What is Scientific Literacy?
Is being a scientist the same thing as being scientifically literate? The answer is a little more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no”. Scientists, presumably, are scientifically literate, but individuals who are scientifically literate aren’t necessarily scientists.
American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was once asked if he hopes that his children will follow in his footsteps and become scientists. Tyson explains that above all, he hopes to raise children who are scientifically literate. So, what exactly does Neil deGrasse Tyson mean?
Being scientifically literate is not about what you know. An understanding of the speed of light, the Pythagorean Theorem, or Bernoulli’s principle does not necessarily make you scientifically literate. Being scientifically literate is about what you do with new information. In other words, when you are presented with new findings, studies, or data, are you able to ask, find, and look at this new information critically? Do you have the necessary skills to ask questions intelligently, to analyze the validity of this new information? Are you able to reasonably evaluate the arguments put forth so that you can draw meaningful conclusions and make informed decisions?
If the answer is yes, then you are scientifically literate and that skill is empowering.
Information vs. Misinformation
We live in a world where we have access to information instantly through television, computers, tablets, and smartphones. We are constantly being inundated with competing information. So, how do we navigate through all this?
In an interview on Spotlight with Scientists in School, Sarah Everts, CTV Chair in Digital Science Journalism at Carlton University, discusses how to verify information and misinformation, particularly with sources found online and with the surge of “fake news.” Everts suggests using Snopes.com or MediaBiasFactCheck.com to check whether the information at hand has come from an expert, reliable, and transparent source.
Everts also explains that we need to be wary of not falling into the trap of confirmation bias. We all love to be right, and we tend to seek out information that fits in with that we already believe to be true. Everts suggests that when we read a story that confirms what we already believe, that is precisely the moment that we need to do extra due diligence and check the credibility of the source.
Dr. Supriya Sharma, Chief Medial Advisor for Health Canada, says we are facing two pandemics, the viral pandemic (COVID) and the pandemic of misinformation. During her interview on Spotlight, Dr. Sharma explains that the basis of science is asking questions, looking at the evidence, and making sure it is reliable and trustworthy. We cannot simply accept information we see or hear as truth.
Why is Scientific Literacy Important?
As children mature, they will be asked to make important decisions for themselves and for their loved ones. How do we slow down climate change? Should I vaccinate my children? Is organic food better? Should we support Stem-cell research?
They will have to read and understand the influx of new information at an unprecedented rate. Being scientifically literate means that kids will have the skills necessary to understand new information, to think critically, to engage in conversations intelligently, and to evaluate the credibility of sources.
It ultimately means they will be equipped with the skills necessary to make sound decisions.
How do we help our kids become scientifically literate?
Not every child will choose a career in STEM, but it is imperative that they have essential skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity to be scientifically literate to make informed decisions.
For this to happen, kids need to actively engage in science. They need to participate in real-world experiences that build critical thinking skills, spark curiosity, and nurture their inquisitive minds. Children should be encouraged to make predictions, test theories, to analyze results, and to interpret data so that they understand the scientific process.
“Doing science” can include reading a book on STEM, attending a lecture, joining a STEM-club, participating in science competitions, or running simple experiments at the kitchen table.
It can also include exploring the numerous science adventures taking place at museums, research centres, labs and classrooms, across the country during Science Odyssey week. This is a national campaign that celebrates STEM through hundreds of fun and inspiring experiences from coast to coast. Science Odyssey, powered by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), is a 16-day celebration that takes place May 1st to May 16th all across Canada! Check out all the exciting events here.
Dr. Danika Goosney, VP of Research Grants and Scholarships at NSERC, believes that programmes like Science Odyssey, Science Literacy, and Scientists in School, play an integral part in strengthening Canada’s science culture. Dr. Goosney was also a guest on Spotlight. Watch the full interview here!