Scientific literacy – why is it important and how do we increase it?

As a biomedical researcher I do things at work that would make a lot of people raise their eyebrows.  To make an antibiotic resistant bacterium for example takes less than 24 hours. Clone a gene? No problem, I can do that as well! Or what about manipulating the behaviour of human cells? Easy, takes only a few days. For  many, these things might sound complex and crazy because I’m manipulating life. But if one would have had some basic understanding of biological sciences, these things wouldn’t sound so crazy. In modern society, science has a fundamental part. There is science behind everything we use. Therefore I believe that science is not something that only scientists should be concerned with, it’s a concern for everyone. People should be scientifically literate. The US National Center for Education Statistics defines scientific literacy as:

the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity

In order to be able to make sense of the things around us and to make important decisions that affect society, being scientifically literate is fundamental.  By being scientifically literate you prevent people or organizations with their own agenda to take advantage of you. In recent years I’ve become more reflective on how the public view science and their opinions on topics such as whether global warming is caused by humans, pros/cons of genetically modified food, if vaccination causes autism etc. A person who does not have basic knowledge about these issues or the capacity to critically question and evaluate the claims that are being made could easily be influenced.  This is especially true in politics. A politician who distorts information or is claiming something based on misinformation is more likely to get away with it if the voters are scientific illiterate. This could have serious consequences.

So how do we increase scientific literacy? Education is one way. Instead of having a system that mainly rewards fact memorization, students who has the capacity to use those facts to solve problems and develop critical thinking skills should be rewarded.

Scientist themselves could also contribute. I know that some scientists get annoyed when mainstream journalists report about scientific issues incorrectly or when people comment on scientific matters without actually knowing anything about it. Instead of getting annoyed, scientist should engage with the public themselves. I’ve written about this in two previous posts, part 1 & part 1.5. It’s easy to say to the non-scientists: “go read a science book and then you’ll understand”. However that won’t solve anything. As science is so fundamental for our society, making science more understandable and accessible is something I believe is worth investing in.

Thoughts?

Some words from Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson about scientific literacy.

 

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