Scientific Literacy

Greetings, internet denizens! Today, I’d like to speak with you about science. Yes, science! Now, everyone who has even the slightest clue about what science is knows that it is totally awesome. You can look stuff up in books all day long, but there is no cooler way to understand the universe than through using science.

Naturally, since science is so freaking amazing, the best way to be seen as a smart person is to be scientifically literate. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s find out if you are! Take the test, find out, and come back.

CLICK THE BUTTON.

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musical interlude

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So. How’d you doooo~♫? Did you score 50 out of 50? Because apparently that’s the only way to be scientifically literate.

If you’re anything like me, you wanted to smack the e-ink out of that “science literacy test.” What the hell does it have to do with science literacy? It’s a damn vocabulary test. Yes, you might need to know some of the stuff that’s in there to engage in high-level conversations about specific hypotheses, formulas, models, and so on, but is that the same thing as being scientifically literate? Absolutely not. I’ll say it again for emphasis—absolutely not.

Science literacy, if it has any meaning at all, means the ability to understand the scientific method. It does not have to do with your ability to pedantically churn out game-show knowledge about the periodic table of the elements. What does any of this have to do with being able to figure out whether today’s purported miracle cancer cure is complete bunk or not? Science is the study of the cosmos; specific branches of science study the cosmos at different scales.

Another feature of science that the creator of that test seems to have overlooked? Science is not just physics, chemistry, and biology. Science is not just “hard” science. “Soft” sciences are “real” sciences, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either 1) joking, 2) an asshole, or 3) ignorant of what “science” means. So what does science mean?

Science means you look at data. Empirical facts. Observable things.

Science means you try to explain those observations in ways that fit all the relevant data.

Science means you don’t make assumptions.

Science means you use Occam’s razor to excise unnecessary steps from your explanations.

Science means you don’t try to prove a point—you try to disprove your idea until it outsmarts you and you can’t anymore.

Science means hypotheses that can’t be disproven are useless. (And that includes god claims—buh-bye!)

Science means your explanations must also make reliable future predictions.

Science means you repeat your experiments because sometimes random chance bites you in the ass.

Science means other people do the same thing, just in case you messed up.

Because of these things, science is self-correcting—the more you do it, the better it gets. People who criticize science for “having been wrong” about things in the past fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of science. Our goal as knowledge-seekers is not to be right—it’s to become right. Science is cumulative; we rely on the work of the people who came before us. We use their knowledge to enhance our own. We identify and correct their mistakes, and over time, these mistakes become progressively smaller. Through science, we err toward greatness.

What on earth does any of this have to do with memorizing the atomic weight of Einsteinium?* Absolutely nothing. Knowing a fact makes you no better than a line in a book. Knowing how to use that fact? That’s science.

Scientific literacy is knowing how to avoid being fooled by snake-oil peddlers. Scientific literacy is knowing why homeopathy is bunk and why “ancient Chinese medicine” isn’t medicine. Scientific literacy is knowing why Power Balance bands are a scam. Scientific literacy is understanding why “heritage” bananas are GMOs. Scientific literacy is understanding why the notion of “a” cure for cancer is fundamentally incoherent. Scientific literacy is being able to explain why “non-overlapping magisteria” is impossible—why “magic” and “energy” and “miracles” would be scientifically observable phenomena if they actually existed.

Scientific literacy is knowing how to find real answers to questions. Scientific literacy is not your score on that ridiculous test I made you take. (Sorry about that.)

What I find even more aggravating about this whole misconception of “science literacy” is that it is almost certainly this exact same flawed model that gets presented in our schools—this was certainly my impression from high school, at least, and international test scores don’t seem to suggest a different conclusion. We are deceiving our children into thinking that science is about forcing yourself to memorize ever-expanding lists of monotonous data. This is a problem. We need a different approach. We need to be passionate about science—science is our key to understanding the entire universe; it’s not this dusty relic of decontextualized facts. Science is cool.

* It’s 252, by the way. I know that because people who know more stuff than I do found out and made the information available to anyone with an internet collection. Isn’t that awesome? Yep. So stop sitting around and go thank a scientist.
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