Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Myth of Scientific Literacy

Every now and again, the term "scientific literacy" gets wheeled out and I roll my eyes. This post is an attempt to explain why.

The argument for greater scientific literacy is that to meaningfully participate, appreciate and even survive our modern lives, we all need certain knowledge and skills about science and technology. Ok. But what will this look like exactly, how will you know what we all need to know in advance and how on earth do you expect to get people trained up? These are serious problems.

Back in the early 1990s, Jon Durant very usefully outlined out the three main types of scientific literacy. This is probably as good a place to start as any:
  • Knowing some science – For example, having A-level biology, or simply knowing the laws of thermodynamics, the boiling point of water, what surface tension is, that the Earth goes around the Sun, etc.
  • Knowing how science works – This is more a matter of knowing a little of the philosophy of science (e.g. ‘The Scientific Method’, a matter of studying the work of Popper, Lakatos or Bacon).
  • Knowing how science really works – In many respects this agrees with the previous point – that the public need tools to be able to judge science, but does not agree that science works to a singular method. This approach is often inspired by the social studies of science and stresses that scientists are human. It covers the political and institutional arrangement of science, including topics like peer review (including all the problems with this), a recent history of policy and ethical debates and the way funding is structured.
The problem with the first approach is what IB Cohen, writing in the 1950s, called "The fallacy of miscellaneous information": that a set of often unrelated nuggets of information pulled from the vast wealth of human knowledge is likely to be useful in everyday life (or that you'll remember it when it happens to be needed). That's not to say that these bits of knowledge aren't useful on occasion. Indeed, I remember my undergraduate science communication tutor telling us about how she drowned a spider in the toilet with a bit of basic knowledge of lipids and surface tension. However, it's unrealistic to list all the things a modern member of society might need to know at some point in their life, get everyone to learn them off in advance and then wash our hands of the whole business. This is especially problematic when it comes to science, as such information has the capacity to change (or at least develop). Instead, we all need access to useful information when it is needed. Note: by "access" I include tools and cultural inclination to go about finding and making meaning from such information (posting a document online doesn't count).

The second of Durant's approaches to scientific literacy might make more sense then, but there are problems here too. Firstly, there is what Cohen dubs "The fallacy of critical thinking". Science isn't necessarily a transferable skill. This is easily demonstrated by examining carefully the lives of scientists outside of the laboratory (or, to put it another way: "yeah, cos scientists are all sooo well organised outside of work, living super-rational evidence-based lives, all the time"). It would be lovely if we could provide a formula for well-lived lives, but people just aren't that consistent.

There is also the matter of whether you believe science works to a singular "scientific method". That in reality science isn't "a" way of thinking, but many; enacted under quite local conditions (which are influenced by ideas like those of Popper, Bacon et al, but "method" is only part of it). This is largely the thinking behind the third approach to scientific literacy: "how science really works". I have a problem with this too, one it shares with all three: it's too didactic. It replaces an idea that the public are deficit in scientific information with an idea that they are deficit in sociology of science. It is just as unrealistic (if not more so).

One of the neatest arguments against calls for scientific literacy is Jon Turney's 2003 response to Susan Greenfield. It has a particularly good ending:
Work to promote scientific literacy so everyone is up to speed, empowered and ready to contribute to the great debates about science, technology and the future? No. Invite them to participate, and really mean it, and they will find the motivation to become as scientifically literate as you, or rather they, please.
This echos a key problem many people have with the scientific literacy approach. It is too top-down. You might be able to talk about scientific literacy in an educational context (i.e. for children in compulsory education), but adults will simply feel patronised and so won't listen.

I'd also argue that a scientific literacy approach tackles the problem the wrong way around. It would be lovely if we could live in a world where "everyone is up to speed, empowered and ready to contribute", but you can't prepare for scientific controversies like that. Do we want to view each science story through the lens of older ones (cough, Simon Jenkins). Maybe prevention would be better than a cure, but I don't think it is possible in this context; medical metaphors perhaps being as inappropriate here as "literacy". Rather, let's provide structures where non-experts can learn about science as and when they become important to them. As Turney says, "Invite them".

Although I like Turney's piece a lot, I do also understand the frustration people feel when they see what they feel is a lack of scientific training. I was prompted to write this blogpost after recent comments made by Julian Huppert; that MPs to be required to take a crash course in basic scientific techniques (see also Liberal Conspiracy piece in support). Do we really want elected politicians to "become as scientifically literate as they please"? We might argue that MPs, like schoolkids, should just be told to turn up and listen. But as anyone who has worked in a school will tell you, compulsory attendance is only part of the battle.

Mark Henderson tweeted that he agreed with Huppert and the libcon piece that understanding methods of science would help politics. That it is the least understood thing about science outside science: most non-science graduates think of as body of facts, not as a way of thinking. Fair enough. But you have to believe these ideas, as well as understand them. This is one of the reasons why the UK science communication industry dropped the word "understanding" a while back, and why it is important to avoid confusing "understanding" with "appreciating" (or "knowing" with "liking", or "trusting" for that matter). Identifying what you think people should know about and actually getting them to (a) listen, (b) believe you and (c) apply it, are entirely different matters. As Huppert told the Independent, political leaders simply pay "lip service" to the importance of scientific proof. I worry that greater training in scientific literacy could simply provide a more extensive rhetoric. You want their hearts, not just their minds (or simply vocabulary).

I'd love it if there was a simple course we could send our elected officials on which would guarantee future science policy would be reliably high quality. Being educated in science (or even "about science") isn't going to do it. It's social connections that will. We need to keep our elected officials honest, constantly check they are applying the evidence we want them to, in the ways we want them to. And if the scientific community want to be listened to, they need to work to build connections. Get political and scientific communities overlapping, embed scientists in policy institutions (and vice versa), get MP's constituents onside to help foster the sorts of public pressure you want to see: build trust so scientists become people MPs want to be briefed by.

This, for me, is the true message of "understanding how science really works". That science is not only done by, but advocated by networks of human beings. Rather than training people up in the sociology of science (cough, Harry Collins), we should go out and do some "applied sociology": build those networks through action and debate.

This is just a brief sketch of the basic problems with scientific literacy (yes, this was the brief version). If you are interested in more, I can recommend the following. They are all a bit old. It is an old argument.
  • Bauer, Martin, Nick Allum & Steve Miller (2007) What can we learn from 25 years of PUS survey research? Liberating and expanding the agenda, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 16(1): 79-95.
  • Durant, Jon (1993) What is scientific literacy? in Jon Durant and Jane Gregory (eds) Science and Culture in Europe (Science Museum: London).
  • Einsiedel, Edna (2005) Editorial: Of Publics and Science, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 16(1): 5-6.
  • Gregory, Jane & Steve Miller (1998) Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility (New York & London: Plenum). See p. 16-17 for IB Cohen's "fallacies".
  • Millar, Robin (1996) Towards a science curriculum for public understanding, School Science Review, vol.77 no.280: 7-18.


  1. Hi Alice, I don't have much to add to your post, it's a great post and I just wanted to applaud the clarity and insight in what you have to say.

  2. Nice post. Did Huppert really mean 'scientific techniques' as in 'methods'? Surely much more important that MPs understand WHY science matters rather than HOW it's done.

  3. Brilliant! I want to go off and read all the links, including the piece about Harry Collins (as I'm a student in Cardiff Socsi!).

  4. Great post as always Alice, and one I'm going to need to think about more, but a couple of initial responses:-

    1. I agree that non-scientists often (mistakenly) think of science as a collection of facts, rather than a method of investigating the world. A friend of mine was recently asked by her four year old son, 'Mummy, what is science?' She answered that it was 'Space, and animals, and gravity and, errm, everything!' I died a little inside.

    But it's not only people without science training who think like that. You only have to look at some of the teachers bitching about the How Science Works component of the new GCSE, and how 'there's no science in the GCSE anymore' to realise that some of them mistake science (a method) with the *products* of science (equations, boiling points, etc).

    And to be honest, I think there are scientists who don't understand how science works (or how it really works). For example, some will flatly deny that science can be culturally influenced, and claim that it always produces objective facts. When something like that fact that we only recently noticed there are gay animals can very easily disprove this.

    But yes, we just get to a *different* deficit model, where now what we are decrying is the deficit of people not knowing enough about science studies. Which doesn't really help.

    2. I don't think I quite understand your conclusions. I think you're saying that instead of trying to make people 'know more science', we need to make it possible for them to find out the stuff they need, when they want it. And also that science needs to be somehow more socially integrated, partly to make this possible. Is that right?

    Someone pointed out on twitter that *sometimes* those who idolise science (but aren't working scientists) fail to understand what science really is. I can't help feeling that some of the more heated rhetoric on this topic doesn't help.

    If the world must be divided into 'pro-science' and 'anti-science', then naturally some people will choose the anti-science side, for reasons that are valid for them. What I'm trying to say is, I don't think this kind of side-taking helps. It makes it more difficult, not less, for 'science' to be integrated in the way you're suggesting.

    Someone can be opposed to GM crops without being 'anti-science'. And someone can respect the scientific method, etc, without supporting every piece of scientific research ever done, or every conclusion drawn. This should be obvious.

    So what I'm saying is, I think to get where you're suggesting, can we all try not to be black and white and 'you're either for us or against us' about things? And obviously, everyone in the entire world, ever should take part in I'm a Scientist, Get me out of Here!

  5. Sophia,

    1) The different deficit model one is important I think, though I don't think it's directly comparable. We should be careful about simply playing "spot the deficit model" about this (and not through Baby out with Bath School to make a very old and exceedingly esoteric Harry Collins joke).

    2) Yes, I suppose my conclusion is that it's more realistic to make science available than teach a set syllabus in advance.

    I'd agree side-taking isn't v helpful, be this on pro vs anti science (unhelpful terms, worse than sci lit) or STS vs science or blog vs journ, or old vs new, or whatever... In particular, I agree that we should try not to be black and white 'for us or against us', if only because I don't think science comes in black or white (or simply red or green or blue, to fold in political context, perhaps). Big and complex thing this "science", as are people's reactions to and about it.

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  7. Very interesting but I get the impression that your major points tend to converge on the *definitions* of the terms 'science' 'how science works' and 'how science really works'.

    Surely what was postulated is that MPs should have a clue about things they should oversee (for lack of a better word). That's it--whether you want to call it a clue about 'science', 'how science works' or 'how science really works'.

  8. Khalil A:

    Was this tweet you too? "Could it be that @alicebell's post deals with definitions and, euh... that's about it"

    If all you got out of this was a discussion over definitions I'm really sorry.

    I clearly didn't make myself clear.

    Maybe try reading it again? Or try the Gregory and Miller (1998) book-length take on the topic.

    I repeated Durant's way of categorising scientific literacy because after many years of teaching this issue, I know people find it useful. Don't get carried away with it.

    That said, definitions do matter, or rather I'd argue the fact that "science" or "how science really works" isn't very easy to define is why playing with these sort of categories (along with Sci Lit) are a bit silly.

    Also, this piece is about scientific literacy in general with some discussion of Huppert's points in particular near the end as it was what provoked it, so I'm not sure your second point is valid. Moreover, if you read the Independent piece I link to then you will see that Huppert was reported as calling for "all MPs to be required to take a crash course in basic scientific techniques". Not just a matter of whether they have a clue about what they oversee. It's different.

    You might also find my reply to Sophia (and the points she makes) helpful if you still don't quite understand my point.

  9. Thank you, Alice. Enjoyable summary of an 'old argument', as you say. I agree that the top down approach is limiting.

    Popular mass media currently seem to portray science and scientists as entirely separate from the rest of the world; their functions are to 'warn', 'reveal' or 'admit'factoids and be in conflict with each other.

    We need more sophisticated ways of doubting.

    Again, thanks, jac

  10. 'Big and complex thing this "science", as are people's reactions to and about it.'

    Dammit Alice, you can't just say 'it's complicated', we're looking to you for answers here!;-)

    I agree, wasn't trying to play spot the deficit model. It's just sometimes I catch myself going, 'well these people just don't understand!' and realise I am being pretty patronising. And if 'more facts' isn't a simple answer to sci literacy, then it's also not a simple answer to science and society literacy...

    Khalil A - 'MPs should have a clue about things they should oversee'? But surely MPs are overseeing pretty much everything. They can't learn everything about everything, so where do you suggest they start? Which things do we think they should learn? Everyone is going to have a different answer to that.

  11. Hi Alice - Always happy to see discussions like this :)
    I've read through a couple of times and I'm wondering if your issue isn't so much with the idea of scientific literacy (I agree it is overused and often misunderstood - but I also think there are broader, less deficit-oriented ways of defining it and talking about it). Are you saying more that scientists and science communicators should move away from using it as crutch, blaming the audience rather than taking the step forward to be part of the public process? Am I way off base with that interpretation?

  12. Wonderful post! The issue of 'empowerment' is a key one; giving people the tools to further investigate scientific (and other) issues that are relevant to their lives.

  13. mcshanahan

    Yes, the deficit model is a not-so-hidden baddie in all of this :)

    Also, this is just basic "sci com'n 101" objections to sci literacy. As you say there are other ways to think about what we might mean by scientific literacy, and deeper more nuanced discussions than I could sensibly fit here. In particular, I think people in education have looked at this in a lot of detail, and that the issues are slightly different in school contexts.

    Still, I think the idea that there are some broadly applicable basic scientific skills/ tools/ knowledge is one that runs through many views of sci literacy. And I'd disagree with that most of that, most of the time. Mainly because I don't think we can reduce science in that sort of way.

  14. Nice post. I thought the crash course for new MPs might be more about signposting to good sources of information when needed (particularly to POST, Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology) rather than updating their current information on science. Also to advice on how to make sense of it.

    But if I can put in a bid for them to learn some actual science can it be pipetting correctly so that they too can enjoy shouting at the television whenever they get it wrong on those forensic lab shows :-)

  15. This is a fantastic post, so thanks. I shall be beating people around the head with the quote you picked out : "Invite them to participate, and really mean it, and they will find the motivation to become as scientifically literate as you, or rather they, please." This is exactly the behaviour that we see on our Galaxy Zoo project as people who had no idea they wanted to think deeply about these things get drawn in.

    I think one other very important point is that the joy of doing science (and I'm well aware that I have an incredible job as an astronomer) is linked to your third kind of literacy too. You need that kind of understanding to get why for many scientists it's the process of conversation, discussion and argument that is engaging, and is often missing from attempts to encourage participation in and around science.

  16. @Jo - Signposting and making friends with the places where you can get information. That sounds more productive (and likely - I suspect a fair bit of whatever Huppert said got lost in the write ups). This post wasn't meant to be directed to strongly at that point though, more just calls for sci lit in general. We should all make friends with POST.

    @Chris - yes, Galaxy Zoo is often the example I give after that quote :) I also v. much agree on joy issue too. Not talked about enough.

  17. An excellent article, and one that resonated with me.

    As one of a team of science writers for a major Australian research organisation, I know we constantly ask ourselves what we mean by 'science literacy'. We've had a number of passionate but rather productive discussions on the goals of science outreach, and precisely what we mean by 'engagement' and 'education'. I'm constantly concerned about the possibility of getting lost in the rhetoric, where phrases such as 'increasing awareness' are bandied about with heart, but are found to be essentially meaningless when put under the microscope.

    There are too many assumptions made in this field, where awareness is thought to equate acceptance, and acceptance translates to a cognitive skill. We often feel encouraged by the enthusiasm of an audience who appreciate a science-themed program, yet presume this has made a deeper impact beyond providing the community with a shallow association between a vague notion of 'science' and 'something that's interesting'. Worse still is the confusion between science as technology and discovery (an easy thing to promote) and science as a set of values (much harder to deliver).

  18. Hi Alice,

    I'm pleased that twitter led me to your blog - a great read. I'm a PhD student and am always interested by talk of 'scientific literacy'.....it's so remarkable how quickly one moves from being an undergrad studying science (a fully comprehensible and sensible pursuit) to being a grad student who is left helplessly shrugging when no-one you meet knows what the hell you do.

    I'm certainly not a scientific communications expert, but I do find it encouraging that that there are several citizen science initiatives taking off....Galazy Zoo is one well-known example but there are many many more. Personally I marvel at FoldIt, a game that invites people to solve protein folding structures (recently written up in Nature!) I think there is room for more of this grassroots science "education", and.....here's the great part....it actually helps researchers!

    Rather, let's provide structures where non-experts can learn about science as and when they become important to them. As Turney says, "Invite them".

  19. PS - I hope you don't mind that I re-tweeted.

  20. I really enjoyed this post Alice, thanks.

    I'm as far away from being a scientist as it's possible to be in standard terms. I'm not science literate at all in pretty much any of the ways you describe, but work in the area of new and emerging tech, and I am told make a reasonable and constructive contribution despite that. I do that from knowing my own area well, and connecting with those in science to contribute to joint thinking and building a bridge between science and society with MATTER.

    I think you hit on the nub of it when you said 'build trust so scientists become people MPs want to be briefed by', I think that is the same with the public and all other audiences. Be trustworthy, interesting and communicate with people in their own sphere of interest, not expecting them to come into yours and you will begin to be more of a part of the fabric of people's lives, more integrated into culture and better understood. Perhaps science should understand a bit more about the basics of human nature and communication instead of the other way round!

    But banging on, and on, and on, and ON about how superior and misunderstood you are and how everyone should be educated in your way of thinking only gets people's back up and makes you look self-serving and chippy!

    The many public engagement exercises going on in nano, synbio and other areas shows that actually the public at large has got an understanding and empathy for science when it matters, for goodness sake why do they have to have it tattooed on their forehead.

  21. Good piece, Alice.

    Everybody comes to science in his own way. My route, after showing no interest at school, was through philosophy. Do you regret the divorce between philosophy and science? In my view philosophy (and possibly science as well) has been diminished as a consequence. The best philosophy of science, in my view, is now being done by scientists rather than philosophers, so perhaps a re-unification will eventually happen.

  22. Thanks Alice -- very good post, and I agree with most of it. But I think Jo hits the nail on the head in her view of what Julian was actually calling for. Do bear in mind that the phrase "crash course" wasn't in a direct quote in the Indy piece. It's a bit of a silly phrase, conjuring up images of making MPs cram for a double science GCSE or something.

    What he actually said in quotes was:

    "It would be really important for all MPs to have some exposure, because some of them will not have studied any science since they were 15 and it's important to understand how to engage with it. You would then have a lot of MPs who were able to understand the information they were being presented with."

    Exposure is a good word here I think. I agree with you that narrow and patronising "science lessons" aren't likely to be helpful on their own -- you make excellent points about valuing science and believing in it, as well as understanding it.

    And yet... As I see it -- and I think this is Julian's point too -- there are two few MPs (and civil servants) who even approach the point of knowing how they might exploit scientific methods to develop better policy, in all sorts of areas. They tend to think of science in a physics-chemistry-biology-environment-medicine box, and overlook the utility of its tools for other issues (eg education, criminal justice).

    You can't teach this in a single lesson, sure. But by bringing MPs and civil servants into contact with this aspect of scientific thinking, you at least raise the possibility of opening their eyes to the potential. Then it's up to them -- some will of course reject it, but some might realise there's something important there they've overlooked.

    You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. But unless you take it to water there's no chance of it drinking.

    As Jo suggests, initiatives that point MPs towards resources that can help with science -- POST, Royal Society etc -- could be really valuable. But these initiative should also involve some sort of exposure to the methods of science.

    An awful lot of people who haven't studied science (and even some who do) never really think to think of how scientific approaches might have wider relevance to public policy -- I certainly didn't until I'd been writing about science for a couple of years.

    I agree with you that it shouldn't be about teaching politicians (or anyone else) to think a "right" way. It should be about providing opportunities to pick up on powerful ideas that might be fruitfully repurposed for politics, or elsewhere.

  23. Mark,

    Thanks - I especially like your last line!

    Yes, this post was not meant to be direct response to Huppert for the reasons you outline (see also comment to Jo above - agree with you both on this).

    I'd agree it'd be good if more MPs and civil servants had a greater exposure to science. Though I also think they could do with a greater exposure to lots of things. UK politicians are too narrow a bunch in many respects.

    I also take your horse to water point, though obviously MPs/ "the public" aren't horses, so it's worth being careful about how this is done. Otherwise they'll leave the water and stick to beer (sorry, that's really over-extending the analogy...) I think we're broadly in agreement here, and I don't dispute the worth of learning about the methods/ structures of science at all. Just as I wouldn't dispute the worth of learning some of the content of science either (or as Chris says, the joy of it). Though I would also stick up for the validity of spending your energy learning something completely different instead.

    So, on the 23rd comment* to this blogpost, let me emphasise that my main point is that I don't think you can't know in advance what bits of knowledge a citizen and/or politician will need to know about science and technology. It's too complex and I worry that programmes for scientific literacy risk over-simplifying the issues. That, coupled with my belief that patronising your audience is counter-productive, is why I think building relationships rather than syllabi is the trick here.


    * How on EARTH did that happen by the way?! This is just a quickly put together re-hash of some v old and v introductory lecture notes I use with students. I know the Durant/Wynne and Turney points have been popular with students, so thought I'd share. But it's all WAY more complex than this, as I think some commentators with expertise in school science (here and on twitter) in particular have noted. Again, I can recommend this paper if you have access and say that this school-curriculum project has a v developed idea of scientific literacy (though equally I don't agree with all of it, esp. the consumer/ producer distinction).

  24. Nice post Alice. Your reference to evidence in particular put me in mind of comments made by Alan Sokal at the Two Cultures event last year, where he suggested a unified approach to science framed as the "inverse of scientific imperialism". That sentiment might seem a little out of kilter with his better known Relativist/Post-modernist bashing form (which he also did plenty of to be fair), but was simply an appeal that science be seen as just one instance of the application of a rational world view in which empirical claims are supported by empirical evidence (the antithesis of dogma.

    His challenge was why do we use one set of standards for evidence in physics, chemistry and biology, and then relax the standard for religion, medicine or politics?

    As there's been a bit of debate about definitions in your blog and the comments, these were the ones within which Sokal framed his arguments:

    1. It denotes an intellectual endeavour aimed at a rational understanding of the natural and social world

    2. It denotes a corpus of currently accepted substantive knowledge

    3. It denotes the community of scientists with its mores and social and economic structure

    4. It denotes applied science and technology

    I guess (3) here equates to 'how science really works', and (1)includes the scientific method (whatever that is ! ;) )

    (Notes on the TwoCultures event here) http://communicatescience.com/zoonomian/2009/02/03/two-cultures/

  25. This comment is what I tweeted (@alicebell) after I reread this post:

    "Ok it's much more than just definitions. And your 23rd comment sums it all nicely. However I think you touched on a broader aspect: MPs. Altho I tend to agree about the networking thing, they NEED to have some knowledge of what they are looking into"

  26. Khalil A,

    Thanks - I'm not denying worth of knowledge though. It is a question of whether you can provide that in advance, whether "literacy" is possible. Slightly different

  27. What Julian actually said about MP's was that 'they have a set of beliefs and they will argue that regardless of the science' and hence that they didn't often/always make policies based on evidence. The recent stance on homeopathy obviously being a case in point, but one could cite many others (Tredinnick and the moon is another he gets worked up about). Surely 'science lessons for MP's' doesn't necessarily mean learning any particular science, or reading Popper or Bacon or whoever, but it does mean understanding a bit about evidence (and indeed statistics and how to interpret graphs) and proof - which is clearly part of the scientific 'method'. If MP's want to make mephadrone illegal - or whatever other example you care to use - they should be clear that they do this because it's politically expedient, not try to pretend that science indicates you should.

  28. AMD:

    Thanks for that extra quote. Again, I should reiterate that this post wasn't in *response* to what Huppert said. Merely inspired by it.

    I'm not sure if your comment is trying to agree or disagree with my post? I agree with a fair bit of what you say. I'd put the stats and graphs in the area of "how science really works", I'm not a huge fan of Popper or Bacon as descriptions of how science works.

    Surely because MPs "have a set of beliefs and they will argue that regardless of the science", such training isn't going to change things. Indeed, as I say in the post, it may only lead to ever more developed ways of hiding behind allusions to evidence when really the views are ideologically driven.


  29. The point I was trying to make is that because MP's are the ones who end up making fundamental decisions it isn't a question of empowerment - they have the power willy nilly. So, for them, I disagree with your post in so far as I think their circumstances differ from the public's and you weren't distinguishing. Progress would be made if more MP's recognized the importance of science input in general (and evidence in particular) into the decisions they make; much more important in my view than that they know the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

  30. AMD - Thanks for the clarification. I'd largely agree with that, and did point to the possibility of distinction, though you put it better than I did above.

  31. I think a better notion is that people, and particularly politicians, should know enough to understand what scientists are telling us. They don't need to do the work, to devise experiments, etc. But they do need to understand what it means to say "We have a 95% confidence that X will Y +/- Z"

  32. Hi, really enjoyed your blog post. Keen, like you, to see less chat and more action. Looked up on POST and this is what they offered MPs - what more do you think they could do?


  33. I guess there will always be people who say being published makes them more literate than the bloke in the pub, the guy who listens to the radio or the girl obsessed with modern literature (and haven't).

    Too many urban myths in science don't help it as they start to interfere with laws. This is bad. Nurturing a forum for science is good though it needs pay. This is what causes arguments. I've tried to put a case forward for rights when publishing on the web. Though the web is full of under read and exploited areas. It's not easy making literacy work in science.

  34. Where I live (America), the problem is that so many of our citizens and leaders who do not know anything about science think they are qualified to ignore and dispute any and every scientific finding (anything discovered by scientists that might hurt corporations if people accepted it has a well-funded disinformation campaign against it). Thus, simply "inviting them to participate" won't work: the American people think they are already participating, and it's hurting everyone.

  35. Hi Alice, great post. I really enjoyed it. I'm an artist, and I take an artistic approach to understanding the real making of science. I give performative lectures on the subject and wait for people 's reactions. What I really enjoy then, is to hear people discussing how "science" can mean either of the 3 categories you've mentioned... Just because it's complicated shouldn't mean that science has to be left to scientists.

  36. I recently re-read C. P. Snow's short book, "The two cultures". Although it was written during the early years of the Cold War, its theme is just what is being discussed here. However he points out that there is conflict on both sides, possibly caused by fear of not being knowledgable about "the other camp". He doesn't come up with any solutions, but examins the problem in case anyone didn't know that there was a problem. I'm a retired electronics engineer and have had cases in my career where the marketing department, which is responsible for products, tried to guide the enginerering dpeartment in the wrong direction because of lack of knowledge of what could be done. I wish the author well, but it is a very difficult task, and I don't have any answers. Sorry!!!

  37. I agree with Ben. The fundamental problem in America with the invitation idea is that people believe that they already know enough to make rational, informed decisions about the issues they vote on.

    Americans are "invited" to vote as part of their civic duty. But only around half of eligible voters actually send in ballots. It's going to take a whole lot more than an invitation to get Americans to actually pursue a better understanding of science.

  38. Criticizing the concept of science literacy is all well and good within the confines of the ivory tower. It may well be a solution in search of a problem, but, if we peer outside the ivory tower, we will observe quite real problems when it comes to ignorance of science, ignoring science, and outright hostility to science. The situation in England (compared to what is the case in North America) may not be dire enough to compel serious thinking about these, but I'm not impressed with a superficial analysis that is blind to the larger public issues, which go beyond the trivial questions of competence among members of the public, how well-briefed politicians should be, or whether voters must have a grasp of either methods or content.

    If science and scholarship are becoming irrelevant to growing (?) parts of the population, it may be due to this kind of in-house theorizing that only addresses professional practitioners, while losing sight of larger democratic responsibilities.

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  40. This post seems to confuse the evaluation of scientific literacy with the (top-down, bottom-up, sideways whatever) approaches to "fix" scientific illiteracy. Scientific literacy is a fine term and a very useful one, IMO, to assess a culture. Just as with most standardized tests, trying to "train" for scientific literacy is of course a doomed enterprise, for the reasons mentioned in this post and others, but that has nothing to do with the concept of scientific literacy itself. Assessing that a huge % of Americans don't know that the Earth goes around the sun, and even fewer could explain basic aspects of human existence like the changing seasons, shows that culturally, we are little different than our ancient ancestors, and we should expect the same superstitious and "magical" thinking that shaped human behavior now as then. Changing that is, as noted, a different story.

  41. Hi Alice,

    You reminded me of Richard Feynman's 1966 presentation on What is science to the National Science Teachers Association. Feynman showed how difficult is to define science and then teach it, which goes a long way to explain the struggle about Scientific Literacy.

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