Science Literacy

This is part of a series of posts describing science in terms of a new social contract with clauses and expectations of both scientists and society. The links for all of the posts so far can be found on the ‘highlights’ page. So if you are interested, start there to get the complete contract.


In my original post about a new social contract for science and society, I didn’t go into too many practical details as to how to make these terms work for all of us. So let’s dig a little deeper into the scientific literacy clause…

“We also need to work together to raise the level of scientific literacy for all people to make this two-way communication work. This means we will do a better job translating the science information, and you will up your game when it comes to processing that information. Ignorance is not bliss; in this contract, it’s not even an option.”

Having fundamental science knowledge

Fundamentally, science is a process of learning about the world around us.  Our new contract requires everyone to know the basis of the scientific method (observation, question, hypothesis, experiment, results and conclusion). It’s not always so clear. Check out this post for how it really works. Not everyone will be doing molecular biology, but the method is valid for answering questions as diverse as: What genes contribute to plant drought tolerance? Does that water leaking into my garage mean I need a new washing machine? Netflix isn’t loading- is it a problem with my cable connection, wireless router, or PS3? So, I would encourage you to use the scientific method to answer the questions nagging you in your daily life.

However, science is most often taught as a category of facts related to certain physical subjects (biology, physics, environmental science, chemistry etc). These are merely the results and conclusions of the practice of science as it was applied to specific questions. This post isn’t about new common core standards or any other benchmarks for evaluation. Not everyone needs to be an expert, but a little knowledge about a broad range of subjects goes a long way. Challenge yourself to learn something new every day, which brings me to my next point…

Finding and evaluating science news

We live in an information age. While having a little bit of knowledge on a broad range of subjects is great, you will always need to find additional information. I’ve mentioned before that the science community will be working harder to communicate our work more effectively. So take advantage of these new avenues for learning more about science. I’ve listed some links for science news resources on my resources page.* If you are hunting for something more specific, then your first stop is probably to do a Google search. How do you know which links in the results list will give you trustworthy information? The top hits will probably be to Wikipedia entries. I recommend starting there because they generally provide a general sense of the subject and provide links to primary information. These entries will at least give you an overview of the subject and a better sense of what other words you may want to use in a more refined search. Other links to scientific literature in PubMed or other scientific journal sites take you to the primary peer-reviewed literature. These are information-rich, but often difficult reading for the average member of the general public. Try reading it any way. Abstracts are always publicly available, but you may run into pay walls for full text access. Other links to webpages hosted on university, non-profit or government websites are generally reliable, but may vary in their understandability. I’ve also encouraged you to know scientists in your real life and have conversations with them about their work. Don’t be intimidated. Ask them questions. Make them continue to answer and explain until you understand. Repeat as necessary.

Our information age means that you will always have more information available to you that you will care to process. The real task is paring down all of that information to get to the answer for question that you actually have and evaluating the present facts for truthfulness. There’s no easy answer. Caveat entour always!!! You must always consider the source. Who is really telling you these facts and what credibility do they have? Most importantly, follow the money. Are they trying to sell you something? The answer to this question is always yes. Many sources are literally trying to sell you something and data will be presented in the best possible light (marketing!) to get you to be their consumer. Don’t trust them. Find additional sources where others have asked the question differently or come up with slightly different answers. You may be asking yourself, “What about you, Johnna?” Well, I’ll tell you. I’m human, which means that I carry with me inherent bias based on the sum total of my life experiences. As much as I try to suppress bias it in my scientific life, bias is always there as part of my human experience. So consider sources that appear to be doing their best at controlling against bias or at the very least can be up front about admitting their bias. This is the most difficult part of assembling truth from facts.

UPDATE: Check out this It’s OK to be Smart video by @JTOTHEIZZOE on How to Read Science News

UPDATE: Here’s another great link for evaluating scientific literature and another.

Actively participating in important decisions

As a member of our society, you must make all kinds of decisions. These can be as ordinary as what to eat, what not to eat or what car or computer to buy. Sometimes these involve evaluating scientific information. Our recent discussion in GMOs has highlighted this. Should you avoid the currently available GMOs in your diet and how do you do this? You may need more information on a medical condition, procedure or treatment option. These are just examples and there are many more, but they highlight the need to actively process more scientific information to make decisions relevant to your daily life.

Scientists are also seeking more engagement from the public on how science is done because ultimately you control important factors related to our research. Fundamentally, basic research and publicly-funded research is performed at the behest of, well, the public. Sure, it’s fun for us scientists, but ultimately we’re working for you. You have the power to guide research directions and the market of scientifically-based products. So, please let scientists know and let your elected representatives know about science-related issues that are important to you. What research is important to you? Is someone working on it? Do they have enough funding? How should we be allocating portions of the budget for research and education? What science-related products or services need more or less oversight and regulation? These are all important decisions that you need to be involved in. Choices will be made whether or not you are involved, so you need to voice your opinion them.


* I distinctly remember assigning homework related to that original post on finding science news and making science more important than Bieber. Remember, I can tell which of my links get clicked (no, not which of you personally clicked on which links). Well, you all failed miserably. Horrible click counts that day. Here’s your chance to repeat the assignment.

UPDATE: Check out the retraction of info from this post as a warning for being critical of even seemingly reputable on-line sources. Always follow the data down to a primary source!


3 thoughts on “Science Literacy

  1. Pingback: Under the Influence (of Comments) | New Under The Sun Blog

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