Why is a public understanding of science important? It’s tempting to say: “how could it not be important, it’s science! The coolest thing in the world! Everything runs on science!”, but that only appeals to those already preaching the science gospel. In this post I’ll try to dissect and reify what most people intuitively know: that a public understanding of science is important, especially for its civic and economic benefits. Furthermore, I’ll argue that popular science–especially the ‘controversial’ kind (think The Bell Curve) increases scientific literacy among the public by introducing them to the more grizzly, uncouth side of science.
Defining ‘the Public’ & ‘Scientific Literacy’
Who makes up the public? And what does it mean to be scientifically literate? More to the point: are scientists part of the public, and are they all by default scientifically literate?
To answer, let me first state the obvious: scientists aren’t a monolithic bunch. Granted there are common occupational threads, but in an age of specialization it’s not unlikely that the high-energy theorist next door on the right doesn’t know diddly about what the genomicist on the left is doing. So when I say ‘the public’ I don’t mean non-scientists, I mean non-specialist (in whatever field we happen to be discussing). This definition gives the term “the public” some extra fluidity, since it implies that who we consider part of the public changes from topic to topic.
In 1996, the National Academy of Science (NAS) gave some bullet points (below) outlining a few things that every scientifically literate person should be able to do. It may seem a little pedantic, but let’s just assume for now that it’s better to overshoot our definition than to undershoot it. In case you feel like glazing over the list, let me guide your eyes to points 4 & 5, which is where the real action is—the others are just prerequisites for doing science.
- Understand experiment and reasoning as well as basic scientific facts and their meaning
- Ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences
- Describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena
- Read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions
- Identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed
- Evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it
- Pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately
Those two points actually prevent a scientist from automatically being considered scientifically literate! This may at first seem silly, but a moment’s reflection should show why this makes good sense. Think about any recent science-centered national debate, for example GMO controversies. There’s nothing necessary in a physicist’s education that would place her above a non-scientist in thinking about the details of the GMO debates—they’re both non-specialists, i.e. members of the public. Although of course the physicist does probably have better tools than the non-scientist to conduct data analysis, in the end they both need to amble over to a computer or library and educate themselves. And besides, any advantage the physicist has fades when you consider that non-specialist scientists and lay folk alike will outsource their research and read popular summaries instead of the original journal articles.
To recap: for a scientist to be scientifically literate, they need to be informed about fields besides their own. So while we’ve nailed down what it means to scientifically literate, I still haven’t convinced you that being scientifically literate is even important (which is the hub of this entire post, so I’d better hop to it!)
Civic Duty Vs. Economics
Assume that you came out of your mother as a cognitively complete, fully rational human being. Let’s also assume that, upon extraction, the attending doctor handed you a contract and had you sign under the line that read “I, Applied Sentience Reader, hereby consent to living in a democratic republic and accept the accompanying responsibilities which include, but are not limited to, staying informed about current political and policy issues.” Those responsibilities are called civic duties and that democratic republic is called the United States of America. Sorry if I’m bringing back flashbacks of your high-school civics course, but it had to be done.
Scientific literacy—in conjunction with political, mathematical, and other literacies—is a civic responsibility. Furthermore (and my girlfriend recently took a class on conspiracy theories, so I have solid third-hand knowledge to support my claims here) a scientifically informed electorate is needed to safeguard the country from being sheep-herded by political powers wielding pseudoscience to sway opinion and policy in their favor. The founding fathers understood this well.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the argument above doesn’t really cut it for most people, including myself, since patriotism is now seen as passé, if not plain weird. The better argument is the one from economics—the one championed by America’s favorite popularizer of science, Neil Degrasse Tyson, in this interview below.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, out of the 20 highest paying jobs in year 2012, only 2 did not require training in science. If you look at the list, you’ll see doctors, dentists, surgeons, engineers, etc. This isn’t surprising. There’s a high demand for these professions and a comparative shortage of people with the training and skill-set needed to carry out the tasks.
But what about the rest of the jobs at the top of the salary bell curve, so to speak? What are employers looking for? Well, if we believe NDT (and he’s definitely not the only one to expound this view) then employers are indeed looking for analytical-yet-creative thinking—whatever that means. They’re looking for people who can solve problems; they’re looking for people who can look at, diagnose, and fix something that’s gone wrong. This is a really tough skill to learn for people who aren’t ‘good’ at math/science/handiwork, but there’s definitely hope!
We Need More Controversial Pop Sci
I’m a big fan of the learn-by-arguing pedagogy, adopted from the ancient Greeks and perfected by the Jews (an old saying goes: 10 Jews, 11 opinions). Controversial popular science, like The Bell Curve and more recently A Troublesome Inheritance, require us–if we’re being honest—to acknowledge and face-up to subtleties in the arguments and evidence that might not have been apparent earlier. It’s through this process of scrutiny and final resolution that an opinion is formed. For me, and I’m sure many others, this type of reasoning is akin to the reasoning used in problem solving: I like to understand why things are correct by seeing why the alternative is wrong. This is just one positive aspect of controversial popular science. The second one below is, in my view, much more important.
At the heart of science is an error-correcting mechanism, almost like a self-harming pacemaker. The acrimonious exchanges one often sees following the publication of controversial pop-sci show —despite being ugly and unclean— how science is done: ideas are thrown out into the marketplace to either be annihilated or hailed as triumphs. Controversies serve to heighten public understanding of how science works outside of the “scientific method” algorithm taught in government school. It also serves to humanize scientists and to curb the trend of science idolatry we’ve been seeing a bit in our society, something I’ll also discuss in the second part of this post.
I’ve touched on a lot of stuff, so let’s summarize and wrap it all up. I first defined what was meant by the public and scientific literacy, arguing (nitpickingly) that scientists should be considered part of the public. I then went on to bolster my claim that a public understanding of science is important for civic responsibilities, and doubly so for economic needs. I concluded by arguing that controversial popular science serves to increase scientific literacy by introducing people to the non-standard components of science, namely the ‘marketplace of ideas’.
Leo Kozachkov (Staff Writer, Rutgers University) Leo Kozachkov is an undergraduate at Rutgers University, studying physics and mathematics. He is currently working as an Aresty Research Assistant under Professor Thomas V. Papathomas. He enjoys writing, drawing, creating/playing music, going on long walks with his beloved dog, and reading/hoarding books. His grandest hopes are to discover a new physical law, have a mathematical theorem feature his last name, and to write many books.