Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Importance of Scientific Literacy

The 21st century is fast-paced and highly competitive. Each day, we make important decisions that will greatly impact our lives today and well into the future. Moreover, we are provided greater amounts of increasingly complex information that ever before. However, our society’s collective sense of science literacy is outdated; many people still think of science literacy as simply being informed about new advances, for example in medicine and technology. This definition of scientific literacy will not longer suffice in this new Information Age. As the media shares new information about scientific, medical, or ecological breakthroughs, we are expected to respond to this new information. What will we do with this information? How will our lives be affected by the decisions we make?

In this new century science literacy is the occupational capacity to apply information in an appropriate contest, to analyze information, to synthesize information from various sources or on various topics, and evaluate information to determine the best course of action. Essentially, being scientifically literate in the 21st century means understanding the nature of science as a process that helps us discriminate between what is real or likely and what is not. It is the comprehension of the nature of our minds, our bodies, and our environment. It is using that knowledge to make the best decisions possible for ourselves, our families, and our community – now and for future generations.

This type of literacy is valuable because it cultivates the intellectual development of the individual. Science the close observation and examination of the natural world, analyzing information and sources of information, interpreting events, and making decisions based on these observations or conclusions made by others. Quality science education equips students (of any age) with the tools to direct one’s own learning. The individual can make his or her own discoveries, create new knowledge, and apply information and resolve discrepancies on his or her own. By studying and doing science, an individual is transformed from a passive recipient of information to an active and discerning consumer of information. In other words, scientific literacy is valuable because it prepares and empowers us to become more actively engaged in the decisions we make in out lives.

However, I am surprised by the decisions some people make because they posses a depth of misunderstanding about scientifically related topics. For example, I have met many people, some with college educations, who have decided not to participate in research activities because they were certain the doctors or psychologists would deliberately harm them. I’ve known people who have refused to donate blood or become an organ donor because they honesty believed doing so would put them at risk. Moreover, I have heard people share explanations for natural phenomena, such as disease transmission and reproductive health, which were grossly inaccurate. And more recently, I have read people’s angry comments about waste treatment or genetically modified plants, that were completely void of any comprehension of the these technologies. Some of these misconceptions and misunderstandings are so strongly-held that most people do not abandon their own explanations even when they have the opportunity to discuss the matter with scientists, doctors, or other experts. These inaccurate explanations have been accepted as truths for so long and so deeply that a single brief conversation (or blog comment) is not enough for people to update their memory banks or even have them open up their minds to the possibility of alternative explanations.

It is imperative that people have an accurate understanding f our bodies, our health, and our environment. Helping people engage in more meaningful discourse (in general and) about science-related topics is the first step to creating a more scientifically literate society. I think it is especially important to educate the most vulnerable citizens in our society, e.g. the poor, the undereducated, the marginalized and disenfranchised. A society’s most vulnerable citizenry are those who do not know how to critically evaluate the options or the validity of a source and are ignorant to the resources available to them. Individuals who are well-informed and discerning are less likely to be victims of social injustice or environmental racism. Being better educated makes us better advocates. When we become advocate or activist-citizens we hold our elected officials and service providers and each other accountable.

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