To Be Scientifically Literate, You Do Have to Know Things

After reading these two posts by ScienceBlogling Sheril (and the many comments) about scientific literacy, I suppose I’m in the minority about what scientific literacy. Unlike most of the commenters, I think scientific literacy revolves primarily around a core set of knowledge, and not ‘critical thinking skills.’ More importantly, to combat anti-science, facts are vital.

Now, that core set of knowledge should include a basic understanding of what hypothesis testing and the scientific method are. But, in my experience, stupidity regarding science (no need to be polite about it) stems mostly from scientific ignorance. Consider the woo/pseudo-medicine that Orac and others rail against.
If you don’t know any chemistry, the basic assumption of homeopathy–that water can have a molecular memory–could make sense. Throw in enough big, sciencey-sounding words, and it almost resembles science. Except that it’s utterly ridiculous. Or the snake oil cures that claim to prevent/cure AIDS by ‘boosting the immune system.’ If you’re infected you want to boost the immune system, right? Unless, of course, it’s your immune system that’s infected (as is the case with HIV/AIDS).
And creationism is perhaps the extreme example of this: it is willful ignorance: that is, choosing to ignore facts and knowledge that contradict what you believe. No ‘critical thinking component’ of any course is going to change that; often, a major life changing trauma is required.
Yes, people need to have a basic understanding of how science works. But the basic facts do matter.
In other words, a scientifically literate person not only understands the scientific method, but also knows some science.

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16 Responses to To Be Scientifically Literate, You Do Have to Know Things

  1. Edward says:

    I’m with you Mike. Scientific literacy is not just knowing facts, it’s also a willingness to accept facts for what they are. One frequently hears “this needs more study” from those who practice scientific denialism. We have heard this from the tobacco lobby, the global warming deniers, but not so much from the creationists. Those with closed minds can’t be scientifically literate. Also, I’ve come across scientists who have become lost: they build their reputation on a theory, but then new data comes along that exposes a flaw in the theory yet they continue to defend the flawed theory. Part of being a good scientist is a willingness to admit when you were wrong.

  2. D. C. Sessions says:

    Allow me, if you will, to state a synthesis:
    You are right that pure reason alone is not sufficient — were that true, the ancient Greeks (no slouches at logical inference) or Thomas Aquinas would have blown off the medical nonsense of their days.
    However, facts alone are also not sufficient, because life is too short to acquire enough facts to leave no room for nonsense. In fact (here the others are correct), a “science education” that consists of uncritical aggregation of isolated facts and “take my word for it” rules leaves people vulnerable to the very “sciency” assertions that blatherskite peddlars such as the woo merchants, the Discovery Institute, Heartland, etc. push on the public.
    Thus, I will argue that a rather traditional approach which balances procedure with process, reasoning with results, is necessary to accomplish a practical “science literacy.” This should be the objective of general education for an informed citizenry. The problem isn’t that the general education in the USA is so bad in its methods and content, but that so damn few of us actually take even the little offered in American secondary schools.

  3. Ross says:

    I’d even go as far as to say that as much fun as it is to paint creationists and religious nutjobs as devoid of critical thinking skills, it’s quite the opposite — in order to construct a world paradigm that is so resiliant to facts, you have to be *very* capapble of critical thinking and reasoning things out from first principals. Once you realize that they’re willfully *avoiding* the truth, rather than just not knowing it, you can’t really argue that it’s critical thinking skills they lack. It’s harder to lie than to tell the truth.

  4. Russell says:

    No one acquires a level of critical reasoning about empirical subjects without studying some of them.

  5. Rob W says:

    This is pretty much the whole reason why Natalie Angiers wrote “The Canon”, I think.

  6. DrA says:

    The USA culture seems to promote a strong anti-authoritarian, the folks are as good as the people, attitude, which, when combined with strong religious beliefs, produces the willful ignorance. The idea that all opinions are equal is used to discount expert opinion. It’s a special form of know-nothingism that we have bred. So I totally agree, you actually have to know something to be scientifically literate.
    I recently explained evolution to a group of very smart, well educated, and curious, people none of which had any background in biology, and it was quite interesting the misconceptions they harbored.

  7. Larry Ayers says:

    My closest friend teaches high school science in a small town in Northern Missouri. She works hard to inculcate in her students a basic knowledge of the scientific method as well as presenting examples of the current knowledge and discoveries of the scientific community. It ain’t easy, considering the dysfunctional nature of many families these days, but she tries to focus her efforts on the kids in each class who seem to want to learn.
    This is a vital function of the public education system. K-12 science teachers are woefully underpaid. The result is that not enough people are attracted to the profession.
    Interesting comments on this post!

  8. llewelly says:

    If you want to build the coolest lego space ship, you need lego blocks, and the mechanical and artistic understanding of how to build things with them. Facts are like lego blocks, and critical thinking skills are like building skills. Understanding is what you build with them.

    If all you have is a single sandwich-sized lego kit, the variety of good-looking things you can build will be restricted, and they won’t be very big. No star destroyers for you! The person who has a few thousand lego blocks of each type will be building a huge fleet, with many many varieties of craft.

    Any archaeologist can tell you that available building materials greatly affect the structures built by past and present cultures. Any architect or experienced construction worker could explain the importance of good building materials as well.

    But scientists constantly bombard us with new facts. Worse, they replace old facts. And sometimes these facts force us to drastically change the way we live. An entire refrigeration industry was built upon the fact that CFCs were relatively inert. Then Mario Molina, Paul Crutzen, and Sherwood Rowland discovered that CFCs destroyed ozone.

    As we grow older, we find the structures of understanding we so laboriously built in years past are made from building materials which have become obsolete or even dangerous. The kid up the block has built an entire alien invasion fleet built from cybernetic LED legos. The red, white, yellow and blue bricks of our youth have been rendered uncool. We feel required to rebuild our entire fleet.

    Surely we’d be better off if we’d never used those lame old bricks. Then we wouldn’t need to do so much rebuilding.

    Why learn any facts, when they’ll just become wrong or obsolete?

    The regular assaults on ‘rote memorization of dry facts’ are driven by those who are so fatigued with rebuilding they wish they had built nothing at all.

  9. If all you have is a single sandwich-sized lego kit, the variety of good-looking things you can build will be restricted, and they won’t be very big.
    Indeed, and if you restrict yourself to THE SINGLE ONE AND ONLY SCIENTIFIC METHOD, you aren’t going to invent, discover or publish anything much of significance. When the so called ‘scientifically literate’ invoke ‘THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD’, it speaks volumes about their critical scientific thinking skills. My understanding is that in the area of scientific methods, pretty much anything goes, and nature itself will weed out the unsuccessful adaptations. Scientific methods, like science and nature itself, evolve.

  10. mark says:

    For a lot of people, it’s not that they don’t know many facts, it’s that so many of the facts they know are wrong.

  11. Mokele says:

    The problem is that it’s easy to say “People need both”, it’s a *lot* harder to actually accomplish that, and it *is* a zero-sum game.
    For most people, all you get is a single year of HS science, and every hour you spend on facts, you can’t spend on critical thinking, and vice versa. How much fact do you give up for critical thinking, and vv?
    Both are needed, and both require the other – critical thinking without facts is intellectual mastrubation (aka philosophy), but facts without thought are just dry and boring with no framework upon which to rest.
    It’s easy to say “Do both, and do them well…”, but less easy when you add on “…but no, you can’t have any more time or money to do it.”

  12. Joseph Cassles says:

    I think competent scientist and teachers could get the heat off of themselves, concerning the teaching of creationism, if they would just end every lecture or technical paper on evolution with, “And the God of Abraham and Isaac, creator of heaven and earth, Father of Jesus of Nazareth, made these miracles possible, gave me the eyes to see its truth, and the strength and wisdom to carry this message to his chosen flock.”
    “Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the,”wall of separation of church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.”
    ~Thomas Jefferson: Author of the Declaration of Independence; Third president of the United States of America; Co-Framer of the United States Constitution…………..
    ” Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
    ~Albert Einstein~
    “May we please have a moment of science, for those poor souls that cannot understand evolution as God’s scientific method.”

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  14. James Pannozzi says:

    Mike wrote:
    “If you don’t know any chemistry, the basic assumption of homeopathy–that water can have a molecular memory–could make sense. Throw in enough big, sciencey-sounding words, and it almost resembles science. Except that it’s utterly ridiculous.”
    Utterly ridiculous is it? Pharmacological researcher M. Ennis thought so too but instead of writing articles in the Guardian,
    or engaging in innuendo against Homeopathy, of which she remains skeptical, she repeated experiments done by a French researcher, expecting to show that there was no such “memory”. To her surprise and despite repeated tries, she got positive results clearly showing that high dilutions (in which all the molecules of the stimulant had been diluted away) still stimulated a biological effect. See the journal Inflammation Research, vol. 53, p181. She published her results asking that they be repeated though no known science could explain them. The experiment has been repeated, even recently, and with the same unexplained positive results (References at end of article).
    In 2001, a BBC Horizon documentary was widely shown and purported to “repeat” Ennis experiment. They got totally negative results and the wise and all knowing commentator
    made the expected cluck clucking dismissal of he work. However, intrigued, Ennis (and some angry Homeopaths) expended some effort in contacting the BBC Horizon producers and subsequently learned that their researcher, one Wayne Turnbull, had not, in fact “repeated” her experiment and had added aluminum chloride, a chemical known to kill the cells under test thus rendering his TV experiment worthless. The BBC producers eventually sheepishly admitted that they had never intended to repeat Ennis’ experiment and that their TV experiment should not have been construed as such. A wikipedia article about Ennis, unsurprisingly, still has it wrong.
    (Reference links at end of this post).
    Recent repetitions, with even improved controls continue to verify this key experiment – it does not “prove” Homeopathy but most certainly does suggest that more research is needed – hardly the “utterly ridiculous” as described by “scientifically” minded and very science “literate” Mike.
    Some research citations about this topic follows:
    Lorenz I, Schneider EM, Stolz P, Brack A, Strube J.
    Influence of the diluent on the effect of highly diluted histamine on basophil activation.
    Homeopathy. 2003 Jan;92(1):11-8.
    PMID: 12587990 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]
    Sainte-Laudy J, Belon P.
    Use of four different flow cytometric protocols for the analysis of human basophil activation. Application to the study of the biological activity of high dilutions of histamine.
    Inflamm Res. 2006 Apr;55 Suppl 1:S23-4. No abstract available.
    PMID: 16705375 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]
    Sainte-Laudy J, Boujenaini N, Belon P.
    Confirmation of biological effects of high dilutions. Effects of submolecular concentrations of histamine and 1-, 3- and 4-methylhistamines on human basophil activation.
    Inflamm Res. 2008;57 Suppl 1:S27-8. No abstract available.
    PMID: 18345504 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]
    Sainte-Laudy J, Belon P.
    Improvement of flow cytometric analysis of basophil activation
    inhibition by high histamine dilutions. A novel basophil specific marker: CD 203c.
    Homeopathy. 2006 Jan;95(1):3-8.
    PMID: 16399248 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]
    For details of the famous BBC Horizon Documentary on Homeopathy and the fact that Ennis’ experiment was NOT repeated:
    Two e-mails to the BBC’s Producer detailing the serious errors of fact in their program,56
    E-mail from Professor Ennis on the specific differences in her study
    and the studies by ABC News (20/20) and the BBC,55,130

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