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Scientific Literacy, Part 1

I read The Language God Talks by Herman Wouk this weekend (it’s a very short book!). My fellow “Science Vs. Pseudoscience” blogger Louis wrote his own take at his other blog, and I will write more specifically about the book later. For now, I want to riff on a specific theme Wouk raises, though it isn’t his primary purpose: what is the minimum amount of scientific knowledge a person should have? To phrase slightly differently, what is the minimum standard for scientific literacy we should expect?

In my view, this breaks down into two categories: “facts” and “concepts”. Facts are what people usually (incorrectly) think of as scientific knowledge: how many planets and their names, scientific names of various species, the periodic table of the elements, etc. This is good stuff: after all, the more facts we have at our disposal, the less time we have to spend looking up the facts and the more time we have for talking about the more cool areas of science.

However, facts are not very meaningful by themselves. After all, what good does it do to memorize the names of planets if you don’t know what a planet is? (I think part of the public upset over Pluto’s status was based on confusion between facts and concepts, but that’s a post for another day.) In fact (ha!), facts are subordinate to a larger theoretical framework or paradigm, to use the fancy term for it. Concepts are more closely related to how scientists actually operate, relating to theory, testing, and the day-to-day methodology we use. A very important concept is that all living species have evolved over millennia from  earlier forms; another is that the universe has no center (sorry, Ashland!). The age of the universe is a number, a fact to be memorized; that our Sun is one star of 100 billion in our galaxy is a concept.

So, in the interests of trying to get participation in this blog, what would you propose as being essential to basic scientific literacy? Facts and concepts are welcome, and note that this is general: biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, and so forth are all fair topics to suggest.

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15 Responses to “Scientific Literacy, Part 1”


  1. 1 garrettwhite November 7, 2010 at 22:10

    I feel like people need to know certain facts about their bodies, such as how many pints of blood there are in the human body and how many bones. I’m not sure about the other topics though. In my opinion, people just need to learn period. Knowledge is power.

  2. 2 cstone92 November 7, 2010 at 22:37

    Concepts obviously play a big role in scientific literacy, but after reading what was published, facts do not seem so important. I think the basis of the concept and the foundation of the concepts are important in scientific literacy. Another topic to include in scientific literacy should include scientific theories.

    • 3 alsoorion November 8, 2010 at 14:17

      i agree with caroline, that concepts are the key. familiarity with concepts will always supercede facts existing in a conceptual vacuum, though facts and concepts may be misunderstood to be interchangable (i’ll die if i jump off this building, and that’s a fact).

  3. 4 teejtc November 8, 2010 at 00:52

    I think the lowest acceptable level of scientific literacy is almost entirely conceptual and theoretical. Facts are nice (and when used frequently, occasionally helpful), but in this day and age, almost all facts can be googled from a phone – what people need to know is how to evaluate the answers and sources that they run across and recognize who to trust (and who not to) while, at the same time, having enough “literacy” to be able to spot outright stupidity.

    Related to that, the absolute minimum level of scientific literacy should include enough to understand and intelligently think about (maybe even discuss) scientific conversations that take place in the media, literature, medical reporting, and generic dinner conversations.

    In terms of content (vrs concept). I think everyone should be reasonably conversant in (1) the basic units of measurement (imperial and metric), (2) basic concepts of disease and infection (3) a basic understanding of electricity (and safety related to it), and (4) a basic understanding of chemical interaction (which doesn’t necessarily include knowing HOW specific chemicals will react with one another but DOES include the understanding THAT chemical interactions take place).

    Just my 2cents.

    Grace and peace,
    `tim

  4. 5 criener November 8, 2010 at 02:58

    Here’s my take: It’s facts all the way down. Name of planets, fact. What a planet is: another fact, which you say is more important than the name. The sun is not in the center of the universe: another fact.
    I think the difference between your facts and concepts are really just that concepts are a network of facts, whereas the “facts” are individual items that can be understood without their relations to others. For example, to understand that our sun is one of 100 billion stars in our galaxy necessitates that we know what a star is, and what a galaxy is. I have a few facts I can call up for what a star is, but you have hundred more. Likewise with galaxy.
    Here’s where I think that leads us: learn a whole bunch of facts. Make it interesting. As we teach the facts, of course we should teach how they relate to other facts (that is, the hierarchical organization of facts that make up concepts). But we should not lose sight of the fact that it is facts all the way down.
    Furthermore, the organization tends to happen automatically (we are pattern-loving critters).
    So I think we shouldn’t sweat defining scientific literacy too much, and teach as much science as we can, make it interesting, make it fairly broad, and teach a few of the facts (yes, they are facts too) of the philosophy of science and the history of science.
    Oh, also, everyone should learn a lot more psychology than they currently do :)

    • 6 teejtc November 8, 2010 at 12:48

      criener wrote:
      Furthermore, the organization tends to happen automatically (we are pattern-loving critters).

      I wonder about this. I’m not in science; I’m in religion, but in my “world” facts seldom seem to naturally coalesce into any kind of a working whole without help from the outside.

      This is one of the problems religions have had for centuries (millennia?!) We’ve assumed that the facts children often learn will eventually come together into a well-thought-out, mature, intelligently-self-organized understanding of the underlying themes, concepts, doctrines, etc. The problem? It doesn’t seem to happen. On the other hand, teaching a few basic concepts (even when the specifics are missing) does seem to be successful in helping people internalize the faith (as a whole).

      Perhaps science *is* different and those kinds of facts *do* tend to naturally converge…. I’m not sure though.

      What an interesting discussion!

      Grace and Peace,
      `tim

    • 7 alsoorion November 8, 2010 at 14:29

      it is dangerous to assume that pattern-loving creatures will always create accurate or even useful patterns (the two needn’t always be mutual).
      though it is is true that each bit of reality might be considered a fact when a simple concept matches its referent, i don’t think each fact should be considered a concept in the colloquial sense. facts are, however, required in order to create sound concepts (conversely, “facts” that are thought to be facts may guide us to false concepts).
      are we assuming that numbers are facts and, thus, mathematical constructions are concepts?

      • 8 criener November 9, 2010 at 20:06

        Absolutely. Pattern loving creatures most definitely often come up with the wrong patterns, or impose patterns onto noise. This is why we do science (experiments, manipulation, control,etc) to uncover patterns that exist in ways we can’t naturally see (germ theory of disease), and to disprove patterns that we think as meaningful but are not (constellations).

        But my argument, and this is backed up by a fair amount of cognitive science, is that once we get the conceptual framework, we think that it is not dependent on the facts. We forget the facts, and are able to just look them up ourselves, but that doesn’t mean that we can just teach students the conceptual frameworks. The frameworks are made out of facts.
        I am not aware of exceptions to this (although I suppose religions could be) fact about concepts :)

  5. 9 Matthew R. Francis November 8, 2010 at 12:50

    Honestly, I’m less interested in defining scientific literacy than thinking about what I hope everyone would know in an ideal society. I’m going to align more with Tim than with Cedar on this, though I think my disagreement with Cedar is largely semantic instead of fundamental: the concepts are really what’s important, since “facts” as they are usually understood don’t mean anything outside of a conceptual framework. Also, although I would like people to have certain “facts” at their fingertips to save time, it’s less important than knowing how to think and (to respond to Caroline’s point) knowing what a theory *is*. I think of how much time I would save in my own life if I didn’t have to deal with the “Big Bang is just a theory!” crowd.

    However, all of this circles back to my main point: what specifically should people know, recognizing that we don’t have time to teach everyone everything? Knowledge (to echo Garrett and GI Joe) is power and knowing is half the battle, but if we want people to be educated beyond a few disconnected facts and factoids, I believe we should think about *what* is important in a specific way.

  6. 10 alsoorion November 8, 2010 at 14:20

    measurement is important, but i think a general familiarity with the way science is conducted, a firm grasp of pertinent vocabulary and the colloquial misapplication of the vocabulary to referents, and familiarity with the function and interaction of concepts are the most important things. knowing how to think must come before all else.

  7. 11 Matthew R. Francis November 9, 2010 at 13:14

    Pattern-building is definitely part of the human psyche, but it’s definitely not true that people automatically will identify patterns in a “scientific” way. A good example of this is a “constellation” test: two grids are produced, one of which has random dots scattered through it, the other having dots distributed according to some deterministic algorithm. People will generally say the random grid is patterned while the other grid is random.

    In the pedagogical literature I’ve read, what we do is sometimes called “building intuition”: helping students develop the cognitive patterns they need to think like scientists do (in a broad sense, at least).

  8. 12 criener November 9, 2010 at 20:12

    The problem with “critical thinking” and “thinking like a scientist” is that these constructs are not nearly as teachable, as valuable, or as general as we as educators or scientists would like them to be. My training as a psychological scientist really doesn’t help me reason about physics or chemistry, or global warming. It might help me value the scientific process, and understand a few facts about peer review, but that is a belief, combined with a few general facts, not an education, and not critical thinking.
    I agree that we are building intuition. But the raw materials are a lot more “facty” than most of us would like to acknowledge.
    I’ll also point out that this doesn’t mean that we should have our students memorize lists of facts and forget about motivation and curiosity. Just that motivation and curiosity are prerequisites, but the raw materials are facts.

    • 13 Matthew R. Francis November 10, 2010 at 13:37

      I think your definition of “fact” is broader than what I intend here—I’m using “fact” in a very restrictive sense to mean “confirmed observations”. These are “facts”: bodies are made of cells, bodies fall with an acceleration of 9.8 m/s^2 in the absence of air resistance, the universe is 13.7 billion years old, etc. These are important facts, but they are indeed not independent of a theoretical framework.

      I do agree that teaching “thinking like a scientist” in a broad sense is probably not possible, but by the time a person graduates high school, they should have had multiple classes in the natural and social sciences—all of which are opportunities to stress both the unity of scientific thinking and the specificity of the particular field.

  9. 14 rthomas89 November 11, 2010 at 20:35

    Building on some of what has already been said (but hopefully summing it up a bit more explicitly), I think that the fundamental requirement should be an understanding of the scientific method, and related issues.

    People need to be educated in the definitions of “hypothesis”, “theory”, “observation”, “experiment”, etc., and in how these different concepts apply to the method of how we do science in the first place. People need to understand how an individual formulates a hypothesis, tests it, and opts to reject it or not reject it. In a similar vein, people need to understand how to use and interpret the tools that scientific methodology employs, such as units of measure, statistics, and so forth.

    There are a very large number of facts and concepts that are incredibly important, and should be a core part of everyone’s education. However, if students do not understand how science works and how scientific knowledge and methodology operate, they have no way to sort the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. For example, Young Earth Creationists are very good at citing alleged “facts” and authorities, and if one doesn’t actually understand how to DO science (science is a process, after all), then they have NO MEANS of determining what explanation is more plausible. The same is true of evaluating the claims of the anti-vaccination movement, proponents of many “paranormal” phenomena, etc.

    When it comes to shooting down false claims and faulty arguments, having the right ammunition (facts and concepts) is important, but they don’t do you any good without a gun to fire them with (education in scientific reasoning and methodology).


  1. 1 The Language God Talks « Science Vs. Pseudoscience Trackback on January 12, 2011 at 20:58
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