way that I recognized. I could only think of one and it was “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” One character is a field biologist, and the movie shows him out in the field, counting herds or collecting samples of elephant dung. It’s the only movie I could think of that showed a scientist doing actual work instead of standing in front of a chalkboard, pontificating.

  38. Rick Wobbe says:

    All of this leads me to one of the most defining characteristics of scientific integrity, which may be the most important thing I would like people to know and appreciate about science, another gem from Feynman:
    “The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty damn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt.”
    The deepest point in the chasm between scientists (and the scientifically literate) and the scientifically illiterate is their relationship to doubt: at least in their professional lives, scientists can not only live with doubt, they relish it; it gives them their livelihood. Even if they don’t know the age of the universe or the composition of the sun, scientifically literate people understand this and, equally importantly, that this is what makes the scientific method the most powerful, durable, useful way to understand the world devised thus far.

  39. rofrechette says:

    Scientific literacy does seem to be an elusive concept, as borne out by the comments to this article. Conflicts between what scientists understand to be true – or as true as can be ascertained for a given subject – and what deeply religious people believe to be true are difficult to resolved. The one obvious observation is that insisting on one’s own version of truth is not always sufficient.
    Music is an interesting example that can be viewed from a different perspective. I had music professors in college (yes, a chemistry major who took music, history, English…) who thought listening to music for enjoyment was a waste of time and of the composer’s effort. Music is, to them, intended to be appreciated by a methodical understanding of the structure of the piece – mathematical precision of patterns of sound, the intellectual accomplishment of combining novel bits of tonal structure and syncopation…
    How many scientists completed college/university studies and prided themselves on having never taken a course outside of the science complex? Do people taking medications need to know the MOA? Do people listening to music need to know the importance of the composer’s breakthrough in creating the sound being heard? Can’t somebody lead a productive, happy life without knowing the names of Jupiter’s moons?
    No more answers than anybody else here, but it seems communicating effectively – with an attempt to understand the perspectives of others – ought to be helpful in making a case, whether is is to define the concept of ‘dose makes the poison’ or the importance of a work of art…

  40. Hap says:

    Skepticism isn’t disbelief, necessarily, but interrogating observable reality and arguments and listening to the answers. The last part seems to be a problem for some people.
    Science can tell my how to make it possible for me and others to live longer and to do more things – if making other people’s lives longer and more free is a good, than it can indeed help make us better people for having done so. It just can’t tell us why we ought to live, and what choices we ought to make in response to those causes. Living longer for no particular reason might not be a win, though if it helps give us more room to figure out why we are and what we should do, then we win, some.

  41. Cellbio says:

    Excellent comments, agree fully with matt and think the piece is really lacking in logic.
    It also appears to me that the discussion creates an artificial dichotomy between “scientific thought” and our everyday manner of thinking. The part about science in classrooms having little applicability to the real world is an example. In all settings, people use fact collection and schema building to fit collections of facts into workable concepts. Some people are very quick to build concepts from limited data (top-down thinking), and are usually executives, and more likely conservative in politics. Others are more bottom-up thinkers, who tend to be a bit more ‘data driven’, to borrow an over used phrase, more liberal, more open to questioning why they think things. Think of your most frustrating company meeting where executives are wanting to make a decision to move on and scientists are driving them nuts with discussions they are confortable with (one the one hand..but on the other..).
    Both ways of thinking are adaptive. Fear based top-down processing is a good thing: Something long and thin in the grass, Jump, snake! Fact based construction of useful concepts for future situations is also useful, and practiced in everyday life. Scientific training, and not the thinest of definitions of scientific method, are very useful in helping people to develop critical thinking skills. Teaching skepticism and how we come to know things as fact is probably as important, or I would argue, more important than starting with scientific fact.
    For fun, with friends and relatives willing to do so, have them discuss how they know that “high fat” diets are bad for health. The discussion will become complex with a definition of high fat, as they will generally have no clue, then get more fun as you discuss cascade theory of learning and the way social groups re-enforce beliefs, even those that have empirical data that refute those beliefs. You will see two types (to dichotomize a bit) of responses, those that say, wow, who new?, and those that see the data, but can not break their belief system because they measure facts as true or not from a tightly held top down perspective, and do not alter that view regardless of fact. In essence they know because the surgeon general said so, and all their friends know too.
    Final note, as chemists, biologists etc, we might all be better scientist and certainly more informed as we engage in these discussions about belief systems, learning theory and cognition by spending some time in a fairly vast literature that exists in Psychology journals.

  42. Rick Wobbe says:

    Another big difference (and nifty quip I learned from In the Pipeline) is that scientists understand, at least should understand, but the scientifically illiterate don’t: “The plural of anecdote is not data.”

  43. Carl Lumma says:

    Oh noes, there are many details in the science! How can we distill it down to… the 12+ years we require everyone to attend school?
    Here’s a radical idea: actually teach classical mechanics, inorganic chemistry, micro- & macro-economics, history, linear algebra (not calculus), and computer programming in high school, in a way that people will remember more than 0.2% of it. Let’s shoot for 5%. Oh, alright: and optionally biology.
    I had 12+ years of history and somehow never learned that prior to 1820, the world was Malthusian, and now it isn’t. Seems like kindof a big oversight. We were also taught a bunch of stuff about native Americans that turned out to be sourced from bad screenplays.
    I had an old Prussian drill sergeant for chemistry. He had taught many parents of my peers. He refused to “track” his class. Everyone had to pass him to graduate our high school. He gave Cs, Ds, and Fs. He finished the entire textbook, the entire lab book, and left 3 weeks for unknowns, and had a written final in addition to the bubble sheet. He retired two years after I graduated and was replaced by some pathetic loser, I’m sure. He was too heavy on wrote learning, but worlds ahead of what his colleagues were doing, which was not covering their material.
    You can teach linear algebra and computer programming in the same class. Teach calculus in physics (and for goodness sakes, teach it with a computer math package).
    The other thing you can cover in computer science is Bayesian inference, which is what the scientific method is (not some removal of phenomena from the real world to the lab, as stated by Sarewitz).

  44. Christian Kleineidam says:

    In a physics class in school we made an experiment to measure gravity.
    The values that our experiments produced contradicted the formula that our textbooks used.
    What did the teacher do? He gave us a bad grade because we failed to reproduce generally accepted knowledge.
    We got no explantion of why our experiment produced the values that it did.
    I think that’s generally how science get’s taught. The textbook is right per definition and experiments that fail to replicate the textbook are wrong per definition.
    Our gravity experiment was wrong, but we didn’t repeat it to see where we made our error.
    The idea of being empiric and trusting experiments goes against what’s taught in school.
    If you wanted to teach the scientific method you could do blind tests in school.
    One example would be to see whether the students can distinguish medium quality mp3 from CD quality. A lot of students have strong opinions about music.
    If students run an experiment which actually makes them change a belief that they hold, they learn empiricism.
    If you look into the Quantified Self community, there are a lot of people are actually empiric. They often fail to reproduce generally accepted knowledge. is a good example where a theory made by one person inside the Quantified Self community survived a group trial.
    “…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.”
    To the extend that science makes that promise it fails to deliver. If you do good science you usually find that things are complicated. The only way to come home with a greater feeling of understanding the world is through very selective reading of the scientific literature.
    The only way to allow someone to believe that science increases his sense of understanding of the world is to prevent that person from being empiric and to prevent him from reading a lot of journal papers.
    Most of those journal papers end with “further study is needed” instead of ending with “we now know how everything works”.
    Science education doesn’t want to teach students that the world is complicated.
    It wants to teach students that the experts know what they are doing and that the students should trust the experts.
    The climate scientists don’t want students to read the IPCC report which concludes that climate chance is true with a confidence level where 9 out 10 claims are true.
    They rather want students to believe that climate change is true with a similar confidence as the sun rising tomorrow.
    They had a real problem if students would learn that only theories that made successful predictions about the future should be trusted.
    The goal is to teach students to trust the scientific establishment.

  45. Tyrrosine says:

    I think mathematical literacy is as least important, or more so, than general scientific literacy. In particular, probability, stastical significance and the related issues of correlation versus causation are all areas where ignorance leads to gross misunderstanding. In addition, the scientist’s usual approach to getting close to the truth includes: seek data (first hand through experiment or by research), consider the source of the data, be skeptical, check for cognitive bias in the conclusions drawn from the data, try to see if the data stacks up with other experiments in the field, etc. Not the scientific method per se, but a considered approach to analyzing assertions. That must be preferable to assuming something is correct just because Pastor Bob said so.

  46. Anon says:

    I think basic fluency in the scientific method and scientific way of thinking, which means among other things being able to identify logical fallacy, constitute the framework of scientific literacy.
    “Feelings” and hysteria used as a basis for real world decision-making are the antithesis of scientific literacy.

  47. Afraid to be honest says:

    Ooh, ooh I see what’s happening here! Somebody (Sarewitz in this case) concocts a convoluted, narrow, misdirected definition of a basic term that puts the argument on comfortable turf. Then they make a contrived argument, which they no doubt like to recycle for other situations, that casts the opposition (in this case science literacy advocates) as misguided or devious simpletons. Then, while the opposition (science literacy advocates, progressives, democrats, etc.) wanders off base, fidgetting with minutiae like definition of terms, that somebody rides off into the sunset with another notch in his belt, a smug smile on his face and a few more bucks in his purse. Karl Rove would be pleased. Well played sir!

  48. scrabbler says:

    “Important” scientific facts are chosen very arbitrarily.
    So many people “know” that the Sun does not circle around the Earth, but how many of them know what difference there is between “the Earth rotates around its axis” and “the universe rotates around the Earth”?

  49. Anonymous says:

    Well put, # 47! What Sarewitz discusses is not real scientific literacy. Scientific literacy means to be able to make sense of data and to detect BS. Of course some facts are needed, they come in handy to detect the worst BS immediately, but the main things are in my opinion:
    1. Mastering the basics of logic and math, such as logics, the difference between anecdote and data, between correlation and causation, and simple to medium math (up to basic statistics and the exponential function – understanding the exponential function is important for understanding that certain predictions cannot become true, such as continuing growth) Also, put the methods of historical scholarship here, most importantly seeking to get multiple sources.
    2. “You don’t get something for nothing” which is the conservation of energy and matter
    3. “If unattended to, things deteriorate” – this is entropy, and put some thermodynamics in here too
    4. “The dosage makes the poison” (include some chemistry and biochemistry here, plus ecology and food chains because they change the concentration of some poisons such as DDT)
    5. “Everything changes” – evolution, geology, cosmology, history.
    I suggest to circle through this in four age-appropriate circles, elemenary school, middle school, high school and college.

  50. This may be as much my own bias leaking through, but the one thing that I think everyone needs to learn is…
    Scientists/engineers/etc. deeply specialize in a single field, so just because someone is a scientist doesn’t mean that they are experts in everything “scientific.”
    To give an example, a scientist who studies muon-catalyzed fusion probably knows about as much about why structures fall down as anyone who recalls high school physics–in other words, surprisingly little. Or that, even though I’m a computer scientist, I don’t actually know how to fix your computer.
    I see too many instances of people being lauded as experts just because they’re engineers, professors, or scientists, completely ignoring the fact that their field of expertise is completely divorced from the subject being discussed in the article.

  51. anonymous says:

    Beyond “scientific literacy” there is the whole question of what it means to be “educated”. I find it appalling that people can get a college degree and not have taken (and passed) a first year calculus course. Or understand that knee jerk solutions to problems are almost always wrong. Or… I ran into some education masters students 25 years ago who thought that knowing how to multiple and divide wasn’t important. No doubt they are “educating” students out there somewhere. Why is it that the basic meaning of a college degree has been so devalued?

  52. Dystopia Max says:

    If we can make people just scientifically literate enough to understand why “Prometheus” is bollocks from beginning to end, we will have prevented a thousand Dan Browns.

  53. newnickname says:

    Not so much about “Where to Stop” but about “Where to START”, especially with children. I don’t want to abuse my unmoderated status on the blog, so I will refrain from using profanity: TURN OFF THE TV!
    (At risk of being moderated: Turn off the @%$#in’ TV!)

  54. Vader says:

    There is a famous story about a Caltech professor who (quite carelessly) gave his students the wrong “laboratory data” for a homework problem where they were supposed to calculate the molecular weight of hydrogen at STP. The data he made up for them them indicated a molecular weight of 1 instead of 2 — he had forgotten that hydrogen is diatomic under normal conditions.
    When a student came to complain that he was getting the wrong answer, the professor’s response was that if the “laboratory data” he had given them said the molecular weight of hydrogen at STP was 1, then that was the value he expected the students to calculate for the homework set.

  55. Nile says:

    Basic scientific knowledge for the participating citizen? I think that we can get it down to ten principles, or ten principal questions with short answers… Which I recall, somewhat hazily, from a science lesson in a school that later sacked the teacher who gave it.
    1: What is ‘science’? Science is a structured way of asking questions that discover new knowledge and prove the facts, or disprove things that we had believed to be true but which are, in fact, false or mistaken or only partially true.
    2: How does that work? Scientists make observations or pose questions, and put forward an explanation or ‘hypothesis’. This hypothesis must be tested by experiment; and the results must be discussed – and challenged – by the community of scientists in a process of peer review and publication. Published and peer-reviewed research form the body of knowledge which we call ‘Scientific Theory’ and, despite the tentative way that we sometimes use the word ‘theory’, scientific theory is a tested and proven body of facts, upon which we have built our technological civilisation.
    3: Scientific theory is always open to challenge: sometimes, new observations overturn ideas that have been long-established; more often, ideas are refined and improved, and fitted into their places in an expanded understanding of our universe.
    4: The Scientific discipline of physics describes the universe in simple terms of force, energy and matter, described by mathematical equations that explain these entities and their behaviour in space and time. These equations are universally applicable and we often use the word ‘Laws’ to describe them.
    5: These laws resemble the idea of ‘Law’ as it applies to the citizen in many everyday things: but simple entities can work together in very complex ways and many of the laws describing very large scales, very small scales, and the nature of space and time bear no resemblance to the ‘common sense’ world of our direct experiences. However, these equations were derived from observation, rigorous logic, and stern testing: they work, they hold true to the limits of our knowledge, and many everyday phenomena can only be explained by applying this logic, no matter how strange it may seem.
    6: It follows from this that many things that can be rigorously proven to be true are difficult to reconcile with what we ‘know’ to be true from everyday experience, from folklore, and from the the legends and stories that have been bound up into our religions; that is not to say that those things are ‘wrong’ – but those things are not based on observation, measurement, logical analysis and the challenge of skeptical analysis. In short: know the difference between belief, and that which can be measured, tested and proven; know what is and is not science.
    7: Among those difficult ideas are the certainty that the universe is far, far larger than our everyday experience equips us to understand. Also, that it – and the Earth that we stand upon – is far, far older than we can measure in terms of the familiar landmarks of a human life. Nevertheless, the scientific process of observation, analysis, and rigorous testing allows us to place fairly precise dates and dimensions on our world and our universe, and to give detailed explanations of how they were formed.
    8: An idea that has given particular difficulty, for some, is the knowledge that the Universe, Earth, and the life upon it, have been in constant change over these vast spans of time.
    9: Further, this certainty that we and they are not immutable follows on from knowledge of their creation that arises in a detailed understanding of physical laws which do not display any hint of ever having been directed by consciousness or intelligent decision, save in the recent past and present wherein we have effected changes in the world by the work of our own human hands and minds and tools.
    10: Science is indifferent to your beliefs and your opinions: that which can be measured, tested, and proven to be true remains so, whether you like it or not and no matter how much money, media time, rhetoric and sophistry are expended on pretending otherwise.
    …You can tell he was a physics teacher.

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