Is it time to stop using the phrase “science literacy”?

Earlier this week, I shared a comment made by Canada’s new Chief Science Adviser, Dr. Mona Nemer, on Twitter:

““Survey after survey is giving us a picture that I would say is somewhat worrisome. We have close to half the public who doesn’t believe in science, who think it is opinion or propaganda or things like that. I think that is pretty worrisome,” she said.

“The way to help this is to engage in a better conversation with the public, between scientists, science communicators and the public. It’s not a matter of giving lectures like (teaching) Biology 601, but synthesizing and putting this in a form that helps the public understand.

“I think that we need to develop a better dialog and better ways of exciting the youth about science.””

My argument was that we already engage youth. The key is to engage adults, because they’re the decision makers and voters who ensure what our country’s strategic priorities are (see my op-ed here). As Jim Woodgett says, there’s a difference between people supporting research, and people thinking it’s a priority that government should address.

We need to help people make the distinction between supporting research versus making it a government funding priority, and so I wrote that we needed to “bridge the science literacy gap.”

My colleague Jay Ingram responded, suggesting it’s time to stop using the phrase “science literacy.”

According to Merriam-Webster, “literacy” is the state of being “literate.” “Literate” means several things, including “educated, cultured” and “able to read and write.” The definition that applies in this case is “having knowledge or competence,” where “competence (competent)” is defined as “having requisite or adequate ability or qualities.”

So if someone is “science literate,” the assumption is that they have knowledge about science, but the word “competence” is more difficult to interpret in this context. It suggests you have the ability to…what? Do science? Understand science? Read about science? Think scientifically?

This isn’t entirely clear, and could be part of the problem with using the phrase “science literacy”—we don’t know exactly what we mean.

In the 2014 Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) report on Canada’s science culture, Box 4.3 outlines the problems with using the phrase science literacy. The CCA writes that:

“a review of literature on science literacy notes that a wide range of “different interpretations result in scientific literacy appearing to be an ill-defined and diffuse—and thus controversial—concept (Laugksch 2000).””

Given this range of interpretations, the CCA outlines the specific definition they use in their report:

“for a citizen to be scientifically literate, they need to have both (i) “a basic vocabulary of scientific terms and constructs,” and (ii) “a general understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry” (Miller, 2004).”

Defining what is meant by science literacy is critical when quantifying how science literate people are, because your criteria for science literacy rest on your definition of that term.

One science literacy metric noted in the CCA report was the ability of people to understand articles written in the science section of the New York Times. While this may seem appropriate, it can also be affected not just by people’s knowledge of science, but by their general reading level, the relevance of what they’re reading to their everyday lives, and their interest in the topic.

These factors suggest that the term might be due for an overhaul, or should perhaps be dropped altogether. Particularly when you consider some of the other perspectives brought up by my colleagues on Twitter.

For example, Darren Anderson suggested (in response to my original tweet above) that it’s not really a “science literacy gap” we need to close.

Based on the latest public survey of people’s attitudes towards science completed by the Ontario Science Centre, this seems appropriate. Their headline?

“Public trust in science news is dangerously low.”

I won’t go into their findings here, but it would be interesting—maybe in my next blog post?—to compare these results with the new US results from the Pew Research Centre on science news and information today.

Both Anderson and Ingram also noted that “science literacy” can come across as elitist and divisive.

If we define science literacy primarily as the ability to do science or to think scientifically, that cuts out a huge portion of the population. And is that really our goal?

As science communicators and science journalists, we’re aiming for many things, the holy grail of which is probably to help people think scientifically. We want to engage people in science so they know what scientists do, why it’s important, and why it should be funded. To share science stories so that scientists become human, just like everyone else. To expose the inner workings of science so that people can see that, contrary to what they may think about individual geniuses and instant scientific breakthroughs, that science is a long, iterative process, with many minds tackling similar problems.

Because as Anderson also noted:

We also need to ensure we’re using these terms appropriately. I’ve often seen science literacy used as a catch all phrase to mean “how people view science.” Why not just say “people’s attitudes towards science” or, even better, as the CCA report uses, “science culture?”

I think I’ll be limiting my use of “science literacy” because, in the words of Inigo Montoya, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

Thanks Jay for making me think about this!

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10 thoughts on “Is it time to stop using the phrase “science literacy”?

  1. I think the problem is that “science” has become so corrupted by profits and military uses that no one trusts “scientists” any more… science after all is a method for understanding how our world works.. its not a religion which it has become in many people minds.. like “progress”.

    • Even when the ‘science’ is credible the message is often manipulated by sophisticated public relations experts through a tangled web of misinformation and advertising, funded by multinationals and politics that are only interested in profits.

      • Actually I think that depends on what science you’re thinking of. Academic science, for example, is pretty free of “sophisticated PR experts” etc. Academics can pretty much explain exactly what they’re doing, and they make no profit from it. Industry science can be different – and is much more subject to PR and ‘spin.’ Of course it’s also proprietary, which can make it hard to get a handle on exactly what science they’ve done and how. That can be problematic.

    • I’m not sure that “science” has been corrupted by “profits and military uses.” I think perhaps science has been misrepresented in the media, which is both scientists’ and the media’s fault. And yes, very true that science is a way of understanding the world, not a religion.

  2. 🙂 Love that you related your own realization to Inigo Montoya’s quote.

    Isn’t any vocabulary which maintains an aura of scientists as humans who are apart from the general culture of a society divisive? To have a “science culture” or “science literacy” implies that those who are not scientists fall outside of its comprehension, that they come to science through a “foreigner’s” perspective. The purpose of any communication, whether scientific, literary, philosophical etc., should be to connect with the reader. This should be where the focus lies.

    • I agree that the point of any communication is to connect with the audience, whether that’s through reading, speaking, art, etc. I see your point about ‘science culture’ being similar to ‘science literacy’ in creating a subset of people who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out.’ I’d thought maybe ‘science culture’ could replace ‘science literacy,’ but maybe not. What could we use instead?

      • Is it necessary to have a phrase? I think it best to go back to the beginning. Dr. Nemer’s statement about people not “believing in science” sounds generalized. What does that mean? Perhaps it is the survey itself which was too generalized. Science covers a large number of disciplines. When people are stating on a survey they do not believe in science, what are they really saying? Do people refuse to believe that the earth is round, or that matter is composed of atoms, or that the human heart contains four chambers? Perhaps the disbelief centers around certain topics. So people are choosing to believe in certain science facts but not others. I think it is important to find out what constitutes as “science” to the general populace.

  3. I’m looking for a phrase that would mean public excitement about science and/or engagement with science. As for the study results, I haven’t dug into them in any detail yet but agree there is a lot to consider when interpreting people’s responses.

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