The Importance of Scientific Literacy

I think most people would agree that literacy – knowing how to read and write – is important. But, I think there is less agreement/acknowledgment/awareness that scientific literacy is also important.

Scientific Literacy is important - and helped us go to the moon! What is scientific literacy? Well, I could tell you my own definition, but I rather like this one:

Scientific literacy is 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.

Individuals will display their scientific literacy in different ways, such as appropriately using technical terms, or applying scientific concepts and processes. And individuals often will have differences in literacy in different domains, such as more understanding of life-science concepts and words, and less understanding of physical-science concepts and words.

Scientific literacy has different degrees and forms; it expands and deepens over a lifetime, not just during the years in school. –National Science Education Standards (1996)

Is it worth it to buy organic? Can an amber necklace really be an effective pain reliever? Does that politician know what he’s talking about? Are microwaves safe? Is it a good idea for our community to get involved in? What does the data say?

Because don’t get me wrong – while data is not the be all and end all of everything – it can certainly help us to make informed decisions. In this day and age, literally, anyone can put anything on the internet. I, myself, have been putting things on the internet since I was 12 (man, that’s almost 15 years of internetting!). But, you can’t treat all sources equally. Some sites are more reputable than others and understanding how science works or knowing to look for people to cite their sources can help you distinguish between credible ideas and not-so-credible ideas. Along with that, the scientific literacy definition mentions “understanding articles about science in the popular press.” This is very important, in my opinion, because often times the popular press picks something up and runs with it in a way that’s not actually factually accurate. As it says in the next line, understanding this science we see in the media will allow us “to engage in social conversation about” it. To talk and discuss like intelligent people.

The “capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence” is another important factor. Arguments that are just opinion, they can go round and round, but I feel the way that we can have intelligent conversations is not just to think about our opinion, but to really dig deeper and get behind the why of things.

To me, it’s important to raise my kids to be scientifically literate – and it’s important for myself too. I used to think I hated science. However, now that I’m older, I’ve come to realize what an important tool science can be. How it can be one tool in my toolbox. And just how neat and cool science is. I don’t think science is the be all and end all, but it has offered us many important things. Knowing how germs work lead to handwashing which lead to a decreased rate of mortality, for an example. Vaccines for another example. How to clean our water from dangerous pathogens, for another example. Science allowed us to go to the moon! Science is not perfect, but it has allowed us to make many advancements. I think that being scientifically literate can be very useful as well as allow you to be a good citizen.

Two days ago, I wrote about chemicals and a long time ago, I wrote about evaluating scientific studies. But, beyond those two links, for further reading/additional resources, I recommend:

As my little science obsessed boy reads a book about storms nearby, I am reminded that he still thinks science is cool. I am also reminded that it is up to me to give him the tools that will allow him to grow up into a scientifically literate adult. I take this job, like all my jobs in raising kids, seriously.

Do you feel you are scientifically literate? Do you feel this is an important area to keep growing in? Do you feel this is an important skill to teach to our children? 

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