Clarification on scientific literacy and reading comprehension

Over at the Galilean Library, they’ve been having a good discussion about my recent post on the similarities between scientific literacy and reading comprehension.  I realize now that my use of global warming as an example may have caused some confusion.  Let me try clarify with yet another tendentious sports analogy.  (fyi, most of this comment has also been posted over at the above thread.)

I think what we mean by scientific thinking is a general critical thinking ability that can be applied across domains, even when you encounter a subject for the first time. It’s kind of like we expect someone who’s athletic to quickly pick up any sport.  The key point is that in both cases, general skills confer only limited proficiency in a new task.  An amazing basketball player will not necessarily be good at swimming or football no matter how athletic she is.   Similarly, an accomplished chemist may not be able to reason about geophysics even if she is great at “scientific thinking.”  Of course within certain domains it is easier to transfer skills.  Tennis knowledge probably helps with badminton, and running the 100 m helps with running the 400 m and so on.  But it’s a leap to assume that either a general athleticism or critical thinking ability can be applied everywhere.

So when Peter says  “Anyone can develop a good understanding of scientific thinking simply by reading the scientific literature,” I would say that we really have to specify “the scientific literature.”  You can understand the thinking in a field by reading its particular literature, and I’m not sure it will apply in other fields.

Has any of this made sense?


  1. Hi Praj,

    I’d have to go some way with Michael Pearl who has already commented over at my blog and say that I don’t see the ability to engage in general critical thinking as specifically to do with science. Scientific thinking is critical thinking applied to or within certain ‘traditions’ of enquiry (by which I mean the specializations of science: chemistry, physics, climatology, paleoanthropology and so on). Those traditions (let’s call them ‘sciences’) are distinguished principally by the things into which they enquire and the practical methods used for doing so, but also by the language (terminology or jargon), metaphors and modes of presentation they use. Obviously, to be proficient within one of those sciences, one needs to acquire some specific skills in the methods of enquiry used (not only to apply them oneself, but also to be aware of their limitations) and in the specific language used in that science in order to relate one’s own experience to the experience of others brought together and condensed in that science. One may also learn what types of critical thinking are commonly used by the practitioners of that science, but one need not limit oneself to those. Indeed, if they are limited, one would be better not to. In other words, one should learn (as you say) general critical thinking skills, because it is only by thinking outside the tradition that one will recognize underlying unspoken assumptions that go unquestioned, or metaphors that may invigorated thinking once, but now constrain it.

    To translate it back into your sports analogy: one can really only become proficient in tennis by playing tennis. To excel, however, one needs also to watch others play and maintain physical fitness and general athleticism.

    Now, when I said that “anyone can develop a good understanding of scientific thinking simply by reading the scientific literature”, I meant any literature that might relate to scientific thinking and was using the term “scientific thinking” in the specific way described in my post – the mode of thinking that binds a science together: the types of observation to be made, and the types of conclusion thought to be reasonably drawn from them. One can also be said to have knowledge of that science – the types of language used etc. I would make the distinction, however, that to gain scientific knowledge (as I use the term), one would have also to contribute to the science concerned with one’s own original observations. If I look at a thermometer and see that it reads 25°C, I can say that I know that at that time, that thermometer read 25°C. If I read a research report and see the words “the thermometer read 25°C” (not that people often say things like that in modern scientific research reports!), all I really know, is that those words appeared on that page of that journal (or whatever). I’m taking it on trust that there really was a thermometer that said that and relying on theory to conclude that there must therefore have been a point in common between that thermometer and “mine”, even more so to further conclude that there must have been commonalities between the places and times those measurements were made.

    Finally, I’ll just say that, in relation to climate change policy, we sometimes see the limitations in scientific critical thinking when scientists (and others) persist in discussing that entire matter in scientific terms as though this would settle the matter. As I think we’ve established, it’s ultimately a political matter, not a scientific one, albeit one informed by science.


  2. Thanks for the comment. I think I see what you’re saying now, and I suspect there’s a lot of agreement here. I really like your sports analogy! You’re right, general athleticism is very important and I have neglected it somewhat. Thanks again. I look forward to engaging more in the future!

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