Everyone should be scientifically literate. QED.
In a perfect world, the post would end there.
Unfortunately, when one thinks of science, I fear that people think about packed lecture halls with professors spouting outrageous chemical formulae and jargon that is typically lost and forgotten by the binge-drinking student. Perhaps one thinks about monstrously heavy textbooks and endless lab reports with poor calculations and fabricated data, obscure charts, and incomprehensible words. Worse still are the countless hours lost memorizing lecture notes and textbook passages only to disappear within a network of overloaded neurons the following semester.
A significant portion of the terminology used in the sciences is not understood by the average person. Even individuals with a background in the sciences can seldom navigate the dense thicket of specialized research. Regrettably, this broad topic can seem daunting to most for the aforesaid reasons, and still more daunting for those trying to make educated choices based on the latest research.
Today, science truly makes the world go round. Human civilization heavily depends on the contributions gifted us by rigorous scientific inquiry. As the products and services of these endeavors encompass all aspects of our lives, it behooves us to ask one very important question:
Should we be scientifically literate?
This question is very close to my area of undergraduate study and my truest interests in life, biology, and my latest interest in public health. And yes, I had the idea to write this article since August of 2014… before Bill Nye decided to comment on the dangers of a scientifically illiterate population. The bulk of this was drafted and sat in limbo, mostly because I was still contemplating the route my blog would take. I dusted this off and finally finished it after more than two years. So, here’s the answer to the question; it won’t be brief, and it certainly shan’t be terse.
What is Science?
To me, science is beautiful.
In the way one can admire and appreciate paintings, music, literature, art, nature, and people, I find science is something that can be admired and deeply appreciated. It elicits wonder and amazement, confusion and vexation, happiness and satisfaction.
A theory is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.”
Science is the pursuit of knowledge via verification and refutation. It is a method of investigation. It is the systematic discovery of all things we can perceive in our world. It is the attempt to elucidate the myriad complexities that underlie all things, to reveal their grandeur for all to see. Science is the elixir that attempts to remedy ignorance.
Science can be subdivided into two major categories (this is slightly tendentious but we shan’t go there), we have the natural sciences and the social sciences. The natural sciences concern themselves with the material world whether biological, chemical, or physical. Whereas, the social sciences contend with human interactions, relationships, and society at large.
The Scientific Method
The principle function of scientific inquiry is to gather knowledge (hopefully new knowledge) in order to contribute to a better understanding of our world. Although it is great to discover something new to contribute, it is never detrimental to reinforce or reconfirm established principles. This is done in a step-wise fashion:
- Make an observation of some occurrence or phenomenon
- Propose a hypothesis (i.e. a possible explanation for the phenomenon)
- Develop testable predictions about the phenomenon
- Conduct thorough and repeatable experiments to test the hypothesis
- Develop theories (i.e. conclusions) based on the data collected
‘Theory’ in the scientific sense must be separated from its unhelpful common usage. A theory, in science, is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.” This starkly contrasts with the common usage of the word ‘theory’ which expresses assumption, speculation, and conjecture.
This definition of ‘theory’ should also dispense with silly comments like: “it’s only a theory.” If only rolling my eyes made a sound every time I heard someone let that ridiculous sentence escape their lips.
Science is the elixir that attempts to remedy ignorance.
The process is gradual and builds upon previous work. Explanations for phenomena (or hypotheses) become accepted over time as the evidence for them accumulates. However, all explanations and conclusions (or theories) are subject to refutation. If evidence is discovered that is inconsistent with an established theory, adjustments to the standing theory must be made to account for the new evidence, or the theory must be discarded.
It’s worth noting that this all-too-important method is an ongoing process, continually gathering evidence, testing hypotheses, and developing theories.
What is Scientific Literary?
As per the U.S National Center for Education Statistics: “Scientific literacy is the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision-making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.” [Emphasis Added]
Understanding scientific ways of acquiring knowledge fosters creative minds and critical thinkers. It permits one to question the validity of claims and scrutinize evidence. When the media publishes stories in the Science, Technology, or Health sections, one can read them without succumbing to a paroxysm of weeping. One can follow along and call ‘bullshit’ wherever necessary. It grants one the resources to know where to seek more knowledge and sift through all the misinformation the internet has.
Why Science Literacy Is Important?
To most reasonable people, the answer to my question, ‘should we be scientifically literate,’ is an obvious ‘yes.’ I would (and do) agree tenfold. In fact, I wholeheartedly believe that all people, in order to engage in meaningful dialogue and make intelligent choices about our world (and how science impacts us), must indeed be literate and knowledgeable about science.
In all its iterations, science profoundly affects all of our lives in ways most of us take for granted. Food and water are made accessible en masse to us as a result of developments in agriculture, biotechnology, and transportation, among others. All the electronics and gadgets that we bring into our homes are products of science. And we should not forget to mention that modern medicine has been and continues to be a boon to humanity.
It cultivates the skeptical mind and encourages a reflective attitude. Scientific literacy permits us an active voice in our own health and medical treatments and in the agricultural practices of the foods we eat. Such literacy allows us to more confidently participate in public discourse and make elected officials take more notice of pressing scientific issues. Public policy hinges on enlightened and concerned individuals. We have too many fools in power that don’t have a basic understanding of science or lack qualified scientific advisors to make informed decisions.
Ebola and Zika are two topics that I have written about and the often fatuous claims and assertions made by public health officials that ought to have a fundamental understanding of science and medicine. Alas, these clowns don’t and that could have disastrous implications. Greater still is the menace of a presidential candidate that believes global warming (a misnomer) is a hoax concocted by the Chinese.
People are born inherently curious and, for most, that curiosity doesn’t wane with age. For me, this is enough reason to provide everyone with a scientific education. But there is obviously more to it than that. Responsible contributors to our society must be able to make educated decisions about science, what it does and how to will affect them and their families. They must be able to participate in public discussions about pressing scientific issues and debate the validity of scientific claims. Evidence ought to be scrutinized by expert and non-expert alike.
To reach this state of affairs requires strong teachers to instill a love of the sciences in their students and to teach them how to assess the claims and thoroughly examine the evidence. We require brilliant communicators to illuminate the deep labyrinths of technical research in order to reach the widest audience possible. And we require curious minds that are willing to question everything.
The main goal of scientifical literacy is, therefore, to achieve the best life possible.