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Scientific Literacy: Why it Matters

By Angela Collier

The following is a true story:

In 2010, advertisements starring famous athletes started airing for a product called: PowerBalance. PowerBalance is claimed by its manufacturers and vendors to “use holographic technology” to “work with your body’s natural energy field”. It is hologram therapy, a subset of energy medicine, which is a form of alternative medicine.  Power Balance wristbands cost $29.95 each. Power Balance sold over a million units in the United States alone.

Obviously, Power Balance is complete bullshit. There is no ‘natural energy field’ in your body. The band is made of silicon. There’s no technology in it, how could it possibly affect anything in your body? Especially your balance?!? Who would fall for this?

Millions of scientifically illiterate Americans were taken advantage of by someone who thought words like ‘holographic technology’ and ‘energy field’ would help him peddle his ‘science’ in America. And it worked. And this it the problem.

 

What is scientific literacy?

In the National Science Education Standards, the content standards define scientific literacy.

Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately. (National Science Education Standards, page 22, http://www.literacynet.org/science/scientificliteracy.html )

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gK2EEwzjPQ

(The above video is Neil Degrasse Tyson-astrophysicst describing what scientific literacy means for him as a father, teaching his children)

 

If the goal of compulsory education is to create a better educated populace and by accomplishing this goal, creating more educated voters and consumers, then America is failing miserably. Currently:

  • 72% of Americans, when presented with a scientific newspaper article or report cannot understand its contents. (These articles are written on an average 4th grade level)
  • 40% of Americans do not ‘believe’ in evolution
  • and a whopping 20% of Americans understand that the Sun orbits the Earth and not the other way around.

Scientific illiteracy has serious effects on the quality of American life.

If citizens do not understand science, how can the be expected to vote on scientific issues?

Things like nuclear power, stem cell research, and environmental issues all need voters to back them up. But most Americans do not understand the issues and can be easily swayed by people with money and agendas.

It’s pretty hard to believe that in 2010 a former porn star convinced a little under 8% of Americans that vaccines cause autism. But it happened. Without any scientific background, or any other researchers to back up her claim Jenny McCarthy caused a whooping cough outbreak in California that affected thousands and killed nearly 30 people. Across the country 710 people’s deaths can be attributed to children not getting vaccines, a number that has not been that high since the 1950s. This is a problem, that needs to be fixed.

How can educators increase the scientific literacy in America: A Two Part Plan

  1. Teach real science instead of memorization.  Instead of devoting entire classes to memorizing facts like how many states of matter are there, what are Newton’s three laws of motion and so on teachers can spend time on logic and critical thinking. We can begin them how to set up experiments and interpret data. The scientific method is not used by scientists! Why do we preach it in schools?
  2. Get the religious right out of the science classroom. The following clip is an extremely depressing example of what science education in America is like: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNJjLq5wg4g&feature=related

The theory of evolution, genetics, and cellular biology are all based on observable science. There is no debate about these theories. The people in this video show a shockingly low ability to understand what evolution is, and it can be blamed entirely on the teacher in the video. By provided ‘equal time’ to creationism he is doing a  disservice to these students who deserve a good education. These students will be the ones who grow up not vaccinating their kids, using homeopathic medicine to cure their cancers, and dying an early death because they do not understand science.

The solution to this problem seems so basic. So simple. How to combat scientific illiteracy? Teach real science. Children are naturally curious. It is should be easy to teach a subject they already practice on their own at home.

Throughout the coming decades issues like nuclear power, stem cell research, climate change, healthcare, technology, and space exploration require knowledgeable voters for support. To maintain our place in the world we need to be on the forefront of scientific and technological advancement. We cannot do that with uninformed citizens. America is soon to become the forgotten leader, falling behind the rest of the world, because we no longer understand the value of scientific education.

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Categories: Education Reform
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