How science literate are we as a society?

How science literate are we?  How science literate is the population of the U.S?

This is one tough question.

First, how do you quantify science literacy and by what measure?  Is it enough to understand the basic concepts of science as taught in public schools, and to know a little math and biology and chemistry and physics and business? (Yes, business is an exploding field of scientific research - with fascinating results.)

"Science fiction properly defined mean that if there is any real science, it is correct."
~ Ursula Le Guin, NPR interview August 29, 2015

Do we need a functional understanding?  Okay, what is a functional understanding and how do you measure this?

To go a step further, is there a need to stay current with a variety of research outside of professional interest and across an impossibly wide range of subjects?  Is it enough to (attempt to) stay current in one field?

As often pointed out, there are more scientists active today than have lived and worked across the entire 200,000 year history of us - the homo sapien. There is even a variation of Moore's Law applied to scientific endeavor.  As the capacity of semiconductors doubles every X months, it is estimated that our scientific knowledge has a similar doubling rate.  One writer predicts that our scientific knowledge will double every 75 minutes by the year 2020, and continue to grow at an exponential rate for the foreseeable future.

If you measure the knowledge of the public against this growth curve, we're all, even the best educated scientist, is an idiot going in.  As the joke goes, a scientist today learns more and more about less and less until he or she knows everything about nothing.

To me, it would seem much more important that people understand how to access the information they need, whether for work or pleasure, as there is no way any one person can carry even a sliver of all knowledge around in their head - even about their own field of expertise.  The day of the supposed universally-educated Renaissance man or woman was over probably 150 over years ago despite what Conan Doyle wrote.

As writers it seems especially important to at least be aware of the latest advances in the fields about which we write.  Take crime fiction.  Are you aware of some of the latest advances in criminology?  For example, there is technology available that tells a detective how old a fingerprint is.  There are hand-held devices that instantly tell the user whether the blood in a crime scene is human or animal; not in three weeks or a month, but at the scene.  The list of these advances is staggering, and they are changing the work of the detective faster than they can detect.

If you write crime fiction, do you really want to publish a story to have your readers reject it because the techniques you write about are so literally last year?  Ooopsie.

Let's not discuss the abysmal science knowledge of too many science fiction authors.  It makes one want to cry.  Self-help books?  Recently published research shows that the typical self-help book does more harm than good.

The same arguments can be made about the fiction in most genres.  Would you write something about England's Richard III without knowledge of the recent discovery and analysis of his remains?  Or use the Globe Theatre as a setting without reviewing the current excavation of the site by archaeologists?
Being a writer of fiction or film is daunting hard work.  In the midst of the current scientific revolution, it is certainly not getting any easier to stay current - but the benefit is being able to educate and surprise your reader with new information they may not know.

Here's the current press release.  We'll post the final study when published.
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 Taking stock of U. S. science literacy broadly

What does it mean to be science literate? How science literate is the American public? How do we stack up against other countries? What are the civic implications of a public with limited knowledge of science and how it works? How is science literacy measured? These and other questions are now under the microscope.

These and other questions are under the microscope of a 12-member National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel -- including University of Wisconsin-Madison Life Sciences Communication Professor Dominique Brossard and School of Education Professor Noah Feinstein -- charged with sorting through the existing data on American science and health literacy and exploring the association between knowledge of science and public perception of and support for science.

"The goal is to try and get the big picture," says Brossard, a noted social scientist and expert on science communication. "We're not looking at any single area of science and it is a consensus report, meaning we all have to agree, assuring multiple perspectives will be reflected in the final product."

The committee -- composed of educators, scientists, physicians and social scientists -- will take a hard look at the existing data on the state of U.S. science literacy, the questions asked, and the methods used to measure what Americans know and don't know about science and how that knowledge has changed over time. Critically for science, the panel will explore whether a lack of science literacy is associated with decreased public support for science or research.

Historically, policymakers and leaders in the scientific community have fretted over a perceived lack of knowledge among Americans about science and how it works. A prevailing fear is that an American public unequipped to come to terms with modern science will ultimately have serious economic, security and civic consequences, especially when it comes to addressing complex and nuanced issues like climate change, antibiotic resistance, emerging diseases, environment and energy choices.

While the prevailing wisdom, inspired by past studies, is that Americans don't stack up well in terms of understanding science, Brossard is not so convinced. Much depends on what kinds of questions are asked, how they are asked, and how the data is analyzed.

It is very easy, she argues, to do bad social science and past studies may have measured the wrong things or otherwise created a perception about the state of U.S. science literacy that may or may not be true.

"How do you conceptualize scientific literacy? What do people need to know? Some argue that scientific literacy may be as simple as an understanding of how science works, the nature of science," Brossard explains. "For others it may be a kind of 'civic science literacy,' where people have enough knowledge to be informed and make good decisions in a civics context."

Science literacy, Brossard adds, might also mean having enough knowledge to make good personal decisions. For example, knowing that there is a growing problem with bacteria becoming resistant to available antibiotics might better inform people about when such medicines are helpful and when they might contribute to a growing problem.

"There is such a thing as practical science literacy," says Brossard. "What are the things we need to know to help manage everyday life and make decisions in the best interest of ourselves and our families?"

The committee's report is expected in early- to mid-2017.

Related stories:

Story Source:  Materials provided by University of Wisconsin-Madison, original written by Terry Devitt. "Taking stock of U. S. science literacy broadly." ScienceDaily, 24 March 2016. 


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