In a class discussion a few weeks ago, the professor posed a question to those in attendance: How do you define science literacy? While this may seem to be a simple question to answer, that was not the case for the roughly 100 people there.
When confronted with this question, most answered science literacy is measured by how much someone knows about science topics. Others concluded it is how much someone understands what the scientists see as true. While both of these, common knowledge of science and knowledge of the scientific consensus, are important, I do not believe they are alone enough to determine whether someone is truly science literate.
Science literacy must hold a deeper meaning; science literacy must include one’s beliefs. However, in 2010, the National Science Foundation’s oversight body took a different approach to science literacy.
After distributing surveys and collecting the results for the board’s biennial “Science and Engineering Indicators,” the NSF’s attempt to measure science literacy in the U.S. and around the world, two true/false questions where omitted from the report. Those two questions were “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” and “the universe began with a big explosion.”
According to John Bruer, the lead reviewer for the chapter of the report in which the questions where omitted, claimed the two questions caused Americans to “experience a conflict between accepted scientific knowledge and their religious beliefs.”
And, yes, it is not difficult to understand his reasoning behind omitting these questions. Evolution and the Big Bang strike at the core of what many Christians believe, or are at least taught to believe.
The evidence which can be used to support Bruer’s decision is right in the survey results, too. Only 45 percent of Americans correctly answered the evolution question, a statistic significantly lower in comparison with other parts of the world: 78 percent in Japan, 70 percent in Europe, 69 percent in China and 64 percent in South Korea. The same is true for the Big Bang question, with only 33 percent of Americans answering correctly.
So why then is there a 40-point spread in the percentage of people who answered these questions right between the U.S. and other parts of the world? As Breur argued, it is beliefs, more specifically, religious beliefs. This I agree with.
However, Breur and the NSF were, without a doubt, wrong to exclude the results from these questions in the 2010 report.
Some people, including a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati, argued, “because of Biblical traditions in American culture, [those] question[s are] really a measure of belief, not knowledge. [In European and other societies] it may be more of a measure of knowledge.”
While it is true religion does not bear as much weight in some societies, it is not right to separate knowledge and belief. Instead, these two things must both be considered when discussing science literacy. The person who understands the scientific consensus but discredits it based on religious beliefs is no more science literate than the person who is completely ignorant of the knowledge to begin with.
And I am not alone in this thinking. Jon Miller, a science literacy researcher and creator of the science literacy survey questions, argued, “If a person says that the earth really is at the center of the universe … how in the world would you call that person scientifically literate?” I do not think I would be able to say it any better than Miller did.
The good news is the 2012 edition of the “Indicators” does include questions about evolution and the Big Bang, but the large gap between the U.S. and Japan, Europe, South Korea and China (in regard to evolution only) continues to exist.
While Breur and those who excluded the questions in 2010 may argue knowledge and beliefs are two different things, I argue that is the wrong thinking.
Science literacy must include whether or not someone believes, at least in the high possibility, that science knowledge and consensus is fact.
If the U.S. hopes to catch up to other developed countries in science literacy, this is an issue that needs to be addressed right now.
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