Debbie Knight

How can I be scientifically illiterate?

In observation on February 14, 2011 at 2:42 pm

I attended a science literacy forum on Friday where a panel of eight professors (one serving as mediator) discusses different aspects of science literacy.

So just what is science literacy? Well, according to the April 23, 2010 issue of Science, it involves the ability to understand what scientific discoveries mean and how to communicate in the language of science.

By this definition, that would suggest that I’m pretty literate in my little niche of biology.

And, despite my education, I might be considered somewhat illiterate in other scientific fields such as physics or chemistry and  really illiterate in the social and psychological arenas.

Why?  Well, each discipline has its own lingo, jargon, special terminology.  And I have no idea what those terms might mean. For example, a term that came up in one of my communication classes was “social capital.” This term is used by sociologists. And while I understand what the individual words mean, I have no idea what the concept of “social capital” means — even after a sociologist tried to explained it to me.

So, the professors at the forum were from many disciplines: biochemistry, earth science, medical science, chemistry, English, education, and research communications. It was interesting to hear their different perspectives.  I would like to note here that this is not meant to be a piece of journalism, so I will not include the participants’ names.

The earth science professor suggested that scientists should interface better with the public — especially earth scientists. He also felt that editors from the major news outlets controlled the flow of information to the public — focusing more on health issues than environmental issues.

The medical doctor who was heavily involved in graduate and medical education thought the future of research will require collaboration across disciplines — and not just disciplines within the College of Medicine, for example, but disciplines across the university.  She felt that progress will require the ability to bridge the gaps that exist between those disciplines (i.e., engineers and medical doctors working together might first require that each learn some of the other’s vocabulary so that everyone is speaking the same language).

The chemist didn’t see how a public that is scientifically illiterate could make informed decisions about policy and legislation about scientific issues.

The biochemist brought up the point that many of the ways we test for scientific literacy may not properly assess literacy.  For example, if 75% of the American public “knows” the earth revolves around the sun — does this mean they “know” this because they memorized it as a fact in school or do they “know” this because they understand the scientific evidence that shows the earth revolves around the sun.  And, more importantly, if someone doesn’t know this fact, does that make them scientifically illiterate?

The English professor who teaches technical writing at the university has seen first-hand that integrating science into his classes has helped not only the science majors to become better readers of science, but helped non-science majors understand science and how it’s done better.

The education professor brought up some very good points as well. He said that the order in which things are taught are important. Teaching the concept and then the vocabulary may be a better way to teach science.

” Too often words are used as a mask, covering our lack of understanding, we’ve learned to use words in certain places so that we sound like we know what we’re saying,” he said.

I’ve done that.

He also said that scientists often talk in metaphors to help them talk more efficiently.  Something I hadn’t thought about. For example, “DNA as a code.”  He said this metaphor often leads to confusion and misconception.  Someone might say, “If it’s a code, who put it there?” when all the scientist is saying is that each individual base (A, T, G, or C) when combined in threes, spells out the “code” for a specific amino acid in a protein.

The research communication professor talked about interfacing with the public and the problems that can be associated with that.

At one point, the group discussed public perception of science and the uncertainty of science. The education professor suggested that the public has a common misconception that if something is “known” in science, then it is accepted as an unwaivering fact.

“That’s exactly the opposite of what science is. The outcome of scientific inquiry is more questions,” he said.

The research communication professor said that he tells journalism students that science is a mystery story and if that tactic was used to communicate science to the public, that the public would accept that there’s another mystery just around the corner and would allow for the self-correction that occurs in scientific research.

The education professor said that the public doesn’t realize that the scientific method is really a guide, not a rigid line, that allows imagination, creativity, and a more organic “messiness” to research.

While nothing was definitively decided at this “Literacy in Science” forum, it did open a dialog between professors (as well as the audience) across different disciplines.

It certainly gave me some things to ponder about myself as well as how I should interface with people.


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