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Scientific Literacy
(Released September 2007)

  by Carolyn Scearce  


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What is Scientific Literacy, and why does it matter?


There is substantial agreement in the academic community that levels of national and international scientific literacy among the general public are undesirably low for our technologically driven society. However, when it comes to actually defining scientific literacy, the discussion becomes more complex. Some metrics focus on facts, concepts, and vocabulary, while other definitions emphasize the scientific process and reasoning skills (SEI, 2006 and Miller, 2006). Miller (2006) uses the following working definition of scientific literacy for a survey conducted in 2005 in the US and Europe: "A level of understanding sufficient to read science and technology stories written at the level of the New York Times Science Times section or an article in Science et Vie [a French science magazine]." Hazen (2002) makes a distinction between being able to do science and being able to use science. He states that "scientific literacy, quite simply, is a mix of concepts, history, and philosophy that help you understand the scientific issues of our times." Other academics argue for a deeper knowledge of science, but this overview uses the less demanding definitions provided by Miller and Hazen.

graph of countries & scientific literacy
Figure 2: Assessment of adults considered scientifically literate according to Miller (2006).

There are a number of reasons why scientific literacy is considered important. The society we live in depends to an ever-increasing extent on technology and the scientific knowledge that makes it possible. We live in a nation with a rich, but not inexhaustible, supply of natural resources. We live in a world with a rapidly growing population. Decisions we make every day have the capacity to affect energy consumption, our personal health, natural resources, and the environment-ultimately the well being of ourselves, our community, and the world. Individual decisions may not seem to be critical, but when they are multiplied by 300 million nationwide, or nearly 7 billion worldwide, they have the power to change the face of the planet.

Miller (2002), who has been involved in assessing scientific literacy for over three decades, emphasizes the importance of "civic scientific literacy" in a modern society that relies heavily on technology. He believes that 21st century society requires a populace knowledgeable about scientific and technological issues for the democratic process to function properly. From the early 1990s to 1999, levels of adult scientific literacy in the US increased from 10% to 17%, as measured by the standards discussed earlier in this section (Miller, 2002). A further assessment in 2005 showed that scientific literacy had increased to 28% (Miller, 2006). While these increases are encouraging, Miller still believes they are insufficient for the requirements of modern democracy. For democracy to flourish, a voting populace must have the capacity to attain at least a general understanding of the issues they are called on to decide. With barely more than a quarter of the adult population equipped with the basic comprehension required to evaluate scientific and technological issues, it is unlikely informed decisions will guide the political process.

In a democracy, the populace exercises both indirect and direct influence on the creation of public policy. During elections citizens elect politicians and vote on individual ballot items. Ballot choices can include matters that pertain to science, such as natural resources, energy, conservation, pollution, and funding for education and research. Between elections the public can exercise political pressure and influence legislative and executive decisions through public opinion. Many factors help shape public opinion including upbringing, education, personal politics, regionalism, and individual experiences. While such factors have their place, when politics intersects with scientific and technological issues, basic scientific literacy is required for an informed decision making process.

Currently, two issues that have come up frequently in political debate involve human influence on climate change and the utility and ethics of stem cell research. To understand the science behind such matters requires not only acquaintance with climatology and cell biology but some familiarity with the scientific process. Hypothesis formation and testing provides a fundamental mechanism for the accumulation of scientific knowledge. Science does not always provide easy answers and can require a sophisticated understanding of statistical probabilities and mathematical modeling to interpret. Political debate often simplifies scientific issues to the point of irrelevance. Only an audience with the capacity to understand and evaluate the issues under debate can sift through the complexities in order to form well considered opinions.

Another aspect of the importance of scientific literacy is strongly emphasized by the SEI 2006 report, which points out the importance of specialized knowledge in maintaining the U.S. economy and in enduring competition in the world market. For the past five decades the growth rate of Science and Technology (S&T) jobs in the U.S. has outpaced the rate of growth of citizens trained to fill these jobs. To this point, much of this shortfall has been filled by foreign born immigrants. Frequently, foreign born undergraduate and graduate S&T students in the U.S. have stayed on after completing their education to fill the gaps in the labor force. Over the course of the last decade or two, an increasing number of countries have been developing the technology, resources, and jobs to attract highly educated work forces to their own countries. Furthermore, after 9/1l the immigration policies that have allowed foreign students and workers to come to the U.S. became stricter. As a result, the U.S. workforce has received less supplementation from foreign born workers. Even though the laws have relaxed somewhat since 2001 and the rate of immigration of educated workers is on the rise again, it still falls below the rate prior to 9/11 (SEI, 2006). Beyond the S&T job market, workers from a variety of fields, such as health care support staff, educators, writers, and more, require a basic understanding of science and technology in order to acquire the skills necessary to fulfill the full potential of their individual professional development (Miller, 2002 and NSES, 1996).

A further reason for attaining scientific literacy discussed by Hazen (2002) is for the development of intellectual coherence. The scientific discoveries made by our society often have a strong influence in how people define themselves and view the world in which they live. Terms such as "relativity" and "chaos" acquired new meaning over the last century with the discoveries of Einstein in the early 1900s and the complex geometrical forms of fractals in the 1970s. Discoveries regarding genetics, neuroscience, and health continually reshape our understanding of the human body and personal identity. This touches on the broader issue of cultural literacy. In the 1980s Hirsh discussed the importance of a culture maintaining a shared core vocabulary and knowledge base in order for members of a society to effectively communicate with one another. In his book Cultural Literacy, Hirsh pointed out scientific literacy as a weak point in the knowledge of most otherwise well educated people in the U.S.

Since the 1980s there has been considerable discussion of how to fill the gap in scientific understanding in our society. K-12 education has frequently been pointed to as key in effectively addressing this issue (Nelson, 1999 and Hazen, 2002). It has been pointed out that science education reform is a challenging endeavor that will take considerable time and investment to fulfill. In the mean-time college education (Hazen, 2002) and alternative sources of science information (SEI, 2006) also fill a large portion of the efforts to expand scientific literacy.

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