On the need for scientific literacy

Scientific communication in the present day has become very complex. In the past, even as recently as the late nineteenth century, the preeminent scientists of the time – Newton, Galileo, Darwin, among others – wrote not only to communicate with other experts but also to inform the general public. Things are vastly different now. Modern day scientists have to manage multiple responsibilities: write grant proposals to get their research funded, present results of experiments to fellow scientists, all while pushing the frontiers of their fields; they have no time to explain their work to the public. This gradual detachment between the scientific and non-scientific community has led to an overall decline in scientific literacy.

The burden of explaining science now belong to journalists and enthusiasts. For an audience without a firm grasp on the fundamentals of science, the generalizations from popular science books and the dizzying array of half-baked ideas and half-truths presented by the media, only serve to create confusion, resulting in a situation where misunderstanding, and even, mistrust of science becomes the norm.


This void between the simplifications of popular science and expert-level knowledge, is what authors Robert Hazen, Robinson Professor of Earth Sciences at George Mason University, and James Trefil, Robinson Professor of Physics at George Mason University, attempt to bridge in Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy (research gate), an explanation of the fundamental concepts that form the foundations of all science. They start with a useful explanation of scientific literacy, one that emphasizes the practical uses of scientific literacy and the diversity of knowledge required:

[S]cientific literacy constitutes the knowledge you need to understand public issues. It is a mix of vocabulary, concepts, history, and philosopy. It is not the specialized stuff of the experts, but the more general, less precise konowledge used in political discourse. If you can understand the news of the day as it relates to science, if you can take articles about stem cell research and the greenhouse gas effect and put them in a a meaningful context – in short, if you can treat news about science in the same way that you treat everything that comes over your horizon, then […] you are scientifically literate.
The authors also present the distinction between practicing and using science, a distinction scientists often fail to recognize:
[T]hose who insist that everyone must understand science at a deep level are confusing two important but separate aspects of the scientific knowledge. The fact of the matter is that doing science is clearly distinct from using science: scientific literacy concerns only the latter.
Furthermore, a scientifically illiterate society will not be able to sort fact from fiction, and simply yield to those with authority:
The fact of the matter is that the education of professional scientists is often just as narrowly focussed as the education of any other group of professionals, and scientists are just as likely to be ignorant of scientific matters as anyone else. You should keep this in mind the next time a Nobel laureate speaks ex cathedra on issues outside his or her field of specialization.
Many of the important issues we face today – as individuals, families, and societies – are strongly shaped by science: artificial intelligence, bioengineering, climate change, renewable energy, stem cell research, the search for intelligent life. But most discussions about these issues and even important decisions are driven solely by exclusive groups of self-selected experts and politicians, without any involvement from the public: a strange state of affairs, when you consider the consequences of these decisions have repercussions for our entire species. To ensure that decisions are made with the proper interests in mind, the world needs its citizens to be informed and engaged. Scientific literacy is not a luxury anymore, it is a necessity that could determine the fate of human civilization.