Teach Americans Science Literacy – The Daily Utah Chronicle
Research shows that only 28% of Americans are scientifically literate. Most Americans don’t even have the science to understand the science section of the New York Times. How are these Americans supposed to make informed decisions about things like vaccines, climate change, or who they vote for?
To create more evidence-based public policies and stop the spread of disinformation, we need to start focusing on science literacy in our schools.
It becomes clear that our science education fails when you discover that up to two-thirds of Americans cannot answer basic questions such as “Are electrons smaller than atoms?” Or “Do antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria?” “
Even more frightening, 66% of Americans do not understand the scientific method and in a study by Pew Research, only 52% were able to correctly identify a hypothesis.
We don’t just forget the facts we learned in eighth grade. We also fail to understand how science answers questions.
As physician and researcher Danielle Teller wrote in her article for Quartz, “Scientific literacy has little to do with memorizing information and a lot to do with a rational approach to problems.” Americans are not good at any of these things. Overall, we constantly fail to remember basic scientific information, and we don’t know how to think scientifically.
With the internet and the subsequent proliferation of disinformation, we are becoming more susceptible to anti-science rhetoric. For example, throughout the pandemic, it has become too easy to find information online that casts doubt on vaccines and masking.
As an experiment, I wanted to see how easy it would be to find wrong information on my own Twitter timeline. From a Fox 13 News Publish announcing the mask requirements at Mormon temples in my feed, I only clicked once to see the comments, some of which questioned the mask’s effectiveness. From there, just a few more clicks took me to tweets who called the pandemic a hoax. In three clicks, I found some misinformation that could cause people to not wear masks or get vaccinated.
Additionally, as algorithms from Google and social media sites push more on what is clicked, users who engage in disinformation will likely continue to receive disinformation about them.
In 2020, the number of news engagements increased, as did engagement on unreliable news sites. Misinformation has become so prevalent that Instagram has started blocking hashtags related to COVID-19 misinformation.
Online disinformation goes beyond COVID-19. There is misinformation on climate change, flu shots and several other topics. Scientific consensus has fallen. Vaccines certainly don’t cause autism. Climate change is real and is having disastrous effects.
Ignoring science hurts everyone because we will all face the consequences of choosing so many Americans not to vaccinate or voting for candidates who do not support science-based policies. This lack of scientific knowledge begins when we are young, where much of our science education focuses on memorizing and repeating facts rather than learning the truth.
To fight disinformation and create more science-based politics, we need to change the science education we give to our students. Mainly, we have to teach people to take a reasoned approach to problems and give them the discernment between true and false information.
In order to teach students to solve problems with reason, we need to give them practical experience of creating hypotheses and applying the scientific method in the classroom. Science for most American students does not have these problem-solving experiences, instead focusing on memorizing basic biological and geological facts.
In other words, we need to teach Americans to “talk science”. We use many words differently in conversation than how they are used in science. Words like theory, model, and natural have connotations or definitions that differ from scientific definitions. Teaching people to speak science will give them a context for understanding science.
In addition to this, we need to teach students to identify false science. There are a number of stationery stores that produce fake science journals online. These journals can contain misinformation presented as science, which makes it even more difficult not to fall into the trap of lying online. Students should learn to identify genuine peer-reviewed scientific work from untested literature.
Obviously, our science education fails our students. This has enormous consequences not only for public policies, but also for people who cannot read science correctly. We have a responsibility to help people make evidence-based decisions, and that starts with us.