Science & Environment

On the merits of science literacy

While science is enjoying a renaissance in popular culture at the moment, many decry the average level of "scientific literacy". Everyone seems to think more of it would be a good thing, but Alice Bell asks what does that mean, and how can we achieve it?

I don't know what I think about GMOs, nuclear power, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, drug laws, fracking, the badger cull, air pollution and a host of other issues surrounding science, medicine and technology. I'm confused.

Maybe I just need to be more "scientifically literate". Maybe someone can give me a basic toolbox of knowledge and skills about science and technology. Then I'd know and be prepped to meaningfully participate in society.

This sounds great but what would this toolbox look like exactly? It's a serious question. When we try to answer it, I think the idea of scientific literacy starts to unravel.

The most common way of imagining what scientific literacy might look like is to see it as knowing a few important bits of science: the laws of thermodynamics, what surface tension is, theory of evolution. Except the science we use in our everyday lives is often quite specific to us as individuals; medical or environmental questions that happen to have an impact on our personal bodies or the little bit of the world we live in.

It is also often a mix of often quite new bits of science. It is not laws of thermodynamics, surface tension or evolution; it is newer, rougher, uncertain and complex networks of science-in-the-making.

There are also questions of belief. You can understand an idea without believing in it. And even if you do believe the science, that does not mean you will act on it. We all do things we know are bad for us. Simply feeding more people more science will not, alone, solve problems of science in society.

I did chemistry at A-level. I know what a mole is. Not the furry animal - the unit of measurement to express amounts of a chemical substance. This does help me understand the arguments against bothering to fund more research into homeopathy. But I could have just looked up a mole, or found an explanation that would have served without the need for such jargon.

Moreover, to get the policy issues surrounding homeopathy I also needed to know a lot more than just the chemistry.

Image caption Does knowing who this man is make for greater scientific literacy?

Climate change is perhaps the best example. Even if we agree that global warming is happening (and most people who have looked, do) that does not mean we have agreement about what to do about it.

This further question involves a host of different bits of science as well as advice from engineers, medics, psychologists, politicians, industry, NGOs, religious leaders and all sorts of other experts. I also think it should involve a fair bit of discussion with the public: what compromises are we willing to make?

Some people suggest that instead of teaching lots of science, we need to tell people how science works. Give the public a method for judging and using science they can apply in different contexts.

This has more going for it, but just as scientific information can be flexibly and selectively applied, so can ideas about science. And, just as there are many types and areas of scientific knowledge, there are many ways of doing science.

Other models of scientific literacy argue the public need to know more about the institutional make up of modern science (how it "really works"): what peer review is, who the UK's chief scientific adviser is, structures of public funding.

As with everyone knowing more scientific ideas, I think this might be a good thing, but I still dislike the way any idea of scientific literacy implies a boundary around who is allowed to have an opinion about science. As if you should keep your mouth shut until you can prove you know what the Haldane Principle is. I don't think it's fair.

Knowledge gap

I want to stress I am all for science education. We should have good science teaching available to all simply to allow access to scientific careers. I want science to be a diverse community, full of all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Plus, learning science is about learning about our world.

Image caption Magnets: how do they work? It should always be a valid question

When I walk across London I pass famous buildings and statues of war leaders, and I know about them from history lessons. I also pass trees and squirrels and lots and lots of cars. As I breathed in the pollen and the exhaust fumes I want to know more about those things too: the natural and technological objects that surround us, the other living things we share this planet with, and the things we have made and changed the planet with, too.

Still, when it comes to discussing science in public, the focus on "scientific literacy" limits us to focus on what people don't know. We all don't know lots of things. So instead of calls for greater scientific literacy, I think we need to shake off the shame attached to admitting we don't know.

Saying "I don't know" should be a liberating and exciting statement, the start on the route to learning something new. It should not be something that makes us feel small.

We need to focus on building relationships between experts and the rest of the world, so when I want to know more about GMOs, nuclear power, badgers or if I am simply curious to know how magnets work, I can just ask.

I want to know I can ask questions, including challenging ones, and be listened to as well as explained to.

I want the people I am asking questions of to be imaginative in explaining their science to diverse audiences, and admit when they do not know something too, ready to be excited by a chance to learn from other people.

I do not want to be judged for my lack of knowledge. Because we all lack knowledge. We all lack a lot of knowledge.

This is an edited version of Alice Bell's Four Thought to be broadcast on Radio 4 at 2045 BST on 4 July 2012 and then available on the iPlayer.