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How do we define and measure scientific literacy?

By Joseph Timpona

How do we define and measure scientific literacy?

Whether we are aware of it or not, many current political issues have a scientific component to them. For example, discussion between representatives and scientists on key issues of the Iran nuclear deal helped bridge the political gap. In a society where much of our daily life relies on technology, it should be expected that science might creep into political areas one would not traditionally consider. Therefore, in a democratic society where representatives are elected to represent their constituents, scientific literacy by voting individuals should be translated to scientifically backed policy decisions.

Current partisan debate on issues such as climate change shows that this is not the case, or that there is a gap in scientific knowledge among voters. Scientists generally have a high level of consensus on issues such as these, but the consensus for others is not as high, which could indicate a difference in depth of scientific knowledge. A recent Pew Research Center survey aimed to determine how well U.S. adults knew the answers to certain scientific questions. Overall, they scored fairly well (you can take the test here).

The survey consisting of 12 questions covering a breadth of scientific topics revealed strengths and weaknesses in 3,278 U.S. adults’ understandings. For example, 82% correctly answered that uranium is needed to make nuclear weapons, and 74% knew that Jonas Salk developed polio vaccines. However, only 34% correctly answered that water boils at lower temperature at high altitudes.

While knowledge of facts can be considered a measure of scientific literacy, it raises the question of how useful of a predictor these questions are of general scientific literacy. Indeed, a National Academy of Sciences book describes scientific literacy as

Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.”

It can be argued that scientific literacy is more about the ideas behind scientific thinking than about hard facts. Facts can be remembered and regurgitated, whereas real scientific literacy comes from being able to think critically and discern answers among the noise.

Furthermore, research suggests that conveying facts is not enough to reverse someone’s belief in misinformation on matters of the scientific nature, which further indicates that knowledge of facts does not translate to scientific literacy.

The abstract concept of scientific literacy is more difficult to quantify than questions such as those in the recent Pew study that involve right or wrong answers. A future research study could focus determining how people can apply critical thinking to understanding scientific information. The question then becomes, how do we as a society promote the version of scientific literacy as defined by the National Academies?

This responsibility falls not only on the education system, but also on scientists. As we communicate science, scientists need to help people understand that they, too, can think like a scientist. When talking to the public, scientists shouldn’t try to oversimplify issues so others can understand, but help people understand how the ideas were conceived, studied, and interpreted. In addition to this, efforts can be made to increase the appreciation of science and evidence-based thinking. This is really the essence of science and thus the real measure of scientific literacy.


Ecker, U., Lewandowsky, S., Swire, B., & Chang, D. (2011). Correcting false information in memory: Manipulating the strength of misinformation encoding and its retraction. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review Psychon Bull Rev, 570-578.

Funk, C., & Goo, S. (2015, September 10). A look at what the public knows and does not know about science. Retrieved October 3, 2015, from http://www.pewinternet.org/files/2015/09/2015-09-10_science-knowledge_FINAL.pdf

Principles and Definitions. (1996). In National Science Education Standards observe, interact, change, learn. (p. 22). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Peterson, K., & Harder, A. (2015, July 16). The Nuclear Physicist Answering Lawmakers’ Questions on Iran Deal. Retrieved October 16, 2015, from http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-nuclear-physicist-answering-lawmakers-questions-on-iran-deal-1437084084

Scientific Consensus on Global Warming. (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2015, from http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/science/scientific-consensus-on.html#.ViBhg7RVikp








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