Senior Staff Writer
According to the PEW Research Center, in March 2019, an average of only 39% of U.S. adults could be classified as having high scientific knowledge. The pandemic and its coverage have revealed a lack of scientific literacy within the U.S., especially in the growing distrust of scientific organizations such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The U.S. National Center for Education Statistics defines science literacy as “the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.”
The importance of scientific literacy for the public is highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate change crisis. These issues require the public and politicians representing the American public to be able to work towards resolving these issues.
One of the major reasons for distrust in scientific research and resources is the discrepancies between various studies reporting on similar topics. Meredith Salisbury at Techonomy described this phenomenon in her article, “How America’s Low Science Literacy Fueled the COVID Crisis,” in July 2020: “One day a study comes out that says coffee is bad for us, and the next day another study comes out apparently saying the opposite,” Salisbury said. “A lot of people tell me that since they can’t both be right, it’s obvious that you can’t trust research.”
The concept is that a study is a single study. In the modern day, thousands of labs, students, researchers, and professors are studying the same subjects. While publishers try to ensure quality with peer review, not every study is of the same caliber or definitively proves their argument once and for all. Many studies and an average of conclusions are required to “prove” any specific ideas about how something works in science.
That means that sometimes, there will be studies that contradict each other. However, as Salisbury pointed out in her article, there is information that can be found in every study that reveals a little bit of information about the topic.
Another major factor in the lack of scientific literacy in the U.S. is how scientific literacy is usually taught or measured as the rote memorization of facts rather than a process of trial and error and collaboration. Ethan Siegel of Forbes discussed this in his September 2021 article, “How America’s Big Science Literacy Mistake is Coming Back to Haunt Us”:“We aren’t figuring things out by putting the question to the laws of nature and listening to what nature tells us. We’re trying to remember the correct answer to questions that almost all of us have never, in fact, investigated ourselves.”
Salisbury also remarked on this as a major factor in the lack of true scientific literacy in American adults.
One of the main recommendations of experts such as Salisbury and Siegel is to intervene earlier in schools and teach the proper scientific method, allowing experiments and thought processes to develop over memorizing information.
“To teach students to solve problems with reason, we need to give students hands-on experience creating hypotheses and applying the scientific method within the classroom,” said scientist KC Ellen Cushman in her op/ed for the Utah Chronicle published in October 2021.
For adults, Salisbury recommended making more TV programs with scientific information built-in, citing the CSI effect for how it has educated the American populace on forensic science.
In order to resolve growing distrust between the scientific community and the American people, there has to be a change in how scientific literacy is taught not only to schoolchildren but to current adults.