Home » Culture, Education, Science » What does it mean to be scientifically literate in the 21st century?

What does it mean to be scientifically literate in the 21st century?

How do we measure the scientific literacy of a society? How do we boost it? What is the value of this literacy? Who is responsible for fostering it?

These were questions posed by Seed Magazine to its readers in its second annual Science Writing Contest. Among the judges were Adam Bly, editor-in-chief and founder of Seed, Chris Mooney, Seed’s Washington correspondent, PZ Myers, Seed columnist and author of Pharyngula, as well as the editors of Seed.

The question of free inquiry within the realms of science, even that which may challenge ‘well established theories’, such as neoDarwinian evolution, has become a hot bed issue. But should it be? I and others say not, since many of the so called ‘minor’ points waiting to be resolved with NDE are actually major foundational principles of its purported evolutionary process, and are therefore subject to modification.

In Thomas Martin’s winning essay, he tends to equate ‘scientific literacy’ with free inquiry, and going a step further, paints a disturbing picture of apparent “evidence blindness”, albeit one that has been advanced by others, both in and out of the science community.

To quote, “As noted recently in Seed, leading disciplinary practitioners who feel threatened by unorthodox new findings will sometimes band together to suppress such information, with the explicit intention of blocking its appearance in the journals.”

Another disturbing observation by Thomas, and one that may well be fostered by departmental and funding policies that help to promote it. He states,” Over the past few decades, growing evidence from cognitive science has revealed significant limits on the ability of individuals to criticize their own viewpoints.” And, I might add, the conclusions of other research. In other words, blame the system. Play by the rules to guarantee continued funding. If you deviate, you’re dead.

He talks of “evidence based debates”, and implies that rather than be harmed, science benefits from that posture. Sound familiar? It’s good to hear it coming form the academic side. I can’t help being deeply impressed by this discourse from a teaching professional in an honors program at a leading college, Arizona State University, and am encouraged that a new era of more objective thinking may ensue. For the complete essay, go here:

Second place winner Steven Saus, a nuclear medicine technologist at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, OH makes equally good points along the same lines. He states: “There is a lot of work needed to fully shift our society to this postmodernist style of scientific literacy. Our sacred cows herd us away from competing theories.” Go here:

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7 Responses to What does it mean to be scientifically literate in the 21st century?

  1. I believe, in his essay, Thomas Martin is speaking of “evidence blindness” as it relates to those who believe in creationism and refuse to accept the actual and overwhelming scientific evidence of the origins of our planet and the evolution of its’ lifeforms. I did not get a sense that Martin is either a supporter or even sympathetic towards ID.

  2. You’re absolutely correct: When a model of intelligent design no longer matches the evidence, one must be able to toss it aside. That is, I’d say that our sacred cow (literally) of needing a creator, of needing some *reason* to be, leads us away from the uncomfortable theory that our evolution – our very consciousness – is a glitch.

    I’m actually sympathetic to a “Hey, who are we to say that God can’t use particle physics and evolution?” point of view, but I definitely did not to claim anything of the sort in my essay. I’d suspect that Dr. Martin feels similarly, if not more strongly, from what he wrote in his essay:

    “A noticeable portion of those students also believe in the literal truth of certain ancient accounts of earth’s history that, to put it bluntly, directly contradict mountains of well-established data from geology, climatology, and biology.”

    You have to consider *all* the data, not just the bits that fit your theory.

    That was kind of the point.

  3. “I believe, in his essay, Thomas Martin is speaking of “evidence blindness” as it relates to those who believe in creationism … “

    Referring to Martin’s incoming students, he relates:

    “A noticeable portion of those students also believe in the literal truth of certain ancient accounts of earth’s history that, to put it bluntly, directly contradict mountains of well-established data from geology, climatology, and biology. Without rehashing the ongoing culture wars surrounding this topic (and certainly without berating my own students), this serves as a useful place to begin tackling the notion of “scientific literacy.”

    That quite obviously alludes to a literal belief in the Genesis account et al, but not necessarily a theistic belief, which is held by many in the scientific community. He is quite right that to study science objectively they must park those beliefs at the door. After all, science is about testable, empirically based and observable phenomena. Procyan went on to say:

    ” … and refuse to accept the actual and overwhelming scientific evidence of the origins of our planet and the evolution of its’ life forms.”

    I personally agree with evolution, but not in the strict NDE sense regarding the pool of random mutations as the sole source of novelty and complexity. Acting naturalistically, I view it as an adaptation mechanism and a convener of diversity. If there was design input, and this remains an area of inquiry, the DNA/RNA structure, along with evolutionary mechanisms, provides a seemingly docile avenue for designer[s] to make changes. How ’bout we call that … Genetic Engineering!

    I would advise caution regarding the use of the word ‘overwhelming’, as that qualifier in and of itself can be a science stopper. What usually follows is, “end of discussion”, and that, according to what I read, is a central point in the essay. IOW, open discourse, while perhaps eating up funding dollars, will not harm but rather will benefit science.

    Procyan concludes:

    ” I did not get a sense that Martin is either a supporter or even sympathetic towards ID.”

    He didn’t indicate either way, nor would that be appropriate in an essay of that magnitude; it would detract from it. It would lead to the assumption of an a priori bias, and would cloud his objectivity.

    A point regarding my remarks. As was the author of the essay, I try to be objective and address the central points of the arguments, rather than take a stand on other issues. I never mentioned ID or Creationism, but did express doubts regarding certain aspects of NDE. Not common descent, mind you. Simply the unproven (at this juncture) foundational premise of spontaneous generation of complexity by natural selection of random mutations in toto.

  4. Whoops, sorry procyon. Even though you may (as I do) appreciate ‘cyan’ as a color, that bright star commands much more respect.

  5. What a very good essay Thomas Martin has written. And yet …

    He mentions, “deeply-ingrained cultural suppositions,” as though there can be no other reason for anyone to doubt all those “mountains of well-established data from geology, climatology, and biology”.

    Climatology? Is he referring to scepticism about anthropogenic global warming? If so I hope he knows that there are scientific reasons to doubt, a) that it is happening, and b) that if it is it is necessarily a Bad Thing.

    People do have scientific reasons to doubt AGW and/or the possibility that it means we’re all going to die, or suffer horribly, within a few short years. So it shouldn’t necessarily be a huge leap from there to the possibility that people can have scientific, rather than merely cultural, reasons for doubting the mainstream geological and biological views of earth history. This is not to say that some, maybe many, people don’t have purely cultural suppositions underlying their beliefs on these matters. It is only to say that such cultural suppositions are not a necessary prerequisite for doubting the mainstream view of earth history.

    Martin also wrote that, “leading disciplinary practitioners who feel threatened by unorthodox new findings will sometimes band together to suppress such information,” but he attributes the latter misbehaviour only to an attempt to preserve, “cherished beliefs”. That is, he has ignored the possibility that people may do these things in an attempt to preserve their own status (and the perquisites that accompany that) within the academic and wider community. When Derek Freeman’s book came out, about how Margaret Sanger was fooled by her Samoan informants, her loyal academic followers didn’t want to believe that the edifice she’d built (and on which they’d built their own careers) had no foundations. Follow the money is always good advice.

    Finally, I must complain again that few people studying science ever get any formal training in logic. Researchers, certainly those in medicine, are forever confusing correlation with causation. Those studying earth history are forever affirming the consequent without having anywhere near enough data to make that strategy reasonably likely to be a good bet.

    Scientific literacy requires much more than the ability to, “define each item of scientific vocabulary”.

  6. Janice,

    I believe that it was Margaret Mead who was duped by the subjects of her study in Samoa, namely “Coming of Age in Samoa.” Margaret Sanger was the founder of Planned Parenthood, a cover organization for her advocacy of eugenics.

  7. Thank you D.A.Newton. You’re right.

    I had a niggling thought at the time that Sanger wasn’t the right name. Obviously not niggling enough.

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