Faculty Editor: Professor Jeffrey DaCosta
Most of us do not notice, but science is all around us. We find it in the apple that grows on a farm and appears in our supermarket, in the soundwaves coming through our headphones and into our ears, or in the aspirin we take when we get a headache. We know that science explains why the sun rises in the morning and why we go to bed at night, but few of us have the ability to understand exactly how these things came to be.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) define scientific literacy as “the capacity to use scientific knowledge, to identify questions, and to draw evidence-based conclusions in order to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made to it through human activity.”, This definition certainly outlines scientific literacy, but it fails to really explain the applications of scientific literacy that make it so essential. One study helpfully suggests that there are three kinds of scientific literacy. First, practical scientific literacy lets us solve practical problems pertaining to our health and survival. Second, civic scientific literacy allows us an understanding of science that allows us to “participate more fully in the democratic process of an increasingly technological society.” Third, cultural scientific literacy involves a motivation to know science in order to celebrate both human achievement and natural phenomena. A 2016 NSF study found that Americans could correctly answer 63% of true-or-false or multiple-choice questions from the NSF’s factual knowledge questions. For example, only 73% of Americans correctly answered that the Earth goes around the Sun, rather than the Sun going around the Earth. Further, only 48% of Americans correctly answered that electrons are smaller than atoms. This study demonstrates the clear area for improvement in Americans’ scientific literacy, but hardly begins to describe why increasing scientific literacy among adult Americans is so essential.
Natural phenomena, like the Grand Canyon, and human achievements, like the Moon landing, have the ability to inspire awe in many; however, beyond these well-known examples, many people do not feel a strong desire to celebrate the beauty of science. One study found that only 70% of Americans are at all interested in health and medicine and only 59% are interested in science and technology. Understandably, people tend to care more about the science when it directly impacts their lives or public policy, so it is extremely important that they have a sound understanding of scientific principles. Informed consent, for example, is an essential first step in any treatment that someone would seek from a healthcare provider. However, one study found that patients who were provided with an informed consent document “showed scarce interest” and chose instead to rely on their physician’s expertise. The study also identified that participants who were highly educated or were younger than 61 years old were more likely to read the informed consent form.Reliance on a physician as a translator demonstrates how a lack of scientific literacy prevents individuals from fully understanding the healthcare they receive.
Dietary choices are similarly important personal decisions that rely on scientific understanding. Navigating today’s supermarkets requires scientific literacy when consumers select between genetically modified (GM) or non-genetically modified foods. About 39% of Americans today believe that GM foods are worse for health than non-GM foods, and half of these individuals believe that GM foods pose high health risks. These individuals rely heavily on their knowledge of science to decide what food is safe for themselves and their families. However, studies so far indicate that foods produced from GM crops have been safely consumed by hundreds of millions of people worldwide, particularly in the United States, for the last 15 years with no reports of negative health effects. Consumers who discriminate between GM and non-GM products have every right to do so, but the beliefs that GM foods are worse for health or that they pose high health risks are not backed by science, demonstrating an evident gap in scientific understanding.
While scientific literacy is necessary for making personal decisions, little harm occurs to others if individuals are uninformed in those cases. Despite that, a lack of scientific literacy among voting members of a democracy can have widespread and lasting ramifications. One study cites the importance of making decisions about the environment, and states that “decisions in this area are all too often based on subjective and emotional criteria, the majority lacking the general knowledge to make an informed choice.” These civic decisions are especially important in regards to determining distribution of and access to our natural resources, our health infrastructure, and our public programs. Some civic decisions have life-or-death consequences, such as the increasing outbreaks of diseases like measles due to inadequate vaccinations and vaccination policies. Without adequate scientific literacy, we risk voting for policies that further damage the environment, our healthcare system, or a host of other issues.
Educators have worked to teach scientific literacy through general sciences courses in elementary and secondary education, as well as core scientific curriculum in some higher education institutions. OECD specifies that secondary education should aim to achieve scientific competency, where students are able to explain phenomena scientifically, evaluate and design scientific enquiry, and interpret data and evidence scientifically. However, a longitudinal study at the University of Arizona identified huge gaps in scientific knowledge among students who had completed their required science curriculum. Gaps in students’ knowledge included a lack of understanding of vaccines, basic chemistry, and evolution. In addition, most students claimed to believe that pseudosciences, like astrology, had some basis in science. This gross failure of a well-respected institution to create scientific competency among its graduates indicates the more widespread issue in the higher education system. Shockingly, this study also identified that one of the lowest performing groups in this study were those students majoring in education. One study found that only 68-76% of public high school teachers had a college degree in their subject area. Further, the study found that teachers in the sciences were less likely than teachers in the humanities to have a degree in their subject area. The failure to achieve scientific literacy in future teachers makes obvious the failure of the entire educational system to adequately teach science. If children are expected to grow into scientifically literate adults, then we must first address the competency of their educators.
Further institutional issues exacerbate scientific illiteracy. The class into which a child is born often determines his or her access to a high quality education and educational opportunities and, naturally, these influence scientific literacy. Scientific literacy has been identified in unequal distributions across societies, where the local expertise of scientifically literate individuals– doctors, engineers, scientists–is a resource for members of the community. Living in a community where difference topics in science are frequently discussed contributes immensely to the ongoing science education of individuals partaking in discussion. Additionally, the segregation of schools up to the 1970s and de facto segregation today further contribute to huge disparities in scientific education and education as a whole. Ultimately, unequal access to education and scientific resources often result from disparities due to poverty, racism, and sexism.
Inadequate scientific literacy prevents numerous people from knowing and appreciating all the wonder that the world of science has to offer, but it also poses a threat to society when individuals vote or make decisions without understanding relevant scientific information. Far too many people lack a sound understanding of the very science that impacts their daily lives. The surest way to ensure an increase in scientific literacy is through informed scientific education from youth through early adulthood. While science classes have long been a staple of the American education system, from elementary school through higher education, it is clear that the curriculum employed in America has not been effective. Typical school districts, with average funding and child poverty, lag behind other developed nations in subjects like mathematics and below-average school districts prepare students in mathematics well below the ability of other industrialized nations. In order to remedy this, the American school system will require a significant increase in funding that reflects a desire to invest in our children’s futures. It is imperative that children from all socioeconomic backgrounds receive a strong science education from knowledgeable teachers, or America will continue to grapple with citizens who lack the tools to understand basic scientific concepts. Indeed, the future of our country and, even more imperatively, our planet depend upon it.