We need a scientifically literate citizenry

Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.

Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

Brian Cox said something similar (even directly referring to Sagan) during his acceptance speech on receiving the Institute of Physics President’s Medal last night.

The key message is: if you’re scientifically literate the world looks very different to you.

5 Comments

    1. “if you’re scientifically literate the world looks very different to you.”

      A pet subject of mine so forgive the (very) wordy post.

      An awareness of scientific process and an ability to approach subjects and problems in a scientific manner are important life skills that can be applied outside of educational and professional environments. Scientific literacy is something that should be encouraged in all students, regardless of their chosen academic subject. A broad scientific literacy enables people to respond to to the world around them, which is especially important given current global economic, technological and environmental changes. From a political point of view, of course, it also encourages support of science from the wider population.

      Although far from my field of interest, a general scientific literacy helped me when my second child was diagnosed with a life-threatening condition a couple of years ago. I spent five months with my head in medical texts and journals. When she became critically ill, I was able to make split-second medical decisions regarding her treatment, which were based on current research. Even though she died, I feel confident that our approach was an informed one and therefore I have few regrets.

      Just as important as an ability to approach problems in a particular way, is a broad appreciation of what science teaches us. Through simple exercises such as counting the number of sides on a crystal, I try to show my eldest daughter that there is order in the environment around her – something very important to her. From a personal point of view, when I look at the sea, I see comets and our inheritance from a period of intense bombardment (modification aside!!!). At this time of year, I’m frankly thrilled to see how the ‘quality’ of the sunlight that bathes our environment is changing, as it is scattered in an atmosphere that has been subject to eons of evolution. It still moves me to see the leaves drop from the trees because of our alignment with our parent star. Looking at the world scientifically is a bit like looking at it in HD.

      The ongoing challenge is, of course, how we make science accessible to all. Part of that problem is persuading people that it is relevant to them. The truth of the matter is that science is not the preserve of the intelligent or the academically accomplished. My middle child was middle-named Callisto as she was born 400 years after Galileo’s discovery of Jupiter’s moons. Galileo, of course, famously wrote his work in Italian, rather than Latin, as he felt his work should be accessible by the masses. Science is a gift and one that should be shared freely, regardless of educational, cultural, religious or socioeconomic background.

  1. I think the problem lies in media portrayal of science and lack of engaging science communication outlets for the public. The media portrays science as a mythical machine that spews out wonderful answers – they focus on the what and never even touch the why. The key is to present science in a way such as to provoke the audience into exploring the why,

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