“If Scientific Literacy is the Answer, What’s the Question?” is the provocative title of an online article by my friend Eric Meslin. Eric is a native of Canada– a bioethicist who left IUPUI a couple of years ago to become President and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies. He wrote the article as part of a celebration of Canada’s “Science Literacy Week.”
Canada has a “Science Literacy Week.” Sort of makes an American cry….
I remember when people in the United States respected science. And education. That, of course, was before Trump, Pence and Betsy DeVos scorned bookish “elitists,” elevated religion over science, and job training over education. But I digress.
Eric reported on a 2014 Expert Panel assessment Science Culture: Where Canada Stands that found Canadians having mostly positive attitudes towards science and low levels of apprehension about science compared with citizens of other countries. Nevertheless,
The assessment also found only 53% of Canadians understood that antibiotics were not effective against viruses; only 46% were able to describe what it meant to study something scientifically (that is, using the scientific method); and that around 42% of the population had attained a basic enough level of science literacy that they could grasp general coverage of scientific and technological stories in the media. And yet, these results rated Canada as the most scientifically literate country in the world.
Why should science literacy matter? Eric points to the “tsunami” of information available, and the need to cull what is useful and well-founded from the mountains of speculation, disinformation and conflicting reports (to which I would add outright peddling of snake-oil.)
Maneuvering in a busy world of science information gives one answer to the question, why does science literacy matter? Knowing something about science can help distinguish between claims that are truthful from those that are not, to understand which new information should be heeded and what can be set aside for the moment. Indeed, part of being science literate is knowing where to find the resources to make sense of the scientific evidence.
Perhaps the most important argument for improving science literacy is the connection between a basic understanding of the scientific method and democratic self-governance. As Eric explains that connection:
As important as science literacy is for people to understand science, a science-literate public may also be the best hope for a well-functioning democracy.
This view sees science literacy as an antidote to the many varieties of fundamentalism that undermine pluralistic, cosmopolitan, multicultural democracies. A science literate society not only better understands the science behind a policy (e.g., it is a good idea to know a little bit about stem cell science before deciding whether to fund it), a science literate public also understands how to think carefully about how policy gets made, who decides, and using what criteria. When decisions are made to build bridges, dams or pipelines; to regulate chemicals and food; or to require vaccination, or fluoridate water, a science-literate public is applying its critical thinking skills to policy making in society.
Scientifically-literate citizens won’t always come to the same conclusions, but their debates are far more likely to be illuminating and productive than the arguments between, for example, the scientific community and the troglodytes who use biblical passages to dismiss the threat of climate change.
Eric also quoted a favorite book of mine: Timothy Ferris’ The Science of Liberty. As I wrote a few years ago,
Ferris argues convincingly that the democratic revolution was sparked by the scientific one. The new approach to governing wasn’t merely a function of the embrace of reason, because–as current events keep reminding us–people can reason themselves into all sorts of conclusions that have a tenuous connection to reality. Science was the new ingredient, and while science requires reason, it isn’t just reason. It’s empiricism, experimentation…the same sort of experimentation that is the basis for democratic governance.
It was the advent of science and the scientific method that underscored the importance of decisions based on evidence. As Ferris notes, dogma ruled the world before science came along, and dogma remains the preference of the majority of people today. (If you doubt the accuracy of that observation, look at Congress. Or Texas. Or, unfortunately, the Indiana Statehouse.) But democracy is not a dogma–it’s a method,a process not unlike the scientific method.
It is well to recognize that when strident anti-intellectual political figures attack scholarship as “elitism,” when they dismiss scientific consensus on everything from evolution to climate change, when they call for “repealing” the Enlightenment, it isn’t only science they are attacking.
It’s democracy as we understand it.
The U.S. isn’t doing so well in either science or democracy these days. One more reason to envy Canada…