The Need for Scientific Literacy

When a layman gazes up at the night sky they see these little points of light in this blackness. When someone who’s scientifically literate gazes up at the night sky they see these enormous suns, and galaxies, and magnetic fields, the fusion, the interaction of molecules, the collisions of black holes, the destruction of solar systems and immense distances…and great mysteries.

That was an adaptation of something Joan Feynman said in an episode of Horizon in 1993 and it really hits the nail on the head (although it isn’t the entire story here). If you’re scientifically literate you understand a lot more about the world.

But what do we mean by being scientifically literate? (Or more what is it I think it should mean) Is it the ability the recite facts: the Earth is round, Mercury is the innermost planet, leaves have chlorophyll in them, radio waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. In a way, yes, it is partly this. These are facts everyone should know (there are ofcourse many more people should know) but what I think is really important is for people the understand the scientific method and to be sceptical. That’s how science works and to ask the right questions.

Broadly speaking the scientific method works be guessing something (a new law for example), then you see what that new law would imply, and then you compare it to experimentation to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it’s wrong.

The next step is asking the right question. For example, you’re ill and someone suggests crystal healing (putting some crystals under your pillow) do you say ‘cool, i’ll try that’ or do you ask ‘hmm, how does that work?’

In my opinion if these two simple principals can be entwined into the education system, the world will be a slightly better place.

Here’s Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson discussing scientific literacy a bit further.

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