Scientific Literacy Redefined

Researchers could become better at engaging in public discourse by more fully considering the social and cultural contexts of their work.

By | February 1, 2016

© ISTOCK.COM/AKINDODuring a Republican primary debate this past fall, some of the presidential candidates publicly perpetuated the false notion that autism is linked to vaccinations. Understanding science includes appreciating the nature of its process. Over time, science corrects itself as theories change to account for new data. But when science is communicated in the contemporary world, factual errors, misrepresentations, and misappropriations can get perpetuated through a series of shares, copies, likes, and reposts. The viral nature of today’s information sharing makes a new kind of scientific literacy all the more imperative.

The same week as the debate, a colleague sent me a link to a “Science Knowledge Quiz” available through the Pew Research Center’s website. Looking at the report, I was not surprised to learn that only 6 percent of respondents obtained a perfect score. But reading the results of the Pew survey more closely, along with the accompanying thoughtful analysis, I couldn’t help but think about the overly simplistic way scientific literacy tends to be framed. Literacy can be broadly understood as the ability to interpret representations of information in complex and nuanced ways, accounting for the multiple meanings that result. By focusing on whether or not enough people know the “right” answers, we are missing something far more important.

Choosing the correct answer to a question from a list of multiple choices hardly indicates the kind of literacy skills necessary to critically evaluate scientific information in the context of society. It is here—at the intersection of scientists and the public—that scientific literacy (or a lack thereof) has its greatest impact, from individual choices related to personal health behaviors to wide-reaching decisions on public policy.

I am a scientist by training, but I no longer do science in a traditional sense. Instead, I teach a range of required interdisciplinary general education courses at a professionally focused college where no one majors in a basic science. As such, I put a heavy emphasis on fostering scientific literacy among my students.

It’s a complex process. For example, in a course called “Scientific Revolutions,” we discuss what science is, why it matters, and how it changes over time. We situate science within historical and cultural contexts and learn to appreciate science through the lenses of race, class, and gender. The rhetorical nature of scientific communication is another topic of interest. Whether we are considering the immunization misinformation, the recent approval of the first drug for female sexual dysfunction, or the political discourse around climate change, I have discovered that getting students to understand the science is relatively easy. Connecting the dots between a scientific discovery and its implications for society is where the real challenge begins.

This lesson is not just for students. Understanding science in and of itself cannot account for the complex ways in which scientific knowledge impacts the lived human experience. This is where scientists suffer their own form of scientific illiteracy. I scored perfectly on that Pew quiz, but that doesn’t make me an expert when it comes to understanding science in the context of society. Intense immersion in research can be blinding when it comes to the broader social and ethical implications of scientific questions and the actual human costs involved.

Furthermore, our cultural norms may bias our science. In addition to shaping how we understand the world, which drives the questions we ask and the experiments we conduct, our experiences influence our ability to see alternatives. Think of Charles Darwin and how hard he tried to account for his Victorian-era beliefs about the lesser intellectual capabilities of women in The Descent of Man. His culture blinded him to the problematic premise upon which this research question was based. As neuroscience suggests, it is very difficult to see things we are not looking for.  

But awareness of cultural contexts becomes arguably most important when communicating with the public about science. Resistance to science and ignorance of science, while frustrating, can often be understood within a broader framework. In the past, many traditionally nondominant cultural groups—including women, minorities, and those living in poverty—found themselves on the losing end when it came to scientific “progress” and understanding. They and others have good reason to be suspicious of new discoveries. Grappling with contexts such as these is critical if we hope to understand why objective science is understood as anything but in a subjective world. And while today’s vaccine skeptics might include a presidential candidate, a recent immigrant to the country, or a concerned mother from the Pacific Northwest, any truly productive conversation about why their fears are scientifically unfounded must be predicated upon an understanding of what caused those fears in the first place.

Let us continue to work toward promoting meaningful and comprehensive scientific literacy among students to help them become informed citizens who can effectively engage in public discourse. But let us also begin to advocate for a parallel track, in which we embrace a deeper and more complex discussion about science in the real world—and recognize that this type of scientific literacy is important for those of us who work in the sciences, too.

Cynthia Brandenburg is an associate professor at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont.

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Avatar of: Ken Pimple

Ken Pimple

Posts: 39

February 2, 2016

Thank you, Dr. Brandenburg, for your excellent essay. Although I work at the edges of science (my focus is research ethics / research integrity / etc.), I believe I have a better-than-average level of understanding science, and I would like to do even better. In particular, I am accutely aware of my shortcomings in "situat[ing] science within historical and cultural contexts and learn[ing] to appreciate science through the lenses of race, class, and gender." I would love to take one of your classes.

Your call for a meaningful understanding of science literacy is well-stated and should be spread widely.


Avatar of: Alexandru


Posts: 87

February 3, 2016

"Education enables children to hope for a life more strong ... I expressed an immovable opinion based on my belief in God." (Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope)

"Foolish people! How long do you want to be foolish? How long will you enjoy pouring scorn on knowledge? Will you never learn?" (Proverbs 1.22) “I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion.” (Proverbs 8.12)

Avatar of: luvscience


Posts: 1

February 8, 2016

I certainly agree with Dr. Brandenburg that the Pew test may very well render a good number of "false positives"--a body of memorized facts doesn't suffice for literacy. But good luck trying to achieve "scientific literacy" in the absence of known facts. (In the same way, memorizing multiplication [or derivative or integral] tables doesn't suffice for "mathematical literacy"--but good luck becoming "mathematically literate" without knowing those tables.)

I applaud the ambition of Prof. Brandenburg's idea, but I fear it puts the cart before the horse.

Avatar of: James V. Kohl

James V. Kohl

Posts: 412

February 8, 2016

...any truly productive conversation about why their fears are scientifically unfounded must be predicated upon an understanding of what caused those fears in the first place.

"A Fear of Pheromones" led many researchers to ignore the fact that metabolic networks must be linked to genetic networks before linking energy-dependent  hydrogen-atom transfer in DNA base pairs in solution to RNA-mediated cell type differentiation in species from microbes to humans.

Indeed, rarely does anyone learn from the serious scientists who are not afraid to report what is known about the conserved molecular mechanisms that link physics and chemistry to biologically-based cause and effect. Pseudoscientists simply link mutations to evolution.

Here is another example of what some people may learn from a forthcoming AAAS symposium. See: From Toxins to Culture: How Environment Shapes the Infant Brain

Moshe Szyf, McGill University
Nurture Alters Nature through Epigenetic Modifications of DNA

The modifications are nutrient-dependent and controlled by the physiology of nutrient-dependent reproduction in all living genera. Every level of examination by serious scientists has link the modifications from atoms to ecosystems without the pseudoscientific nonsense touted by neo-Darwinian theorists.

See also: All About that Base (Meghan Trainor Parody) and Weekend Evolution.

Avatar of: Salticidologist


Posts: 38

February 8, 2016

The key to scientific literacy is not the accumulation of 'scientific knowledge' as for the most part science does not prove anything.  Did Newton expalin gravity?  Did Einstein?  No, each gave us a different theory and mathematics with which to calculate the workings of gravity.  Scientific literacy has nothing to do with the cultural context of our institutions or determinations related to 'the value of science'.  At its core, scientific literacy is based on the understanding of science as a philosophy based on objective and independent verification of observations, and the ability of those observations to either support or not support hypotheses or theories related to what is happening.  Science, as a philosophy, places no more value on the interests of our species than it does on the interests of the animals that we consume, or the bacteria that consume us.  Have science and weapons technology played a major role in the course of human history?  Certainly.  But, is it important?  What does that mean?  A sceptic who knows little but asks hard questions may be the best practitioner of science.

Avatar of: Kathy Barker

Kathy Barker

Posts: 40

February 8, 2016

This is wonderful, thank you! Both of your points are tremedously importance to make a better world: understanding the societal context will help scientists to interact with people and people to understand science- and, perhaps more importantly, consideration of societal context can make more thoughtful scientists who are not bound by impoverished models of what science even is.

Avatar of: FSB


Posts: 7

Replied to a comment from James V. Kohl made on February 8, 2016

February 8, 2016

This comment is irrelevant to the discussion and only serves as a way to vent on a monomaniacal obsession with pseudo-scientific speculation.

Avatar of: James V. Kohl

James V. Kohl

Posts: 412

Replied to a comment from FSB made on February 8, 2016

February 8, 2016

Thanks for providing your ridiculous opinion. I linked to two examples that have nothing to do with speculation.

See also: All About that Base (Meghan Trainor Parody) and Weekend Evolution.

Please address the facts known to serious scientists.

See also: Combating Evolution to Fight Disease and Mitochondrial functions modulate neuroendocrine, metabolic, inflammatory, and transcriptional responses to acute psychological stress

What do you claim is pseudoscientfic speculation? What is the basis for your claims?


Avatar of: scidata


Posts: 1

February 9, 2016

If I were king, I'd make this essay, "The Relativity of Wrong" by Isaac Asimov, compulsory reading before handing out high school diplomas:

It quickly dispels the most common fallacy on the road to general scientific literacy.


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