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[Sticky] What is scientific literacy and why is it important?

Mike Moum
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Joined: 5 years ago
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The  National Science Education Standards defines scientific literacy as "the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision-making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity. It also includes specific types of abilities. ...

"Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately." ( )

It's also important to understand what scientific literacy is not: it is not the specialized stuff of the experts. Understanding the distinction between "doing" science and understanding and using science. Scientific literacy is concerned with the latter. For example, one does not have to know how to design and airplane in order to understand how it is able to fly. As another example, one does not need to know the details of how a superconductor works: understanding that they conduct electricity without any loss, and that they only work at very cold temperatures is sufficient, and that there is active research into finding a material that will work at more ordinary temperatures. That is enough to enable one to evaluate a non-technical article on superconductivity and sift out truth from exaggerated or mistaken claims.

Another important point is that scientists are often not literate outside of their field. For example, a physicist with a Ph.D. isn't necessarily qualified to talk about genetics, climate change, or vaccinations. A common tactic by those who promote pseudoscience is to quote a highly respected scientist in one field in support of a claim in a completely unrelated field. One sees this often in "cure cancer" claims, in anti-vaccination articles, and the like.

Although becoming scientifically literate might sound like a daunting task, the good news is that the basic ideas underlying science are simple. Science is organized around central concepts, and there are a limited number of these. The main purpose of specific sections of this forum, such as evolution, for example, is to present these basic concepts. There may well be more detailed explanations and discussions on the topic, but understanding the basics is what is most important.

And beside all these, science is intellectually stimulating and fun to boot.

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