A Day at the Races Highlights Our Unscientific Ideas About “Science Literacy”

What's to come?
June 20 2012 7:15 AM

The Gambler and the Scientist

A day at the races teaches us about our unscientific notions of “science literacy.”

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The late Herb Simon, an inestimably wise Nobel-winning decision scientist, noted decades ago that the skills necessary for a two-wage-earner family to manage the logistical complexities of child-rearing and home management pose challenges that would tax any organizational theorist. One could say the same for a single mother navigating the bureaucracies to make sure she gets food stamps and doesn't get her electricity turned off as she tries to hold down a low-paying job.

I raise these points to challenge the idea of "science literacy." We have this belief that unless a person knows that the Earth rotates around the sun and that birds evolved from dinosaurs, she or he won’t be able to exercise responsible citizenship or participate effectively in modern society. Scientists are fond of claiming that literacy in their particular area of expertise (such as climate change or genomics) is necessary so “the public can make informed judgments on public policy issues.”

Yet the idea that we can say anything useful at all about a person's competence in the world based on their rudimentary familiarity with any particular information or type of knowledge is ridiculous. Not only is such information totally disembodied from experience and thus no more than an abstraction (and an arbitrary one at that), but it also fails to live up to what science ultimately promises: to enhance one's ability to understand and act effectively in a world of one’s knowing. This lack of contextualized meaning contrasts with knowledge that really does underlie and inform action—knowledge of the racing charts, or of the potentially dangerous interactions of the particular drugs that doctors from two different specialties are prescribing, or of the dilemmas of addiction.

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A more sophisticated version of science literacy that focuses not on arbitrary facts but on method or process doesn't help much, either. The canonical methods of science as taught in the classroom are powerful because they remove the phenomenon being studied from the context of the real world and isolate it in the controlled setting of the laboratory experiment. This idealized process has little if any applicability to solving the problems that people face on a daily basis, where uncertainty and indeterminacy are the rule, and effective action is based on experience and learning and accrued judgment. Textbook versions of scientific methods cannot, for example, equip a nonexpert to make an informed judgment about the validity or plausibility of technical claims made by experts.

Why, then, do conventional notions of "science literacy" persist as a defining type of citizen virtue? The racetrack teaches us that the issue is not one of knowledge or competence or critical engagement with one’s world, but of acculturation and conformity. To be scientifically literate is to be conversant with an arbitrary set of cultural shibboleths (about great men like Newton and great equations like F=MA) that are necessary for legitimacy and inclusion in an increasingly stratified and competitive society; it is to be willing to accept the authority of science even though one lacks the specialized knowledge required to test this authority. It is not about “thinking scientifically,” which is probably better learned at the racetrack than in most classrooms.

Also in Slate’s special issue on science education: David Drew on the five myths that keep us from fixing science and math education; Fred Kaplan explains why another “Sputnik moment” would be impossible; Philip Plait explains why he became the “Bad Astronomer”; Paul Plotz describes how almost blowing up his parents’ basement made him a scientist; Tom Kalil says that the Obama administration is using the Make movement to encourage science education; and Dana Goldstein explains why you should make your daughter play video games. Also, share your ideas for fixing science education in the Hive. This article arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.

Daniel Sarewitz co-directs the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes and is professor of science and society at Arizona State University.