Saturday, April 10, 2010

You people wouldn't know scientific literacy if it...

Ay. So the recent flap concerns the NSF’s decision to remove questions on evolution and the Big Bang from its scientific literacy report. PZ has a good post about it, while some others at Scienceblogs, well, don’t.

What framing “experts” clearly fail, or in some cases refuse, to grasp is that we need to define scientific literacy in a meaningful and useful way, and if there exists more than one way of understanding scientific literacy, to focus on the one that is actually important. The concept of scientific literacy advocated by the NSF (in this decision) and some assorted dillweeds seems to be “knowledge of a collection of facts accumulated through scientific research” or “reverence for science.” But the important form of scientific literacy is understanding science as an epistemic system. Scientific knowledge is formed through the analysis of empirical evidence, and specific collective practices have been developed that have made the methods of science the means of acquiring knowledge about the natural world and given its findings a particular epistemic status. Awareness of specific facts in various disciplines is not unimportant, but anyone reasonably intelligent can memorize statements and even processes and any fool can “respect” scientific and technological achievements.

Is it important to contemporary society that a child can parrot facts about biology or cosmology if that child doesn’t understand why his or her superstitious beliefs don’t have the same status as established scientific theories, that the religious “way of knowing” about the world is no such thing, and that knowledge based on decades or centuries of research can’t be dismissed on the basis of ancient texts or the words of religious authorities, political hacks, or corporations? This is a central goal of the NSF? This is extremely dangerous to democracy.

I realize that this can be read as suggesting that even someone with a science degree can be called a scientific illiterate. That is in fact what I’m arguing. The value in scientific literacy is in understanding science epistemically and appreciating the roots of its power. Otherwise, children might as well be memorizing Bible verses or advertising jingles.


  1. Shorter every-post-Nisbet-ever-makes-to-his-blog:

    "I said now watch what you say
    Or they´ll be calling you a radical
    A liberal, oh fanatical, criminal
    Oh won´t you sign up your name
    We´d like to feel you´re
    Acceptable, respectable, oh presentable, a vegetable!"

  2. Good to see you back, SC. I mean, on your blog, that is.

    There is a story from my childhood, something about a man who puts up a tent, then somebody else comes along and thinks the frame is unattractive, or unnecessary, and tries to remove it, and of course the whole tent comes crashing down.

    Or that cliche that begins, "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day..."

    ...Basically, I think there is some kind of overlap with your message here, which I believe is: knowing how science works is much more important than knowing what it has actually produced.

    and any fool can “respect” scientific and technological achievements

    In some senses, a certain type of "disrepect" is even healthy in science. As in, "That's great - and I think I can go further" (or to put it somewhat less combatively, "There's still so much more to discover").