Mixed feelings about science literacy outreach

I’ve criticized scientists for placing themselves at the forefront of policy.  Science is always the foundation and the basis of decisions and you neglect us at your peril.  There’s no recognition that some decisions necessarily ignore or marginalize science.  The lack of nuance clearly annoys me.

I haven’t discussed that this foundation rhetoric carries over to science education.  Science literacy is implicitly (explicitly?) viewed as more important than legal, financial, or civic literacy.  Consider the constant harping that the U.S. doesn’t produce enough scientists, and the centrality of science education in competitiveness legislation.  Also consider the prominence given to science rather than economics in climate literacy.  As with policy-making, shades of gray aren’t discussed.  We may in fact already produce too many scientists.  Perhaps we shouldn’t isolate science literacy from a broader liberal education.  Maybe highlighting the ethical dimensions of climate change would better catalyze support.

Intellectually I rebel against these simplistic portrayals.  On a day-to-day basis, I think financial literacy is more useful than science literacy.  I also think that climate literacy should focus on economics, politics and philosophy as much as science.

But despite all this, I’m reluctant to criticize us.  I’ve engaged in science outreach for several years now, and I never cease to be impressed by our dedication.  The overblown national dialogue of too few scientists and the impending Chinese dominance does not, in my experience, always filter down to individual scientists.  On a personal level we really do care about engaging people and getting them excited about science.  For all our communication problems (and we have many), we expend much time, money and energy on it.

So in the end I have mixed feelings about how we speak about science literacy.  Yes we’re too quick to deify it and too eager to isolate it from education more broadly conceived.  And I’m not convinced that better science literacy will help us address climate change.  I genuinely believe we would be better served if science education were on an equal footing with everything else.

But yet…surely it is important for everyone to be more familiar and engaged with science.  Surely it’s a good thing that we agitate and campaign for what we believe in.   Especially since I have participated and will continue to participate in these campaigns, any criticism rings hollow.  I know I wouldn’t really believe myself if I denounced such admirable civic activism.  Rather than diminish our efforts, I wish others would emulate them.  A more nuanced discussion should result from better outreach by economists and historians, not with less outreach by us.


  1. Hi, Praj: There would seem to be a big difference between scientists doing civic outreach as part of their professional activity, and the federal government declaring that citizens ought to know more about science, and funding the “problem” of “illiteracy.” Isn’t it kind of strange for the government to be trying to *persuade* citizens of anything?–aside perhaps (as you say) to attach themselves to the values of the constitution? It would be seen as propaganda for the government to proselytize eating beef, joining unions or attending church services.

    I think scientists should be very, very happy that they’re not yet perceived of as an occupational interest group!

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