Category Archives: Science and Society

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.

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Some Scattered Thoughts on Outreach Work

There’s been a flurry of discussion recently about the nature, value, and workload or or related to outreach work, and as a fledgling blog writer with grand ambitions, I have a few cents I’d like to toss into the ring. The flurry got kicked off by Scicurious’s and Kate Clancy’s excellent posts, and Cedar Riener weighed in on it shortly afterward, but there’s lots going on on Twitter too. Miriam Goldstein’s flowchart is worth a look too (and has some great resources at the end).

In my (admittedly limited) experience, outreach work is seen as icing flourishes on a cake: nice to see, can make an otherwise tasty cake stand out amongst its bretheren, but not really necessary, and occasionally a bit too flashy. I’ve not seen any academics be especially bothered by a lack of outreach work, though I have seen the presence of it help make an already highly regarded candidate for a position stand out a little more (and some people suppress an eyeroll when it comes up). However, I’ve never seen it outweigh more directly academic factors on a scientist’s CV, and I don’t expect it ever would. So of course, given the dizzying array of Things That Academics Must or Should Do To Be Good Scientists, it’s natural that outreach is often very low or entirely absent from that list, because there’s a dozen other things that are more pressing.

I understand why academics don’t prioritize outreach in their own work, but the dismissal that other academics sometimes (often?) show for other people’s outreach work is a bit baffling to me. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but is it considered a waste of time? A waste of knowledge? A waste of effort? Or are they threatened by the idea of Top Secret Scientific Knowledge escaping from the pristine ivory tower? I think this is all nonsense — I think communicating our scientific progress to the public is extremely important, and while it’s not something that can be dashed off in an hour while you wait for your code to finish running, it’s certainly not an impossible task. (Apparently I still have some vestigial idealism clinging to my pant hems from my undergrad days!)

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