We live in interesting times when “experts” provide us with information about virtually every aspect of our lives—the foods we eat, how we should sleep, what we can do about climate change, and what public health guidelines we should follow. Many people use the term “…it’s a fact,” or “it’s based on science” when they are trying to prove a point. While most individuals do not consider where the information they receive comes from, in these days of “fake” claims, being able to understand where “facts” are obtained and understanding why science matters is vital to our health and the health of the world around us.
Science has provided us with many modern-day miracles—the steam engine, antibiotics, electricity, and medical technologies that improve lives. The scientific method is based on the process “discovered” Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). According to Nienaber (2019), there is no such thing as a “scientific fact” since all scientific work is designed by humans, and despite the process of conducting rigorous, peer-reviewed work, the results can never be absolute. Because it is designed by humans and carried out by humans, it is limited to human interpretation and error. But science matters!
Suppose the polio vaccine discovered by Jonas Salk, MD was ignored by the medical community. Since most of the patients being treated by physicians in that time did not contract polio, the standard of care for the day (the iron lung) could have continued to be used without question. But the scientific method of exploration and research provides many ways to focus on health, getting well, or preventing the spread of disease in the first place (Vaughn & Linan-Thompson, 2004).
Being basically literate (understanding how to read and write and do basic arithmetic) is vital in modern society. But, according to Lazarus (2020), there are other types of literacy. All are important in today’s modern world.
- Mechanical literacy—Being able to use a few simple tools and do basic repairs
- Financial literacy—Knowing how to save, spend, invest, and balance a checkbook
- Scientific literacy—Understanding the basics of science, research, and statistics
- Social and cultural literacy—Understanding how to relate well to others or “being woke”
- Psychological literacy—Knowing how to manage stress and regulate our moods
We are in a unique time in history where we are experiencing rapid and dramatic technological changes, climate change, social change, and political changes. Improving our literacy on many levels is increasingly seen as vital for surviving and thriving. Sadly, though, very few people (including the highest-ranking elected officials and corporate and industrial leaders) understand the simple aspects of science and so are considered scientifically illiterate (Lazarus, 2020). We can be deluged with a great deal of opinion and advocacy by politicians, community members, and educators. Much of it is poorly conceived and written and biased. It is often not based on the findings of rigorous inquiry (Vaughn & Linan-Thompson, 2004). This can dramatically impact the lives of millions of individuals and the quality of life on the planet.
Ironically, “science deniers” (especially in the United States) owe their quality of life to the science they reject. Making healthy, educated decisions for ourselves and for our communities requires at least some ability to discern what information is valuable and reliable and what is not.
Scientific Literacy—What Can Be Done To Improve It?
Scientific literacy can be improved by asking a few questions and following some basic guidelines. The answers help us determine the validity of the research and decide if the information is useful for our professional and/or personal life. Here are some useful questions (Nienaber, 2019; Raff, 2014).
- Read the introduction—not the abstract. This prevents becoming biased by the author’s interpretation of the results.
- Who wrote the article and what are their credentials? Do the credentials relate to the field of study?
- Why did the researcher conduct the study? What is the “big question” that is the focus of the research? Try to summarize this information in five sentences or less.
- What are the assumptions made by the research team and/or author?
- Whose additional research or opinions are referenced in the study? What are their credentials?
- What type of research methodology was utilized? Examples include qualitative, quantitative, or a mixture of methods. Some people find it helpful to draw a diagram for the experiment, showing exactly what the authors did.
- What was the sample size of the study? Was the study a small sample in a short-term pilot study or a large study spanning many years? What was the composition of the sample?
- Read the results section and write a quick summary of the results.
- What conclusions were drawn by the researcher? Why do they matter?
- What sources of error did the researcher(s) and/or author present?
- What information or data was not included in the publication?
- Who paid for the research and why? How could this impact the findings of the study?
- Where was the research conducted? Did it take place in a reputable facility?
- What scientific models or points of view are supported by the author?
If we take time to learn basic truths about science, all of us can benefit.
Lazarus, C. (2020). Why science matters, especially now. Retrieved October 26, 2020 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/think-well/202003/why-science-matters-especially-now
Nienaber, J. (2019). Evaluating research: A simple checklist. Beginnings, 39(5): 8-9.
Raff, J. (2016). How to read and understand a scientific paper: A guide for non-scientists. Retrieved October 25, 2020 from https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2016/05/09/how-to-read-and-understand-a-scientific-paper-a-guide-for-non-scientists/
Vaughn, S., & Linan-Thompson, S. (2004). Research-based methods of reading instruction, Grades K-3. Retrieved October 26, 2020 from http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/104134/chapters/Why-Science-Matters.aspx