What is science literacy? And what is it for?

As you know I’ve been on a science literacy and education kick the past couple weeks. I was considering transitioning to something else, but Dan Kahan enticed me to continue with his last post.* He asks some great questions you should go check out. Here are my responses to a few of them?

  1. How important is general scientific knowledge for a general member of the public? Does he or she have to understand particular bodies of science or be able to comprehend scientific evidence to be able reliably to identify and use of scientific knowledge in his or her personal life? In his or her role as a democratic citizen?

    My short answers are: Not very, On occasion, and Rarely. You probably could have guessed I’d say something like that. But to qualify and expand a bit…my standard responses are: Important for what? What aspects of their lives? There are instances when scientific knowledge will help people. But the science is always highly contextualized and it’s hard, and counterproductive, to try to isolate the scientific component. I refer you to the Noah Feinstein paper I quoted a few posts ago for more on that.

  2. Is the NSF science indicators battery a valid assessment of science literacy? What is the battery measuring exactly? And how reliably?

    This one is tougher. I haven’t studied the indicators that closely. I suspect they are simply measuring a combination of IQ, socioeconomic status, educational attainment, and latent interest in science. And in that, some of the questions are better than others. e.g., the “does the sun revolve around the Earth or vice versa?” question is more indicative than some of the more difficult questions. I don’t have a fully coherent reason I think that. It’s just a vague notion.

    Finally, I don’t think the NSF indicators assess science literacy because I don’t think the term can be meaningfully defined.

  3. Is administering a public “science literacy” test to scientists a useful way to validate such a test?

    Nah. Not sure how the performance of an elite group tells you anything about whether the test is valid for the general population.

* Oh yeah…I completely stole Dan’s title and used it as my own.

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