On Science Literacy, or, Why I’m a Physicist and Not a Biologist

It’s clear from the purpose of this blog that science literacy is something I’m passionate about, and so I’m glad that it’s one of those topics that every so often bounces around the internet. While I have what I think is a clear idea of what constitutes science literacy, the science community as a whole doesn’t seem to have any consensus. Considering how poorly science education is approached at an institutional level in some jurisdictions (to wit, the hoopla around teaching evolution in some parts of the US), it’s hardly surprising that there’s no organized, vocal push for better science literacy education. Of course science literacy comes along for the ride, to some extent, with good, well-rounded science education, but it’s not necessarily a principle focus.

A surprising number of people seem to think that science literacy comes down to knowing lists of facts, as in this quiz from the Christian Science Monitor. I know it’s just a goofy internet quiz meant to generate clicks, but this is antithetical to what I think science literacy is. Rather than a measure of how many factoids and lists of data one knows, I think scientific literacy is the framework for understanding and analysing context and conclusions. Science, when boiled down to it’s essential nature, is about making connections between observations, equations and mathematics, and ideas to make conclusions. Some branches of science (say, theoretical physics) rely on equations and math to the exclusion of observations, and some rely much more heavily on observations than math. But the key component of that is “making connections.” Science literacy, then, is the ability and knowledge to be able to take a series of observations, equations, and ideas, and be able to understand how they fit together. This isn’t to say that scientific literacy is only equivalent to being an expert in all area of science, because no such person exists. But a person doesn’t need to be an expert to be able to understand basic scientific concepts, and so by extension a person doesn’t need to be an expert to be able to grasp and understand contexts and connections between concepts and facts. The trivia facts like those in the quiz are important, to be sure, but they aren’t at the kernel of understanding. They can be memorized, but memorization is not the same as comprehension.

And that’s more or less why I’m a physicist and not a biologist. Back in high school (when I had to walk uphill to school both ways) my physics and chemistry classes were taught with curiosity and an emphasis on understanding ideas and theories and the big picture. But biology was dominated by lists of things: lists of organelles, list of amino acids, lists of bones, lists of phyla. The big picture of biology wasn’t apparent in class, and tests were mainly “how much stuff on the list can you remember?” I was bored senseless and stopped taking biology. In undergrad, all science students had to take two semesters of biology, chemistry, and physics, regardless of what major you were in. So I sat through two semesters of lists of things, and I was bored senseless again. In my physics class, though, everything was put in a big picture context. I could see how laws linked together, how the abstract equations governed the physical world around me. Sure, I can rattle off the mass of the electron and the speed of sound in water and a surprising array of other physical parameters, but I was never tested on that knowledge — we had cheat sheets for it from first year right through grad school. I was tested on things like what happens when two cars collide at an angle, or, how does the earth orbit the sun, or, how does an antenna work. I’ve retained the data-knowledge from sheer usage, which is useful, but if I didn’t have a conceptual framework on which to hang all that data-knowledge, it wouldn’t do me much good (except, perhaps, at an especially nerdy pub trivia night).

The one “problem” with this approach to science is that it is by nature qualitative rather than quantitative, and thus harder to standardize and evaluate. It’s often not compatible with industrialized education, and as education systems seem geared more and more toward The Almighty Standardized Test as an indicator of a student’s academic aptitude (which does nothing other than measuring how well as student takes a standardized, multiple choice test), memorization-based teaching and learning is starting to dominate. Memorization-based teaching teaches what is True at the moment, and it doesn’t encourage students to ask questions and explore. It doesn’t nourish curiosity and creativity, and it doesn’t give a student any framework to squint a little and ask “really, is that true? Why is it true?”. It gives students no tools to seek information for themselves, to reinforce or verify what they’re learning in class. It gives them no tools to evaluate information outside of the classroom, and few ways to transfer the knowledge they learn from the classroom to the real world. Standardizing curricula to accommodate a standardized test means that a teacher cannot adjust the curricula or the way it’s taught to a context that’s appropriate for their classroom: students in a rural classroom will likely have a different lived experience than students in either an upperclass suburban classroom or a poor inner-city classroom, and that will impact what context those students put science in.

I view that “problem” as a feature, not a bug. We need to encourage qualitative education, encourage students’ creativity and curiosity, and I think that that will enable students (and the adults they become) better navigate a technological world. Having a scientifically literate population, with access to independent information (which is a whole other issue I’ll cover another time) empowers the population to look critically at environmental and scientific government policy. It gives the citizenry the tools to think critically and ask pointed questions of their government (and be able to sniff out when they’re getting fed a line). Initiatives like the Northern Gateway Pipeline are usually founded on economic principles and not scientific ones, but will often have disastrous environmental effects. Being able to articulate why (say) the Northern Gateway Pipeline is a harmful proposition and being able to point to and understand the main conclusions of the research behind that opinion gives the citizenry the tools to participate in the public debate without just taking the PR line at face value. Science is happening all around us, and we all need to have the basic tools to understand and navigate it.

2 responses to “On Science Literacy, or, Why I’m a Physicist and Not a Biologist

  1. I’m a biologist (or, at least I once was). And the reason I loved biology far more than chemistry or physics was that, to me, biology was a story. I still can’t tell how much of that interpretation is based on how I was taught and how much is based on how I’m inclined to think, but biological processes and structures and ecosystems were all beautiful, interconnected narratives. Chemistry and physics were long lists of things to memorize. Stories I could remember and understand, lists were much harder.

    That said, I completely agree with your thoughts on qualitative structures of education and thinking. The most fun biology assignments I remember were the ones where we would read a journal article and then have to think up another five experiments to do based on that information. It required me to know the “story” but then also begin thinking about the “what ifs?” that continue that narrative forward. Know the what so you can explore the why.

    • Eight Crayon Science

      Teaching matters, for sure, though I think everyone’s got things they gravitate naturally to. I was blessed with really good physics, chemistry, and math teachers in high school, and it made a big difference. But they taught qualitatively, and if biology was taught to me that way too, I might’ve taken a different path.

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