Tag Archives: physics vs biology

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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