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Scientific literacy: the quest for the never-ending

October 31, 2008

When we are not educated about something, we can easily become suspicious, fearful or remain blithely unconcerned. 

For example, we see or hear: “The stock market is falling below 8500!” We think: Oh no. That’s terrible, though I have no idea what it means. 

Or: “We had a whole month of higher than normal temperatures!” We believe: Yep. That must mean global warming and methane release in the Arctic.

Or: “Stem cell research will regenerate lost neural function and cure Parkinson’s disease patients like Michael J. Fox!” 

The problem is that simplistic statements, the kind that often pepper short news reports, obscure the complexity of real-life situations. How do we evaluate what’s false or true? What we need are ways to know how to take such claims and work out for ourselves what we need to know to make reliable interpretations and predictions. 

It isn’t necessary to have knowledge in the sense of having your head stuffed with knowledge-units or what pass as “facts.” Understanding, itself, is power. Whether it is understanding of the basic workings of economic and market systems, of science and policy related to global warming, or scientific/bioethics/policy knowledge related to stem cell science and regenerative medicine, knowing how to go about making sense of competing claims is what makes up scientific literacy.

It is this scientific literacy that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education seeks to promote. This also is the goal of Arizona State University’s general studies requirements and emphases for all students: to achieve an understanding of how to interpret and evaluate scientific claims. It is the heart of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences requirement that science students study “Science and Society.”

What do we mean by “sustainability,” for example, and how will we know it when we see it? How can we understand “complexity?” How do we make sense of “origins?” These are ASU initiatives at the intersection of where science meets society. It takes STEM literacy and awareness of the relations of science and society to make sense of these complex issues. ASU puts the power of knowing in your hands.

Jane Maienschein is a Regents’ Professor, President’s Professor and Parents Association Professor in the School of Life Sciences, and director of the Center for Biology and Society at ASU. She and her undergraduate students wrote the only student-written editorial in the journal Science, which continues to be a standard on the topic of scientific literacy. The other editorial “To the Future – Arguments for Scientific Literacy,” appeared in Science Communication in 1999.