Literacy in Science
Adapted from a keynote address at the Midwest Regional Noyce Scholars Conference
St Louis, November 2, 2019
My theme for tonight is the idea of literacy in science, by which I mean two things. The first is scientific literacy — asking what we mean when we say we want to produce citizens who are scientifically literate. The second will be my attempt to convince you that encouraging kids to read books about science, both fiction and non-fiction, will help to build their sense of themselves as scientists.
What do we mean by scientific literacy? It’s a term that has been debated for decades, one that I’ve been thinking about at least since reading Science for All Americans in 1990 (the year we started the Noyce Foundation). Since then the U.S. has had standards, benchmarks, practices, and discourse on the nature of science. Still, there are multiple individual answers to the question, “What are the most important things I would like each American to understand to be scientifically literate?”
I think most thoughtful educators would agree that scientific literacy comprises both a core of content knowledge and a way of thinking. We want kids to know something about how the world works, but we also want them to be able to apply a special way of thinking: scientific thinking. Here is one potential definition of scientific literacy, derived from the outline of a course I am developing with my colleague, Andy Zucker:
Scientific literacy begins with a core of knowledge about the natural world and the man-made (technological) world, including understanding key practices identified in the NGSS that scientists use to do their work.
2. Scientific literacy also includes:
the ability to acquire and evaluate unfamiliar scientific information;
the ability to apply an understanding of science for personal or civic decision-making; and
certain habits of mind, such as evidence-based reasoning and curiosity about how the world works.
The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) does a great job of laying out what should be included in core knowledge of science content. Such an understanding of key content lays a foundation for the lifelong learning we will all need as the world changes and scientific knowledge increases. However, we need to know about more than mitochondria and black holes. We adults need to be, and teach children to be, curious, open-minded, skeptical and fair. Students have to learn how to evaluate new information, and how to apply it to decisions they make as individuals or citizens.
Right now, this ability to think, learn, and make judgments is more important than ever. Ours is a society in crisis; we are so divided we can’t even agree on standards for truth. Our only tactic for judging the truth of something is to ask who says it: friend or enemy? Fox News or MSNBC? We believe one source and not the other on the basis of allegiance, of loyalty. We are so polarized we’re paralyzed.
Scholars point to many reasons for this polarization. One is an economic change: since the crash of 2008, we just don’t see the kind of growth that means everybody is winning. Income stagnation and inequality can lead to resentment.
A second reason for polarization is a kind of psychic dislocation caused by increasing diversity and the rising awareness of the rights of women, queer people, people of color and immigrants. Suddenly those who felt they knew their role in society, and who knew that they could clearly define right and wrong, find themselves in a more fluid and uncertain environment.
Finally, many social critics trying to explain our polarization point to the explosion of choice in media. We no longer share the same TV channels, and on social media we can choose to see and hear from only those people who agree with us. Even worse, algorithms increasingly make those choices for us, suggesting articles or presenting Facebook posts that AI has selected to fit our calculated preferences..
With the democratization and ubiquity of social media comes a desperate competition for eyes, clicks, and attention. Such competition prioritizes images, appeals to emotion, and posts that connect to us on a gut level without regard to whether these posts are grounded in fact. Memes have replaced long articles that require attentive reading and careful analysis.
What happens to thinking in this kind of environment? Some of us remember a time before social media. We remember visiting the library, wishing we could work our way through entire shelves of books. Our students don’t remember that. For them, the world of information is one of quick impressions, images, and likes, their mouses clicking away in instant reaction.
Amid our clicks and instant likes, the forces stressing our society are not going away. They’re only going to get more intense. Tariffs won’t keep world competition away. Manufacturing jobs will be lost to automation. The climate is changing; hundreds of millions of people will be displaced by heat, fire, desertification, or sea level rise by 2050, well within the working lifetimes of our students. Immigration pressures will rise, as climate demand a chance to survive and provide a future for their children.
What can we do to prepare our students to resist the call of slogans, simple answers, projection, hatred and denial? What can we do to prepare them to shoulder the burden of pausing to think, to analyze, and to work toward realistic, difficult solutions?
Science teachers can’t solve all society’s problems, but we can help our students learn how to think. We can contribute to the project of media literacy. Because of the very nature of science, science teachers are especially well placed to help students negotiate the difference between valid reasoning and bunk. After all, science consists of a special set of methods for determining truth. Observation, hypothesizing, setting up propositions that can be falsified, gathering evidence and more evidence, reasoning, presenting what we have found, listening with an open mind to critics, replicating or failing to replicate findings, adjusting hypotheses, building on what has already been learned, subjecting our findings to peer review, and working with others to create a consensus—all of these make up the methods of science. And that is what science teachers can share—not “just the facts,” but an explanation of how these snippets of truth were earned: the setbacks, the confusions, the opposition, the careful and often lonely replication, and the conversations involved. How did we learn that smoking causes cancer? That germs cause disease? That vaccines save lives? How did we come to the decision to ban DDT? How do we know the climate is changing?
Now, there are some in the world of epistemology who say there is no objective truth, and scientific models and theories are just so many social fictions, like the way we classify race or insist that everyone is one gender or another. But in science, there definitely are propositions that look an awful lot like facts. The earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around. An object falling in a vacuum will accelerate until it strikes the ground. Bacteria exchange genes. These propositions are much easier to test and verify than, say, political propositions such as the idea that free college will increase equality or cutting taxes will increase prosperity.
So if we’re going to tackle the issue of false, misleading information anywhere, what better place to do it than in science?
And there’s plenty of misinformation to tackle. Think of these: “Vaccines cause autism.” “Vaping is safe.” “The earth is just going through a normal warming and cooling cycle.” These are only a few of the propositions where we tend to believe what our tribe believes. Here are some more: Are GMOs safe? Is there a gene for homosexuality? Are neonicotinoid insecticides responsible for a sudden drop in honeybee populations? Which is worse for you, sugar or fat? Will solar or wind power ever be enough, or will we need nuclear power in the mix? Some of these questions are complicated, and many of them carry personal or financial consequences for a lot of people. There is plenty of evidence to sort through, but too often, as Paul Simon sings, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
Is there anything we can do about this? I believe there is.
Many scientists and teachers act on the mistaken belief that telling people the truth will automatically make them believe it. Doctors tell parents that there is no statistically valid evidence that vaccines cause autism. Scientists explain how the rise in atmospheric carbon has paralleled the rise in average global temperature. Unfortunately, we have evidence from psychological studies that just giving people more correct information does not necessarily help them reject false information. Deeply held, often culturally endorsed beliefs are hard to dislodge.
Luckily, there is evidence that people can to some extent be given tools to help them resist misinformation. They can be forewarned and forearmed. For example, hearing that over 97% percent of climate scientists agree that humans are causing the earth to grow warmer helps people become much more skeptical about statements denying climate change. They also gain in their ability to resist the false balance that we so often see on news stations, where one opinion always has to be countered by an opposing one, no matter how weak its factual basis.
Observations like this led my colleague, Andy Zucker, and me to create a one-week curriculum unit for middle or high school science classes called Resisting Scientific Misinformation. Just check https://tumblehomebooks.org/services/resisting-scientific-misinformation/ or search for “resisting scientific misinformation,” and you’ll find us. The curriculum is available for free download. We invite everyone to take a look, download it, share it, try it, review it, and give us feedback.
The unit starts with a short lesson on advertising. What makes advertisements attractive and convincing? Can kids identify a scientific claim in an advertisement? How can they evaluate it? We show students a fun, misleading ad for a diet product and critique it. Then we ask kids to make their own scientifically deceptive ads.
Next, we address a specific tactic often used to obfuscate inconvenient scientific information– the claim that “the science is uncertain,” or “scientists disagree.” This was a common argument made by tobacco companies to dispute the health dangers of smoking; today it is used by representatives of the fossil fuel industry, often working through front organizations and advised by some of the same spokespeople. On this topic, I recommend to all of you the book Merchants of Doubt, by journalist Naomi Oreskes.
From there, the unit moves on to statements that students might run into on social media. We show a number of claims and ask students to work together to evaluate them. Is there a green flash that can be seen at sunset in the Caribbean? Do some jellyfish live forever? Is ball lightning real? Will there be a green moon this year?
The unit goes on to give students some thought tools for evaluating a claim they see in media, especially social media, using the acronym SAP (Sources, Author, Purpose). We first ask students to look at the sources of a claim. Does an article reference or credit reputable people and institutions? It’s often worth clicking on a link in, say, a Facebook posting, to see if the linked-to article says what it has been implied to say. Then, the students evaluate the author. Who is the author of the piece? If an article has no named author, that can be a red flag. What else has the author written? If the article is about a new health product but the author writes mostly about fashion or celebrities, that could also be a red flag. Finally, students consider purpose. Is the article or post trying to sell something? Trying to convince the viewer of a political point of view? Appealing primarily to emotion rather than reason? The unit ask students to pay attention to these things.
Day four of the unit addresses the scientific process. One highlighted aspect, which is both relevant to citizenship and mostly neglected in the NGSS, is the key role of scientific institutions. Whom should people trust for information about vaccines, a couple of celebrities or the CDC? (What does “CDC” stand for? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). We ask students to research a couple of scientific institutions, such as the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Science Foundation, or the IPCC, which stands for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Students may also look at some other institutions that claim to have authority, such as the Heartland Institute. How can students determine which of these are legitimate and respected scientific institutions?
To be as concise as possible, the very least we can tell our students is to have their antennae up, and when they read, see, or hear something “scientific” that sounds a bit fishy… Google it! Very often, the simplest of searches can lead a student to other sources that express a different point of view.
That’s a brief overview of the 4- to 5-day course, which we think can fit or be adapted to different science subjects in any grades from 6 to 12. Kids seem to enjoy it, and teachers have a lot of flexibility. If you do use it, please let us know how it goes.
Reading in Science
Teaching students to resist misinformation is important, but in raising scientifically literate adults, evaluating Facebook posts and ads can take us only partway. We need young people who are willing and able to read in depth.
Last week we learned that our national reading scores, the NAEP scores, have declined in both grades 4 and 8, with scores falling at least half the states. Reading scores sagged for all groups of students, but especially for those at the lower-performing end of the spectrum.
Declining literacy presents a problem both for civic society and for science. To continue to build scientific literacy and critical thinking throughout life, students need to build their stamina for more sustained thinking. That means reading—not just the close reading that the Common Core State Standards call for, but broad, loose reading. Reading for interest, reading for enjoyment. Reading to increase empathy, which we need more than ever. Reading to grow students’ imaginations and to help them envision themselves in different roles, different places, different futures.
And that’s my true passion. I write and publish books with a science theme for kids. Tumblehome publishes fiction and non-fiction, from picture books to high school books that adults also read, but with a sweet spot in the middle grades (4 to 8). We believe in the power of story to pique kids’ interest and boost their understanding.
What is a story? According to writer John Gardner, the following is a pair of facts (similar to those you might find in a history or science book): “The queen died. Then the king died.” But the following is a story, because it has a plot: “The queen died, and the king died of grief.”
A story has cause and effect. It makes sense in a way that winds through our brains and settles in. Why did the dinosaurs die? How does the sun help create food and the carbon cycle? The answers to these questions, well-told, are stories too. In reading, a student might be asking, “How can a person like me (maybe an awkward kid, an immigrant, a tough kid, a kid with only one parent, a gay kid, a kid who struggles with reading) … How can a person like me become a person who does science?” A story can provide an answer by showing how someone else did it, someone a lot like the doubtful student, a person driven by curiosity but facing barriers and self-doubt.. A story shouts or whispers , “Listen! This character walked a path to science and self-knowledge—and so can you.”
So I appeal to you, teachers, stock your classroom with good books about science. Encourage kids to read and share them. Sponsor a science book club. Ask kids to discuss or even write about what they read. Offer extra credit, or better yet, just offer more great books.
In hands-on science education, we have moved away from an emphasis on vocabulary and reading about science to doing science, and that’s great. But in the long run, reading well is an indispensable tool for intellectual growth, for developing empathy, and for inspiration. Please don’t leave the literacy out of scientific literacy.