Why Most People (Even People with Advanced Science Degrees) Are Scientifically Illiterate


In this episode of "critical thinking about science" we're going to talk about science literacy and science education.

And just to give a heads up, I'm going to argue for what I expect is a contentious claim. I'm going to argue that most people are scientifically illiterate, and when I say "most people" I'm including people who may have advanced degrees in science -- Masters degrees or PhDs in physics, biology, chemistry, psychology, etc.

I think that those of us working in science education and science literacy need to accept this fact, and start thinking more deeply about what the goals of science education actually are, if this is so, and what, if anything, we want to do about it.

Let's start out with the some discouraging but unsurprising facts.

People who work in science education and who know the research literature on science literacy, won't be surprised to hear that science literacy rates -- as these are typically measured -- are very low in the general population, and though they're certainly higher among those who have completed a college or university science degree, they're not substantially higher.

Here's an example of that research. This report summarizes the results of a twenty year study of science literacy rates that compared freshman students and graduating science students against national averages.

Here's a quote from the concluding section:

"Overall, it appears that high school education and students' exposure to media and popular culture convey a basic knowledge of science, although it is piecemeal and barely adequate to make students familiar with the major achievements of science in the past century. After that, college science instruction produces incremental gains, but students still reach the end of their formal education with substantial holes in their knowledge and understanding of science. It is up to science educators and higher education leaders to decide whether it is an acceptable outcome when a significant fraction of college graduates are unaware of major tenets of life and physical science and also hold persistent pseudo-scientific belief systems."

So, that's a discouraging result, and I suspect a surprising result for many you watching who might naturally assume that 12 to 16 years of formal science education would be enough to ensure that students knew that, say, electrons are smaller than atoms, and lasers work by focusing light rays, not sound rays, and that there's no scientific basis for the belief that some numbers are lucky, for some people.

But I think the reality is actually more discouraging than these studies indicate.

And the reason I think that is because these studies often don't do a good job of measuring what I take to be the most important components of science literacy, which is understanding how scientific reasoning works at a general level, how scientific reasoning differs across different domains of science, and how this understanding helps us to think critically about real-world issues involving science, technology and human values.

Now, that's not too surprising, because the literacy that I've just described is very hard to measure -- certainly something that's not easily measured by a small set of survey questions.

But I think you'd find that if we had good tests for this kind of science literacy, the results would be much worse than even the discouraging results we see with the standard tests.

And I think anyone who has been in the science education business for a while, and anyone who teaches science research methods in graduate programs, and certainly anyone who teaches the philosophy of science regularly, will agree with me on this.

Nothing is more obvious to those who teach in this area, that even the best and most academically successful science students can have profound difficulty articulating the conceptual foundations or the fundamental logic of the methods they're learning in their own field, much less speak with any reliability about how scientific theories are developed and tested in fields outside their own.

The fact is, you can get a PhD in physics and have virtually no understanding of how theories in biology or sociology are developed and tested.

And once you start asking questions about applying one's knowledge of biology or sociology to assess whether a particular science policy initiative is worthwhile or not, the PhD in physics gives you even less help.

So, this is what I mean when I say that even people with advanced degrees in science can, for all practical purposes, be scientifically illiterate.

Yes, science literacy has something do with knowledge of basic scientific facts, but the embarrassing deficits in this area that get so much publicity in the media, are, in my view, the wrong focus of this discussion.

The real problem is more fundamental, and it has to do with a lack of understanding about the nature of science and scientific reasoning, at a general level -- a level that abstracts away from the detailed methods and problem-solving techniques that science students spend most of their time learning in school, and that connects scientific reasoning to human reasoning more broadly.

The example I gave in the previous video, about the role of hypothetical reasoning in science, is an example of that. There I tried to say something informative about scientific reasoning at a general level, and that connects this reasoning to our ordinary reasoning about ordinary things.

There are dozens of conceptual examples like this that could be taught, that could illuminate different aspects of the logic of scientific reasoning and connect it to our ordinary about the world.

However, this kind of science education is not a part of the standard science curriculum, anywhere in the sequence from K through 12, or in the post-secondary undergraduate to graduate school sequence.

It's just not. I know there are good science teachers out there who do their best in their classes to communicate the essence of scientific reasoning, and I'm sure you do I and applaud that.

But the reality is that you're compelled to spend most of your time teaching to the test, your textbooks don't have the right kind of material to teach conceptual reasoning in science in the way you want to, and the best that you can really hope for is that your students pick up some of the pro-science attitudes that you care about and you're trying to communicate in the classroom.

And as much as you're eager to do things differently, you know that you're not trained in logic, you're not trained in the philosophy of science, and you don't feel confident deviating too much from the standard curriculum to address these more foundational questions in the classroom.

Am I right? I know I'm right, because I've spoken to dozens of you over the years, and you've shared your goals and your frustrations with me, and this is what you tell me.

"I'd love to teach more conceptual and historical material, but there's no room in the curriculum for it."

"I want to teach more about the logic of scientific reasoning, but I have no training in this area and I wouldn't know how to develop lessons for my classes."

And then there's this, the most common follow-up question: "Do you have any recommendations for reading or resources that could help me put together something for my classes?"

That question underlines what I'm saying here. The fact that you have to ask for resources outside of the standard curriculum, to teach what I consider the most important elements of science literacy, says something important about science education policy.

You're basically admitting that the goal of science education, as expressed in the curriculum, is not to produce scientifically literate students.

So what is the goal, then? If the goal of public science education, from kindergarten to the PhD, is not science literacy, then what is it?

I think this is an important question, one that I wish more people in education would ask themselves.

Here's what I take the actual goal of public science education to be.

The actual goal of public science education is to identify and prepare students who, down the line, can successfully compete for jobs that require science and technology skills, and who at the more advanced levels, can either contribute to the economic goals of the science and technology industry, or within academia, can produce original research that is perceived as making a relevant contribution within a scientific field.

Actually, when you put it like this, these don't sound like bad goals. These sound like perfectly good goals.

And they are ... if what you're ultimately aiming for is to prepare students for college or the workforce, and at the higher levels, to produce graduates who can contribute to the research and innovation goals of the science and tech industry.

I don't think this is a controversial answer at all, I think it's quite explicit in science policy documents and science education initiatives.

What is more controversial is the notion that you can have an education system that is successful at achieving these goals, and still graduate students who are, for all practical purposes, scientifically illiterate.

Which is exactly the situation I'm claiming we're in right now.

Now, to get a better sense of this issue, I think we need to say a bit more about what's actually driving public science education policy, how it feeds back down into the science education curriculum.

And then I want to come back to the question of why science literacy rates are so low, and what we can do to fix the problem.

Today, the science education curriculum in most technologically advanced countries, from the earliest years to the highest science degree you can attain, is structured by a certain set of top-down constraints and incentives.

It starts with industry needs at the top of the chain, and the following question: What kind of workers do the elite science and technology companies need to be competitive in a global market?

These industries apply pressure, directly and indirectly, on colleges and universities, to produce graduates who can serve their needs.

So the answer to this question sets up an incentive structure that influences how graduate science education is structured. But undergraduate science education is organized to serve the needs of graduate and professional programs, and high school science education is organized to serve the needs of undergraduate education, and so on, all the way down to elementary school education.

The top-level incentives set the agenda for science education that cascades down the chain, influencing choices about what is taught and how it's taught, even at the elementary school level.

Now, there's nothing really surprising or new about the notion that education systems are structured to serve broader social and political agendas. They always have.

In the early days of the public education movement, the explicit goal was to create a unified citizenry with a shared sense of civic loyalty and duty.

In the 19th century in the US, a slew of small colleges sprung up specifically to help rural farmers make the transition into the urban job market, and to promote upward mobility.

What we now call the Ivy League colleges in the US became more exclusive in the 19th century partly primarily as a means of consolidating power among the richer families in the east.

And when the Soviet Union sent the first satellite into orbit in the 1950s, American high schools and colleges responded by introducing calculus into the high school curriculum and beefing it up at the college level, because they felt an incentive to produce a supply of mathematically trained engineers and scientists who could help the US compete in a space race with the Soviets.

So there's nothing scandalous about the idea that education policy is responsive to social and political agendas.

In recent years, I would say that economic agendas have largely dominated this incentive structure.

The most visible manifestation of this top-down influence in the United States is the implementation of the Common Core State Standards over the past several years.

These standards give performance benchmarks and guidelines for what students should know at every grade level, from kindergarten through grade 12.

The driver of these new standards has always been clear. Employers need graduates with certain skills, and they have long complained that not enough high school and college graduates have these skills. This demand for skilled labor created an incentive to raise and standardize the performance expectations of high school graduates. A number of companies have been pushing this for years, but the Gates Foundation was the primary financial backer.

Now, I know that a lot of people who are worried about science literacy standards are holding out hope that implementing the Common Core guidelines will help to improve the situation, since Common Core pays a lot of lip service to critical thinking and increased literacy standards.

But the fact is that the Common Core performance standards have always been conceptualized in terms of skills required for college success and workplace success, not for critical thinking per se, and certainly not for science literacy in the sense I've been talking about it here.

So I'm skeptical that we would see much improvement in the kind of science literacy that I'm talking about, even if the standards were implemented successfully.

So, just to sum up, at the end of the day we have an education system that reflects various agendas, and these agendas have the effect of narrowing the focus of instruction to a set of performance outcomes that I'm happy to grant are worthy in their own right, but by themselves are not going to yield the kind of science literacy that is useful for critical thinking about science and its role in modern life.

Now, I want to return to the question of why science literacy rates so low, and what we can do about it.

I think there are two parts to the answer for why science literacy rates are so low.

The first part is simple: science literacy rates are low, I claim, because we don't teach science literacy in the science education curriculum.

The second part is really an elaboration on this point, in response to a common objection I've heard, mostly from academic scientists who run undergraduate and graduate programs, and who are convinced that they successfully teach science literacy in their programs.

The objection is that in a science program you don't need to go out of your way to teach scientific reasoning, because in learning how to actually do science within a given field, students are automatically internalizing the core principles of scientific reasoning.

This optimistic view is shared by a lot of very smart people, but it's demonstrably false.

You just have to give a survey of some questions about basic scientific concepts and scientific reasoning to see how all over the map even advanced graduate students are.

Ask them to distinguish a theory, a hypothesis and a law, and the answers you get will be wonderfully contradictory, and provide a great setup for a long, protracted debate.

Ask them whether evidence can ever give us reason to accept the truth of a theory, and their answers will similarly be all over the place.

Ask them how to distinguish between an empirical claim, and a theoretical claim, and it's the same thing.

Ask them to define a scientific fact, same thing.

Ask them a question about the role that values should play in determining what scientific questions are given attention, same thing. Their answers are all over the place.

Why is this?

Because in their dozen or more years of taking science classes, these students have never been asked to consider and think through these questions, in any systematic or structured way.

Now, a typical defensive reaction of the professors who teach these students is to say "okay, sure, but those questions you're asking are really philosophical questions, you'll always have disagreements about those. These are good questions for late-night arguments over drinks, but they're not a good way to spend time in the classroom when there's so much practical and useful material to learn."

And that answer, my friends, makes my point.

A traditional science education has a practical and well-defined agenda. Graduate programs are trying to produce professional scientists, and that's what they know how to do.

What I'm calling science literacy, they view as philosophy of science, or science studies, or something else, but whatever it is, they don't see themselves as being in the business of teaching that.

And it's true! They're not trained to teach it, even if they wanted to. Because they've never been taught it themselves.

There are exceptions of course. There are plenty of professional scientists who are self-taught philosophy of science aficionados who are keen to discuss these questions at any opportunity, and are likely agreeing with everything I'm saying so far.

But they're the exceptions that prove the rule, and they know it.

So, what do we do? What's the solution?

Well, I'm happy to have a conversation about this, because I think that reasonable people can disagree on what to do about promoting science literacy, and even on how important it really is.

I think that science literacy is really important for a healthy civic society in the 21st century, but I don't expect everyone to agree with me right out of the gate. For many people, that argument still needs to be made.

But for those who share this view, I think we need to push for reforms in science education that make some room in the curriculum for discussions about science and scientific reasoning that actually promote a broader understanding of science.

And we need to provide some useful learning resources and support for teachers at all levels, so that teachers can feel more confident addressing these issues in the classroom.

The video series of which this is a part is one effort to develop such a resource, so that's what I'll be spending my time doing, but it's going to require a lot more collaborative work for this to have any real impact on science education.

But we have to start somewhere.

Thanks for listening. I hope this helps to stimulate some discussion.