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Science literacy: It isn’t what you think it is and why you need it most right now

Introduction

While we all have different cultural, social, political, and emotional factors that influence how we feel toward science, it’s important to consider that we all benefit from learning and understanding more about the world around us.  This includes people, places, and things.  Science is intricately related to every aspect of life, and in general, most of us don’t stop to consider this.  It’s one of my passions to urge each and every one of you to reframe how you approach common problems and decisions.  We do this by using scientific thinking.

Using scientific thinking doesn’t require a degree or more knowledge.  It requires challenging yourself with alternative evidence and talking to people who don’t always tend to agree with you, especially right now when we are so divided over ideas and beliefs. 

I hope you enjoy the read.  If you make it to the end of the blog, head over to my Instagram page and let me know what you thought.  Did I help you or your thinking at all?  I’d greatly appreciate it if you let me know.  

Alright guys, let’s talk science.  

What kind of emotions do you have inside of you when you hear or read that word… science.  For me, it’s a complex mixture of passion, excitement, but also fear and anger.  I’m passionate about being a scientist, and if you know me, you know I love to hype people up about it, too.  But why fear and anger? 

Unfortunately, the very notion of science has become politically charged, and it has divided people along party lines and/or religious identities (at least here in the U.S.).  While I won’t go into the history behind why this is the case, I’d just like for you to stop and reflect for a moment why you might have the emotions you do toward the topic of science. Additional readings on this can be found in the references section at the end of this article.  

Most of us have taken basic science courses as a part of our curriculum, and some of us have taken college-level courses about various scientific subjects – biology, chemistry, physics, etc.  What kind of impression did those subjects leave in your brain?  

From what I have learned in my reading of literature, taking courses, talking to others, and my own experience, the notion of science is not difficult to trust.  The difficult part is trusting the scientists.  Big-named scientists are known to harshly criticize the general public for not being scientifically literate or logical.  How are we supposed to be on their side when they respond to us so harshly?  

Quite frankly, I can’t blame others when they don’t trust scientists.  More education does not make one better or more ethical than another.  I don’t understand the “elitist” attitudes.  I have personally experienced this countless times, almost on a daily basis, in my own field.  I’m not putting blame on anyone, but I am calling on scientists as individuals to do better and be more inclusive.  We need to stop letting our egos get in the way.  We need to find common ground rather than a topic to disagree with someone on.  We all have value to provide one another.  We need to start looking to others for what they can teach us, versus what we can teach them. 

As for me personally, I have a unique perspective because I grew up in a religious, Conservative household.  Well, to this day, I still have faith in a Savior and Creator, and I criticize my own religion as much as I criticize any other data that I come across.   In fact, my journey toward earning my PhD has made my faith stronger and vice versa.  I believe that having both “biases,” which at times can work very strongly against one another, has made my foundation in both very strong.  This is why I constantly encourage others to seek an alternative hypothesis.  The goal is not to change your mind.  The goal is to get closer to the truth.  

Everyone lives a different version of reality, and science, as a philosophical method, allows us to find common ground on what is objectively true versus what we still don’t know.  


So, why should YOU care about science? 

Like I previously mentioned, it’s imperative to mentally reframe how you think about science.  Rather than looking at it as “being interested in science,” let’s call it being scientifically literate. Science literacy is the ability to think reasonably about what issues are currently plaguing the scientific community (hello, health and nutrition ring a bell?) and the ability to think of reasonable outcomes.

Science literacy is of utmost importance in 2020, because we all have biases that are holding us back from viewing things from an alternative perspective. 

I would much rather have a conversation with someone who was scientifically literate than with someone who was “very smart” in science.  Someone who is scientifically literate has the ability to debate, not argue.  Someone who is simply knowledgeable might argue as much as possible to protect their ego. 

Many people, who claim they understand science, could not explain how the scientific method works to their friend. I held a poll on my Instagram page asking if my followers could explain the scientific method to a friend, and 47% of those who answered said “it’s iffy!”  I also asked whether or not they had a “strong grasp on what science can and cannot do,” and 76% of those who answered said yes… there seems to be a discrepancy here.  

How can you have a strong grasp on what science can do if you can’t explain how the scientific method works? 

A great way of testing and retaining your knowledge is teaching someone else.  Teaching others about how the scientific process works helps us, and it is desperately needed at a time like this! You cannot be scientifically literate if you do not know how the scientific method works.   


The Scientific Method Explained

Most scientific inquiries start with a question… 

“I wonder what stars are made out of?” 

“What would happen if we could look at what we’re made of under a microscope?”

“Why don’t oil and water mix?”

“How do diseases spread?” 

Now, it is important to address that the next step involves prior knowledge about a subject… meaning, I need to know a little bit about stars, DNA, chemistry, epidemiology, etc. to make an “educated guess” about what might happen if we try to answer these questions. 

This is where a hypothesis is formulated, or created.  We can use what we currently know about the world around us to make a guess about what we think is really going on.  The two most important aspects of a hypothesis are that 1) it has to be falsifiable and 2) it has to be testable.  

Falsifiable means that it has the ability to be contradicted by evidence.  Testable simply means that you have the ability and means to go about measuring something.

The next step in the scientific method is to design the experiment and collect the data from the experiments you designed.  This is where a lot of error can take place, and this is where the most time is spent on research and development.  The goal of any research scientist is usually to reduce error as much as possible so that they know with a very high certainty that their data is accurate.  

The final step is to make conclusions based on the data that you obtain.  Given that your experimentation had the least amount of error, you can make reliable conclusions based on the data.  Important questions to ask would be:  Did I successfully answer the question that I asked at the beginning (your hypothesis)?  Do these data support or not support the hypothesis? 

If your data do not support your original hypothesis, you now have evidence (data, more knowledge, whatever you want to call it) to go back and come up with another hypothesis and repeat the process all over again.  

Hindsight is 20/20, right? LOL… being a researcher in a chemistry lab, I know just how annoyingly beautiful this process can be.  The really scary part is writing up everything you did and sending it off to the peer review process.  How well does your science stand up to other scientists scrutinizing your work?  How much bias do you really have?  This process helps hold us accountable.


The scientific process not only helps us understand the natural world around us, but it also helps us in other ways that you probably haven’t thought of.

As you should know by now, being scientifically literate is not knowing a bunch of random science facts.  It’s critically approaching any aspect of your life with open-minded thinking and creativity. It’s thinking outside of the box. 

Do you need to design an extensive research project based on every question you have? NO… but if you approach important aspects of life with a critical, open mind, knowing that you have the ability to look at peer-reviewed research on certain topics, you can actually start to overcome your personal biases and see the world a bit more objectively.  This can be both a good and bad thing…

Still not convinced? 

Well, we’ve used science to study how scientific thinking can improve our lives. The points below summarize what was found.  

Improved health & lifestyle

To understand how diet, medical treatments, and different products work and affect your body, you must be able to critically evaluate the choices available to you, even without any prior facts about these products. You’re always getting sold to. By thinking scientifically, you can call BS from a mile away.

Being a more informed citizen

To be adequately prepared to make decisions about the environment, the economy, politics, etc, it is important to approach these kinds of decisions with thinking that is open to questioning and deliberation. Without this, there would never be any improvement.

Being more cultured

Science and technology has improved the way that we view the world, has it not? It’s led to a true appreciation of the beauty of the entire universe. Different cultures come to understand the world around us in similar ways, causing intercultural communication and growth. After all, working together and even competing with others helps push us forward.

How can we put these benefits to the test?  Well, we have to practice every day.  This way, we will keep improving and continue to have an open mind.

My best advice is to keep asking questions, keep digging, and keep a child’s attitude.  No one said that you need to become a scientist, I’m just encouraging you to think like one.  Just like getting healthy, changing your thinking doesn’t happen overnight.  You have to give it time.   


As I mentioned before, science is at its roots, a philosophy.  It’s designed to get us closer to the truth.  While it indeed has its limitations (not knowing something to 100% certainty, error in methods, inability to see future consequences, etc), it is the best method that we have to uncover how the world works. 

To reject a conclusion made by the scientific method, so long as it is done correctly, will have negative consequences (as we have seen with climate change and the coronavirus pandemic).  Unfortunately, many people approach science with fear and anxiety, or many people portray science with threats.  This is simply an effect of having little to no science literacy. The more you understand about a topic or have the ability to critically evaluate it, the less you will fear it.

I’d like to shift gears a bit and explain how I think we can let science bring us together rather than separate us.  


We can’t use science to solve every single problem the world faces today, but we can absolutely try. 

It’s a powerful tool that we can exploit to make forward progress.  We have many examples of this, but I would like to particularly make light of one that we all know of – the Black Lives Matter movement.  I’m impressed and inspired by how many people have chosen to speak up using clear figures, facts, and DATA.  Rather than pointing fingers, most asked questions and started conversations.  While it was extremely difficult for us to admit our personal biases, after doing so, it allowed us to come together and make forward progress.     

I feel like I’ve said this 50 times already, but I’ll say it again.  We all have biases and personal identities that might hold us back from understanding something from an alternative perspective.  I try so hard to get everyone I know and talk with to see this!  I urge you to have a scientific brain – this means looking for any evidence that might prove you wrong, even if it’s difficult – lend a skeptical eye.  The goal is to be more open-minded and understanding of others and what they might have to offer.  I believe this is the way forward to decrease polarization and division. 

What do you think?

References & Further Reading

  1. Scientific communication in a post-truth society. PNAS April 16, 2019 116 (16) 7656-7661; first published November 26, 2018 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1805868115 

2. Opinion: Why science needs philosophy. PNAS March 5, 2019 116 (10) 3948-3952; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1900357116  

3. Love the Science, Hate the Scientists: Conservative Identity Protects Belief in Science and Undermines Trust in Scientists. Social Forces December 23, 2019, soz156; https://doi.org/10.1093/sf/soz156 

4. Motivated Information Processing in Group Judgment and Decision Making. Personality and Social Psychology Review February 2008, 12, 1, 22-49; https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868307304092 

5. Student Identity and Aversions to Science:  A Study of Translation in Higher Education. Journal of Language and Social Psychology August, 8, 2016, 36, 1, 112-126;  https://doi.org/10.1177/0261927X16663259

6. Dissemination 2.0: Closing the Gap Between Knowledge and Practice with New Media and Marketing. Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives August 15, 2011, 32-44; https://doi.org/10.1080/10810730.2011.593608 

7. Liberal education in a knowledge society. C, Bereiter (2002)

8. What every american needs to know by E. D. Hirsch (1987)

2 comments

  1. So well written and so many important little messages in there, that people have to understand. I’ll gladly share this. I really appreciate this kind of content.

    Like

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