Rethinking science literacy
I’m in Germany for a couple of weeks (hence the delay in blogging), in part to participate in two conferences at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research at Bielefeld University. At the first conference last week I gave a talk on recent debates over science literacy — what is it, how do you assess it, why is it important?
Every two years the National Science Foundation (NSF) publishes a study called Science and Engineering Indicators, which includes a chapter on what Americans know about science. It’s usually an occasion for much forehead slapping and hand wringing by scientists and science educators. The 2010 edition caused even more consternation than usual, because the NSF removed the questions on evolution and the origins of the universe. The questions had asked people to respond with “true” or “false” to the following statements:
Human beings as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.
The universe began with a huge explosion.
For years now, more than half of the American public has consistently answered those questions incorrectly. Many scientists were upset that the NSF removed the questions from the 2010 study, and they accused the agency of caving in to religious conservatives and whitewashing Americans’ ignorance about science.
But here’s the thing: an earlier study showed that when the evolution question was prefaced with the phrase “according to the theory of evolution,” then 72% of Americans answered correctly. Many people who give the wrong answer are not entirely ignorant about those areas of science, they just don’t accept the mainstream view. They know what the NSF wants them to know, they just don’t believe it. That’s still disturbing, no doubt, but it’s not just a matter of factual knowledge. It seems that when people say they reject evolution, they’re more concerned about cultural and religious identity than scientific knowledge. And if people don’t care much about getting the science right, then simply repeating it over and over isn’t going to help much.
The controversy over the 2010 NSF study was part of a long history of disputes over science literacy. According to the NSF studies, science literacy in America has remained basically unchanged for twenty years, despite enormous efforts to improve it. Now it seems that the NSF may be ready to rethink its approach. In October 2010 I participated in a workshop at the NSF on new concepts and methods for studying science literacy. We produced a report on “Science in the Service of Citizens and Consumers.” It’s discussed in the 2012 edition of the NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators under the heading “Public Understanding of Science and Its Role in Everyday Life.” (The 2012 edition also restored the evolution and big bang questions, now showing the results for both versions of the questions.)
Our report distinguishes three different purposes of science literacy: intellectual-cultural, practical-consumer, and civic. And it distinguishes three areas of knowledge: scientific facts, scientific processes, and sociopolitical institutions that govern science. The basic idea is that assessments of science literacy should include not only isolated scientific facts and processes, but also the knowledge required for making intelligent consumer decisions and for becoming involved in scientifically complex political issues.
This view of science literacy has been in the background of public discussion for a long time, and it has had some influence on science education in schools and universities. But most science programs still don’t include much consideration of the social and political dimensions of science.
In my talk last week I pointed out that about one-fourth of Americans think the sun goes around the earth. That’s unfortunate, and I’m all in favor of efforts to improve people’s knowledge of basic scientific facts. But how many Americans know the proportion of federal research funding that goes to energy research? (very little). And how many Californians know exactly what happened with the three billion dollars in public funding that we approved for stem cell research? (not what the sponsors of Proposition 71 promised). Those are the sorts of questions we should ask in surveys of science literacy. That’s not going to end the evolution debate, but it seems like a step in the right direction.