A Christian Science Monitor scientific-literacy quiz has recently been making its way around the blogosphere. Maybe you’ve taken it? I scored 44/50. Respectable, but not where I’d like to be considering my purported role of trying to raise scientific literacy.
However, on reflection I came to the conclusion that not only does this quiz–and quizes like it–fail to give a good assessment of scientific literacy, it also highlights one of the most pernicious myths mainstream culture sometimes has towards academic disciplines. Let me explain. Although the media would often have you believe otherwise, science, in its primary form, isn’t a simple collection of facts about the empirical universe. Science is, first and foremost, an enterprise for discovering the general principles that govern our world. Some of the most powerful of these principles can be very simply expressed, but lead to incredibly complex systems and behaviours.
One example of that is the law of universal gravitation that accounts for the large scale structure of the universe. Another is evolution via natural selection, that accounts for the staggering diversity of life. These principles may lead to scientific facts, but scientific-literacy is by no means bound up in knowledge of those facts. For example, knowing what the periodic table is demonstrates a far higher degree of scientific-literacy than rote-learning the exact atomic number of every element in the table.
And it gets worse. Consider question two from the Christian Science quiz:
2. The Austrian monk Gregor Mendel’s observations of what
organism formed the basis for the science of genetics?
Can you spot the problem with this question being in a quiz purported to test scientific literacy? That’s right! Questions about the history of science have nothing to do with scientific-literacy. The bottom line is scientific-literacy cannot be measured purely by multiple-choice questions.
A scientifically-literate population doesn’t always have access to all the facts of the situation, but more importantly, they often understand the processes needed to acquire those facts.