Scientific Literacy and Its Importance

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Joy of Science

By Robert Hazen, Ph.D., George Mason University

Scientific literacy encompasses the facts, concepts, and methodology needed to understand everyday issues. However, scientific literacy should not be misconstrued as the mere understanding of concepts alone – it is also about interpreting theories with a scientific temper.

Items from a science class: gloves, glassware with chemicals, and several textbooks.
A scientifically literate teacher provides a strong foundation for children to learn science. (Image: SashaMagic/Shutterstock)

Scientific literacy is based on the understanding that science is an ongoing human endeavor. It is a powerful instrument to understand the natural world and provides tools to augment scientific knowledge. It is the means by which a person can inquire, involve, discover, and draw meaningful inferences. A scientifically literate citizen is capable of evaluating different points of view based on appropriate evidence. 

Learn more about the scientific method.

Scientific Literacy in Everyday Life

Every day, there are newspaper stories related to pharmaceuticals, energy needs, and the environment.

Some typical stories in the newspaper of a day would include articles on a natural disaster in some part of the country, a space shuttle launch, an environmental crisis, or a bomber causing damage to public property and life. It might also include news related to scientific researches, in-house research studies, the FDA regulating certain procedures or trials, and information on the weather.

Articles such as ‘Nuclear Weapons in Russia’ or ‘Tougher Battles Bloom for Bush’ that may seem political at first glance are actually related to science and the environment. So, in order to comprehend these news articles, there is a need for citizens to be scientifically literate. This would help them participate in the civic issues of society and make informed decisions to improve their quality of life.

Learn more about the ordered universe.

The Significance of Scientific Literacy

Scientific literacy is important because it helps in making informed decisions, assists in a better understanding of the risk-reward ratio, as well as helping with promoting and achieving scientific literacy.

Scientific icons being painted on a wall by a student.
Scientific literacy helps in making informed decisions in many areas of life. (Image: ImageFlow/Shutterstock)

Scientific literacy plays a crucial role in making choices related to health, nutrition, and the environment. For instance, we are constantly challenged with environmental issues related to our planet.

This concern for our surroundings influences personal preferences, such as the choice of detergents and automobiles. It is in this context that concepts of science to conserve, recycle, reuse, and reduce become meaningful. Scientific literacy thus empowers individuals with critical thinking to inquire, involve, discover, and conclude the best possible solutions. 

Scientific Literacy in the Workplace

Today, most professions require the application of science and technology either directly or indirectly. While engineering and medicine are professions where the use of science and technology is obvious, even lawyers need to understand some of the complex forensic methods such as genetic fingerprinting, spectroscopic analysis, and drug testing.

Banking and investing involve an understanding of the operations of high-tech companies in order to reap benefits from investments. Legislators and voters also need to be aware of the various environmental and science-related issues.

Scientific Knowledge for the Next Generation

A scientifically literate parent or teacher provides a strong foundation for children to learn science. With their science-oriented perspective, they help reinforce scientific understanding and inculcate curiosity in children. A scientifically literate parent will also instill the habit of questioning in the next generation.

The best concepts of science can be explained in simple terms and do not require complex vocabulary. Scientific literacy allows an individual to share the ongoing exploration, discovery, and inventions.

The ultimate objective of scientific literacy should be to instill critical thinking in humans by sharing the joy of science.

This is a transcript from the video series The Joy of Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Misconceptions about Scientific Literacy

Understanding science does not require complex vocabulary or mathematical concepts or know-how of gadget operations. Yet, scientific literacy is often confused with technological literacy, which is the distinct ability to use modern gadgets.

Another misconception that originates from scientists themselves is about the scientific literacy movement. Some scientists advocate that more students should pursue science courses and cite that less than one percent of the students continue to pursue advanced science courses.

However, the scientific literacy movement is not an attempt to persuade more students to pursue science academically or nurture young scientists. The objective of the movement is simply to appreciate science and find joy in science.

Learn more about an introduction to chemistry.

National Science Education Standards

Application of science and scientific literacy - A soldier checking soil sample after a radiation leak
Being scientifically literate will help us participate in the civic issues of the society. (Image: Couperfield/Shutterstock)

The National Science Education Standards provide a strong foundation for a science curriculum. It is a document that represents a consensus from a large number of scientists and educators for the need to create scientific literacy among its citizens.

The document mentions that a few simple principles from all branches of science such as physics, chemistry, Earth science, astronomy, and biology are sufficient to achieve scientific literacy rather than complex vocabulary and extensive factual information. There is also an emphasis on the use of a process of inquiry about the natural world called the scientific method.

Common Questions about Scientific Literacy and Its Importance

Q: Is scientific literacy the same as technological literacy?

Scientific literacy is different from technological literacy. Scientific literacy does not require the know-how of gadget operations.

Q: What is the methodology followed by scientists to establish facts?

Every scientist follows the same methodology called the scientific method irrespective of their discipline. This method uses a process of inquiry about the natural world.

Q: Who is a scientifically literate individual?

A scientifically literate individual asks, understands, finds, and interprets facts about the physical world around him.

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