Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Importance of Scientific Literacy

The next presidential election is a little less than a year away, but we're already hearing from many presidential hopefuls, including a few we wish would go away. One who springs to mind is Ben Carson.

I've been accused of disliking Ben Carson because of his desire to do away with the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Check out a response from some of the major Veteran Service Organization here.)

But my bigger issue is that he has demonstrated a poor understanding of science multiple times. Such as when he said vaccines are important (and thankfully shooting down the autism and vaccines claim) but should be administered in smaller doses, and the ones that don't prevent death or disability should be discontinued (as Forbes asks, which ones are those? Because preventing death or disability is kind of what they're meant to do).

Or when he said the theory of evolution was "encouraged" by Satan.

Or that the pyramids are grain silos.

These are all issues that countless scientists, with years of formal education, have spent their careers studying. I'm certainly not saying we should trust them simply because they have years of formal education. That would be a little like believing anything Ben Carson says because he has an MD.

But, even though I'm not a virologist, or biologist, or archaeologist, I can examine what these experts have to say and come to my own conclusions about whether I think they're accurate based on the methods used in the research.

That's because of an important concept called scientific literacy:
Scientific literacy is the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity. It also includes specific types of abilities...   
Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately. (from the National Science Education Standards)
As the quote above says, you're constantly bombarded with claims in the popular media. Such as the recent story about how eating bacon increases your risk of colon cancer by 18%. But an examination of this research shows two things: 1) they found this increased risk among people who eat about 2 strips of bacon every day, and 2) the absolute risk of colon cancer without eating bacon at that level is about 5%, and with that level of consumption is about 6% (more here). In fact, this story had a great outcome. People heard the claim, were skeptical, and looked into it.

Or how about this figure shown during a Congressional hearing about funding for Planned Parenthood, which highlights a related concept of numerical literacy (or numeracy)?

A figure that, based on the numbers associated with the two trend lines, should look more like this:

More here
Or even a recent analysis of Southwestern Airlines's claim of having the lowest fares - read more at my friend David's blog here.

The big thing we can do is encourage a healthy level of skepticism. Obviously, continuing to provide strong science and math education is incredibly important when preparing children to become voting citizens. But simply getting people to think twice about any "scientific" claim they hear would be a step in the right direction.

~Scientifically yours,

No comments:

Post a Comment