In Slate, Daniel Sarewitz commits science communication heresy: “The Gambler and the Scientist”.
I raise these points to challenge the idea of "science literacy." We have this belief that unless a person knows that the Earth rotates around the sun and that birds evolved from dinosaurs, she or he wont be able to exercise responsible citizenship or participate effectively in modern society. Scientists are fond of claiming that literacy in their particular area of expertise (such as climate change or genomics) is necessary so the public can make informed judgments on public policy issues.
Yet the idea that we can say anything useful at all about a person's competence in the world based on their rudimentary familiarity with any particular information or type of knowledge is ridiculous. Not only is such information totally disembodied from experience and thus no more than an abstraction (and an arbitrary one at that), but it also fails to live up to what science ultimately promises: to enhance one's ability to understand and act effectively in a world of ones knowing
Worth discussion. I generally agree with his points. The poll questions that purport to gauge “science literacy” tend to be proxy markers for politically salient markers such as evolution, or confusingly worded factual questions. These may be measuring something, but they are poor measures of people’s real-world use of scientific concepts. I find that students come into my courses with a pretty sophisticated understanding of evolution. This understanding is in some predictable ways wrong, but it can form a base to learn deeper and more accurate information once I acknowledge and work with it.