Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

What is scientific literacy good for?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2016/01/03

The way scientific literacy is defined and measured makes no sense — see Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method (1992/1994 and still in print, which surely says something about the validity of its arguments).
Scientific literacy is measured by what people know about things like atoms and about “the scientific method”, in effect by how well they could function within science; whereas scientific literacy should surely mean what non-scientists need to know about the role of science in society: when to believe the experts and when not to. About medicine, by analogy, we don’t need to know how drugs work, say, we just need to know where to find data about how long they have been in use and what their side effects are and whether there’s already a law suit against the manufacturer that is still actively advertising it (quite a common circumstance; see anticoagulants Pradaxa and Xarelto and anti-diabetes Invokana at the moment (2015-16).

It turns out that current measurements of scientific literacy yield results that should be highly embarrassing to the expert gurus on this topic.

For example, people who score high on “scientific literacy” do poorly on distinguishing pseudo-science from science — Chris Impey, Sanlyn Buxner, Jessie Antonellis, Elizabeth Johnson, & Courtney King, “A twenty-year survey of science literacy among college undergraduates”, Journal of College Science Teaching, 40 (#4, 2011) 31-7.

When it comes to human-caused climate change, perhaps the measures of “scientific literacy” are pretty meaningful after all, because the most scientifically literate according to these tests are least likely to believe that human generation of carbon dioxide is responsible for climate change:
“Climate skepticism not rooted in science illiteracy: Cultural values, not knowledge, shape global warming views, a study finds” (Janet Raloff, 29 May 2012)

“New study: Numerical and Science Literacy cause Climate Change Skepticism” (1 June 2012)”

“Study: Climate skeptics and proponents score highest on climate science literacy…but are the most polarized” (Anthony Watts, 23 February 2015)

As I had pointed out in the first entry on this blog (A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?), most people’s views about human-caused climate change are determined by their political affiliation and not by their understanding of science or familiarity with the evidence.



6 Responses to “What is scientific literacy good for?”

  1. Mark said

    “…whereas scientific literacy should surely mean what non-scientists need to know about the role of science in society: when to believe the experts and when not to…”

    In a sense, I think that far too many people (pseudoskeptics are the worse offenders, but there are others) who think of themselves as rational people have a religious-like belief in science. They think that you have to have something wrong with you to even consider the possibility that experts, or “science,” generally speaking, could ever be wrong. I think that this religious-like belief in “science” needs to go.


    • Henry Bauer said


      Yes. But how do you get rid of it?
      Many people have heard of scientific revolutions, but they don’t understand that these show “science” to have been badly wrong….


      • Mark said

        Good question. How do you get rid of it? I, personally, am a proponent of some form of totalitarianism. I would want to create a society where people who have these beliefs that “science” is like some kind of god would be heavily punished. A lot of people think that there is something wrong with me for saying that, but I would counter that ALL societies are systems of oppression. Even the “freedom loving” United States has heavy social punishment for being an open racist, and most would consider that to be good. I think that, if we really want to make progress in eliminating this notion that “science” can never be wrong, we need to start thinking about how to punish those who insist on believing that “science” can never be wrong. I don’t have all the answers as to how to get this effort going, but I think that I’m right on the basic idea.


      • Henry Bauer said


        Totalitarianism requires as boss someone who is all-knowing, all-wise, all-fair, all-well-meaning to all….

        Someone or other said that democracy is the worst system of government except all the others.

        Policing thoughts, enforcing ideas, does not have a very good track record.


      • Mark said

        Well, I don’t agree that “Totalitarianism requires as boss someone who is all-knowing, all-wise, all-fair, all-well-meaning to all…” That’s a lot of anti-totalitarian propaganda put forth by democracies. However, I have another idea. Think of how it might be possible for someone to convince you that totalitarianism is right. Pseudoskeptics have every bit as much resistance to you and your beliefs, if not more. If there is a way, theoretically, for a totalitarian to “get through” to you, then maybe you can apply that knowledge in an attempt to “get through” to the pseudoskeptics.


      • Henry Bauer said

        Totalitarian means a single point of view. No one and no group has the knowledge, wisdom, and benevolence that should go with governing everybody and everything.


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