Scientific literacy is usually thought of as knowing what atoms and molecules are, and that the Earth is spherical and orbits around the Sun, and that we stick to Earth and the Moon sticks to Earth and the Earth sticks to the Sun because of the force of gravity, and that the Earth came into being about 4 or 5 billion years ago, and that the whole Universe came into being about 13 to 15 billion years ago, and that all living things are related to one another and descended from common ancestors; and so on and so forth. Scientific literacy is equated with knowing scientific facts and theories, in other words.
All those things can be very interesting, but they are largely irrelevant to the role that science plays in society. That role, however, is something that every citizen ought to understand, and most particularly those citizens who are in policy-influencing or policy-making positions. Scientific literacy ought to mean understanding what role science can properly play in the wider society.
Knowing scientific facts and theories need not be the same as believing them to be unquestionably true. In fact it shouldn’t be the same, yet all too often it seems to be. Being scientifically literate ought to mean having the tools to make rational decisions about the degree to which any given scientific fact or theory warrants belief — belief so strong as to warrant actions based on it. To that end, one needs to know something not so much about what science says but about how science is done. Here are some fundamental axioms of that sort of scientific literacy:
—>> Science is produced by scientists. Therefore it is influenced by how scientists behave. Scientists are human beings: fallible, subject to conflicts of interest, and influenced or even constrained by their social and political environment. Science can therefore be reliable or unreliable, depending on circumstances.
Textbook examples of unreliable science are Lysenkoist biology in the Soviet Union and Deutsche Physik (Aryan, non-Jewish physics) in Nazi Germany. But conflicts of interest, dishonesty, systemic corruption (for example) can make science — what scientists produce — unreliable even in open, free, democratic societies.
—>> Science isn’t done by the so-called scientific method.
Many schools and many college-level courses in social science teach that science proceeds by posing hypotheses, testing them, and then rejecting them or keeping them as established theory. That “scientific method” seems like an entirely impersonal formula, capable of producing objective results; but even on its own terms, it takes little thought to realize that judgment needs to be exercised as to whether or not any given results do or do not support the hypothesis being tested. Preconceptions, conflicts of interest, and other quite personal matters enter into the forming of judgments.
The chief trouble, though, is that almost no science is done that way. Very few scientists ever do anything like that; for an extended illustration and examples, see my Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method (University of Illinois Press 1992). In a few areas of physics, or in planning protocols for experiments requiring statistical analysis, something like that “scientific method” is used, but not in most of science. If science in general were done that way, then every budding scientist would be taught that “scientific method”. They are not. I had acquired a chemistry Ph.D. before I had even heard of that scientific method — which I did from a political scientist.
—>> However, most people do believe that science is done by the scientific method. Since that procedure sounds so objective, impersonal, and reliable a way of attaining knowledge, most people generally assume “science” to be trustworthy, not significantly different from true. Scientists enjoy high prestige and their pronouncements are accorded the trustworthiness that “science” enjoys.
—>> Science became regarded as trustworthy because of its perceived successes. It superseded religious authority with the triumph of Darwinism over Biblical creation: Darwin’s disciple, T. H. Huxley, preached sermons explicitly on behalf of The Church Scientific. By the end of the 19th century, science had become the touchstone of authentic knowledge (David Knight, The Age of Science: The Scientific World-View in the Nineteenth Century, Basil Blackwell, 1986).
To get a sense of just how powerfully persuasive scientific conclusions are nowadays, contemplate the different rhetorical impacts of “tests have shown” and “scientific tests have shown”; you might harbor doubts as to the first but surely not about the second.
—>> Science does not and cannot deal in truth.
Science can describe how things are and how they behave. Why they do so is not observable, so any explanations are inferences, not facts. The misguided view that the scientific method delivers objective impersonal reliable knowledge obscures that.
The fact that any given theory can yield calculations that fit with what actually happens doesn’t mean that the theory is true or that the things it uses are what really exists. We can calculate planetary motions with exquisite accuracy using gravity theory, even as we nowadays don’t believe that gravity really exists, curvatures of space-time produce the illusion of gravity. We can calculate many things very accurately about electrons and atoms and molecules with the “wave-function” equations of quantum mechanics, but one can hardly believe that wave functions are real things, or that the “wavicles” we call photons, electrons , protons, etc., are actual things that have the properties sometimes of waves but sometimes of particles.
No matter how useful a theory has been in the past, it cannot be guaranteed useful in the future. The data we accumulate by observation cannot guarantee that future data might not seem contradictory; the fact that all Europe-observed swans had been white did not mean that all swans are white, as explorers of Western Australia discovered.
The misguided belief that science represents truth, which amounts to a religious-like faith in science, is called scientism.
—>> Science is popularly thought to progress steadily. In reality, the history of science is one of trials and errors, periodic advances but also periodic discarding of earlier notions found later to be wanting.
Many people have heard of Thomas Kuhn’s description of scientific progress through scientific revolutions, which is readily interpreted as perpetual advance in step-wise fashion, revolutions as milestones of progress. What is not widely understood is that the revolutions — overturning of earlier views — are thereby also gravestones of a previous mainstream consensus.
Nor is any given scientific revolution necessarily permanent. Belief that light consists of particles or that it consists of waves alternated over the centuries, up to the latest view that it is something else, in a sense both or neither. That latest view may not be the last word.
—>> Science as methodical and objective became readily confused with the even more misguided view that scientists behave methodically and objectively. Surveys have indicated that scientists are widely regarded as smarter, more intellectual, more capable of cold objectivity than non-scientists. First-hand acquaintance with scientists effectively disabuses one of such an opinion: religious views, conflicts of interest, cognitive dissonance (inability to recognize contradictory evidence) affect scientists as much as anyone else.
—>> Science and thereby scientists are commonly thought to be always on the lookout for new discoveries, the more striking the better. The history of science, however, reveals that the most remarkable advances have almost always been strongly resisted when they were first claimed. The classic descriptions of this phenomenon are Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery” (Science, 134  596-602) and Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery” (Scientific American, December 1972, 84-93); more recent commentaries are in Ernest B. Hook (ed)., Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and Neglect (University of California Press, 2002).
Extensions of mainstream views, discoveries that do not require any modification of established theories, are surely welcomed; but the breakthroughs, the revolutionary claims, are almost always resisted or ignored, and become appreciated only by hindsight.
None of those points are controversial among those whose special interest is the nature of science, its history, and its role in society. But those specialists are a small and somewhat obscure breed, even within academe, and their specialty, STS, is still not widely known — see the ABOUT page of this blog.
A salient problem with contemporary national and international science policies is that the policy makers and the media and the general public have not yet learned that it is scholars of STS who should be consulted regarding science policy and controversies about scientific issues. Current practice is to take the advice of the experts in the technical disciplines, the scientists and the physicians and the engineers. But this amounts to believing the contemporary mainstream consensus to be unquestionably true, and history has shown that this is not warranted, the consensus might even be fatally flawed.
The understanding that STS offers should mediate between the experts and the policy makers. As war is too important to be left to the decisions of the generals, so nowadays science and medicine are far too important to be left to the decisions of the scientists and the doctors.