5
   

Scientific Literacy.

 
 
Reply Fri 11 May, 2018 10:35 am
I have come to believe that scientific literacy of any value is out of reach of most normal people. The question, of course, is how do you define the term "scientific literacy" in a way that can include people who don't have science degrees.

On NPR (I think) there was a speaker who when giving a talk on science to a general audience asked for a show of hands; "Raise your hand if you believe that the Sun orbits around the Earth". There wasn't a single raised. Then he asked "Raise your hand if you believe that the Earth orbits the Sun". No one in the audience had any doubt that the Earth orbits the Sun (and not the other way around).

Then he asked; can anyone explain how we know that the Earth orbits the Sun? What evidence is there?. There was no answer. The point is a good one.... the vast majority of Americans believe the Earth orbits the Sun because that is what they were told. They can't explain the evidence. They can't explain what measurements you would take to prove that this is the case.

The speaker's point was that people needed to be better taught to learn to ask the questions and learn to make decisions for themselves rather than just trust what the scientist's tell them. On this, I disagree with the speaker.

Normal people, with lives and jobs and families, will never have the time to have any real understanding of modern science. There are just too many other things to do, and in our modern, specialized society we have scientists to do science. Scientists don't need to know the law, or farming techniques, or how to land a 747, or how to get the crispy top of a creme brulee. And cooks, teacher, lawyers don't need to understand how to take a path integral in a vector field.

With that being said... I would like to go through the exercise of defining what "scientific literacy" might mean in the sense of being able to at least understand and evaluate scientific ideas with any depth.

- Math through at least calculus (and more for Physics based fields). Even for life and social sciences you need to understand calculous to understand the statistical models.
- Experience doing, evaluating and been critiqued for lab work.
- Experience finding mathematical solutions and building models... and getting feedback from peers and mentors.
- Experience working with models, scientific method and scientific reasoning with educated people.

Many people ignore the fact that they are trusting scientists rather than working things out on their own.

If you believe in global climate change, good... I do too. But the evidence for climate change is based on calculus. If you don't understand calculus, then what you think you know about global climate change isn't any sort scientific understanding. This is the same as modelling.

The same is true for GMOs, vaccinations, evolution... yes, there are very smart people who have done the actual science on these, and you would do well to listen to their results.

But don't kid yourself. To actually become scientifically literate to the point that your judgement has any merit (other than just choosing to believe scientists) takes years of study. There are very few people who have the time, or the motivation, to gain any level of scientific literacy.

I think this is OK, there is no other way it could be in our complex modern society. But in our discussions about evolution, GMOs and climate change most people are fooling themselves about what they know, and how.
 
edgarblythe
 
  3  
Reply Fri 11 May, 2018 11:14 am
We can't be experts at everything. Where we are deficient we can check to learn who are the experts and what are the controversies surrounding the issues. We can't know all, of a certainty, but we can get a pretty good idea.
0 Replies
 
rosborne979
 
  1  
Reply Fri 11 May, 2018 11:36 am
@maxdancona,
I think everyone should start with an understanding of the scientific method to get a basic understanding of what science actually is. I'm pretty sure that at least can be understood by almost everyone.

I think once people understand how science works, then they can start to assess scientific claims in a more effective way.
rosborne979
 
  1  
Reply Fri 11 May, 2018 11:41 am
@maxdancona,
My daughter is in 3rd grade and I noticed that the school spent a fair amount of time in her lessons getting the kiddies to Observe, Collect Data and then form Hypotheses. They did all this before studying any specific area of science.

I'm not sure if all schools do it his way (my daughter is in public school), or how far back in time the practice goes. I was probably exposed to this in my 3rd grade back in the 1960's, but I don't remember it.
maxdancona
 
  1  
Reply Fri 11 May, 2018 11:57 am
@rosborne979,
rosborne979 wrote:

I think everyone should start with an understanding of the scientific method to get a basic understanding of what science actually is. I'm pretty sure that at least can be understood by almost everyone.

I think once people understand how science works, then they can start to assess scientific claims in a more effective way.


The problem is that many people think they understand how science works, even when they don't have scientific training or the background knowledge to correct their own misconceptions.

It is frustrating to whom people with whom I agree politically about the importance of global climate change make absurdly wrong scientific claims in support of their position. The opponents of global climate change pick holes in these misconceptions... and they are right to do so. However, it takes away from the ability of real scientists to make real scientific claims that are actually valid.

There is also the problem of simple intuitions, slogans, that simplify scientific concepts and are correct (scientifically) but widely misunderstood.

Everyone knows (and almost everyone believes) that nothing can go faster than the speed of light. But very few people know what this means. I can easily ask a couple of questions to non-scientists to get them to make statements about the speed of light that are wildly untrue. People think they understand it. But, they don't.

Science is by nature unintuitive (in the sense that what science says is very different than what people would expect). If science were intuitive... you wouldn't need science (things would just work the way people expect.

When you study science, you learn to question your intuition and to look for facts that contradict your assumptions. It happens all of the time in science, and when beliefs are challenged by facts... in science the facts always win.

Many people miss the point that science challenges assumptions. Instead they use science as just a set of new assumptions. Without scientific training... things like "nothing goes faster than the speed of light" just becomes a bumper sticker, a new assumption. Worse, you get axioms like "nature abhors a vacuum" and "there are no straight lines in nature" that sound scientific, but or not.

In order to be scientifically literate, you need some way to distinguish between a "basic understanding of science", and a "misconception of a scientific principle". Without scientific training, there is no way to tell the difference.
0 Replies
 
maxdancona
 
  1  
Reply Fri 11 May, 2018 12:01 pm
@rosborne979,
Yes, the skills kids learn in 3rd grade will be useful as a foundation for many careers. She is building the skills to be a scientist, or a lawyer, or a marine gunnery sergeant, or a surgeon.

To do any of these things in a useful way... she is going to need a lot more specialized training.

Sturgis
 
  1  
Reply Fri 11 May, 2018 01:53 pm
@maxdancona,
Quote:
...3rd grade...

To do any of these things in a useful way...she is going to need a lot more specialized training.


The child is in the 3rd grade. At that juncture in time and of life, to do just about anything in a truly useful way, will require "a lot more specialized training".

Or are you claiming that you and/or your children already possessed all this knowledge by the time you/they were in grade 3?
maxdancona
 
  1  
Reply Fri 11 May, 2018 02:09 pm
@Sturgis,
I am saying that almost everyone has gone through science in elementary and high school. And, many people go through science as part of a non-scientific college degree. None of them gain the type of scientific literacy that is useful in distinguishing between real science, and scientific misconceptions.

Most adults take the word of scientists. This is all they can do (without putting in the years of study required to develop useful knowledge and skills. The problem is beliefs about science are often misconceptions based on ideology or politics.

There is good science backed by the majority of the scientific community saying that genetically modified organisms are not inherently dangerous. There is equally good science based saying that significant global climate change is being caused by human activity. Whether most people believe one or the other depends on political prejudice rather than scientific knowledge. And lots of people on both sides will ignore the real science and drive the important discussions into pseudo-science.

I don't know what the solution is, but I think that our society would be better if the scientific community had more leverage when it comes to making important social decisions.
Sturgis
 
  1  
Reply Fri 11 May, 2018 02:27 pm
@maxdancona,
Point taken.

Solution? Maybe there isn't one. Science is a vast field and it's difficult to know will which is mentioned in the span of life. The advantage these days is the relative ease with which to access and gain information and insights, thanks to the Internet. For any topic with which I am unfamiliar (completely or partially), I do a Google search and learn a bit. (I've also added to my library on several occasions by locating books related to a subject that grabs my interest). The engine searching is a method I often recommend to others. It may not do everything; yet, it is a step in the right direction.
0 Replies
 
fresco
 
  1  
Reply Sat 12 May, 2018 01:41 am
@maxdancona,
I'm curious. Remind me where you stand on the 'Copenhagen Convention' which simplistically stated implies that there are no 'things' (e.g. 'electrons'), there are only 'observational interactions' from which we infer 'the existence of things', the utility of which is the key issue.

I ask this because an understanding of this issue seems to be fundamental to a discusion of 'scientific literacy'.
maxdancona
 
  1  
Reply Sat 12 May, 2018 10:31 am
@fresco,
I don't have any opinion on the Copenhagen Convention. Nor do I think it has anything to do with this topic.

In past discussions, you have stubbornly confused philosophy with science. And, I have equally stubbornly insisted that the practice of science has very little to do with science, and that many times philosophy has directly inhibited the progress of science (Aristotle is still widely considered to have delayed the field of physics by centuries).

You are picking scabs here.

Richard Feynman wrote:
The philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.
maxdancona
 
  1  
Reply Sat 12 May, 2018 11:03 am
@fresco,
The pop-philosophy version of Quantum Mechanics is a pet peeve of mine.

The scientists who are studying subatomic particles (the building blocks of our reality) are using math; a very advanced math at that. They aren't doing any philosophical of searching for meaning, or beauty or how it relates to anything.

They build a mathematical model, then they set up an experiment (e.g. in a particle accelerator) to test it. They will predict that if the model is correct, they expect to see an energy spike after a Fourier transform based on the wave integral ... it is advanced math period. If they see results they don't expect... then they build a new model. My point in this thread is that if you don't know how to take a loop integral, or a Fourier transform, or solve a differential equation... there is no way for you to have any meaningful understanding what these scientists are doing.

Discussing the "meaning" of the science without having the mathematical tools to understand the science is foolish and inevitably leads to misunderstanding and misstatement.

On Quantum Mechanics this isn't so important. Any misunderstanding caused by pop writing about the "Copenhagen Interpretation" or "Many worlds" or any other pseudoscience fad isn't going to hurt anyone (as long as they don't get their hands on a particle accelerator). And, pseudoscience does make very good TV.

On issues like Global Climate Change, vaccinations, or food security... where people have to make real social decisions that should be informed by science... it is more of a problem.
fresco
 
  1  
Reply Sat 12 May, 2018 11:24 am
@maxdancona,
Laughing We can all bandy quotations about to suit our purpose such as Niels Bohr's...
Quote:
It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how Nature is. Physics concerns what we say about Nature

....but ignorance of the point above would indicate, to me at least, a certain degree of 'scientific illiteracy'.
0 Replies
 
Olivier5
 
  2  
Reply Tue 15 May, 2018 09:15 am
Surprisingly enough, many SCIENTISTS don't understand science very well.
maxdancona
 
  1  
Reply Tue 15 May, 2018 09:24 am
@Olivier5,
I curious about what you mean by this.

If you mean that some people don't know how to do their jobs very well, then it isn't very "surprising". There are drivers who don't know much about driving. Farmers who don't know much about farming. And mothers who don't know much about moths.

If you mean that sometimes scientists, doing their job correctly with the peer review process, get results that don't agree with your political ideology... you should just come out say that honestly. That is often the problem. The European rejection of science when it comes to issues like GMOs is a good example of this. The religious rejection of science when it comes to evolution is the same thing. If you don't like the answers reached by science, attacking the scientist is the easy way out.

Western societies have scientific institutions that work very well (someone bring up tobacco please, it makes the opposite point you want to make). It is not a good thing when these institutions are attacked for political reasons.
Olivier5
 
  2  
Reply Tue 15 May, 2018 10:13 am
@maxdancona,
I mean they go through the motion of science but don't always understand why they do what they do. For instance, the role of mathematics is often poorly understood.
maxdancona
 
  1  
Reply Tue 15 May, 2018 10:44 am
@Olivier5,
I am talking about science as an institution. It sounds like you are talking about individuals. Do you have a specific example.
rosborne979
 
  1  
Reply Tue 15 May, 2018 10:53 am
@maxdancona,
I think the matter of trust has to come into this discussion. No single person, even well educated, is ever going to understand every detail of every bit of science that humanity has discovered. We build on trusted information all the time, it's one of the hallmarks of our species.

I think we have to recognize the value of compartmentalized specialties in information and its relationship to trusted source.

People who don't have knowledge in specific areas at least need to understand how they have chosen their trusted sources.
roger
 
  2  
Reply Tue 15 May, 2018 10:56 am
@rosborne979,
I recently started a book called How to Teach Relativity to your Dog. If that dog was keeping up, he's smarter than I.
0 Replies
 
Olivier5
 
  1  
Reply Tue 15 May, 2018 02:15 pm
@maxdancona,
I see science as a pursuit, a method, an occupation, a guessing game between the human intellect and nature if you wish, not as an institution. There are many scientific institutionS of course.

Anyway, let's go back to your OP. My take is that you are correct. Very few people are scientifically literate by your definition or expectations, ie to be able to understand and explain 'correctly' how a range of scientific theories are grounded in observations. Even many scientists are scientifically illiterate, outside of their narrow discipline.

How many social scientists would be able to explain how we can empirically "prove" that the earth orbits around the sun rather than vice versa? How many mathematicians know the answer? How many biologists and medical doctors would be able to explain the observation-to-theory procedural sequence of thoughts involved, in a convincing and factually correct manner?

Would you be able to do so, right here? :-)
 

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