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Scientific Literacy

A friend of mine sent me an interesting study discussing scientific literacy. I felt that the study was compelling and interesting, but completely wrong. It is available in PDF form here.

As with many discussions of scientific literacy, the study confuses science with knowledge of certain “facts.” Facts are just stories about the current state of knowledge — and I don’t care if you get them from your priest or your local University — knowing facts is not knowledge, and it is certainly not scientific knowledge.

I would like to propose a different definition:

Scientific literacy is the ability to follow an argument back through a chain of definitions and abstractions to the data sets on which it is based. It should include the ability to evaluate and challenge the assumptions and range of validity of an argument — to identify where errors may have been made, and to propose confirming or complicating experiments, and if given the resources, to conduct those experiments.

This doesn’t need to be exotic — there are hundreds of normal daily examples (for example: show that the Coriolis effect doesn’t really affect the way water swirls when it drains from a bowl. Or — confirm the temperature measurements on the knob of your stove.)

Knowledge is great — knowledge about how we get knowledge is better.

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August 7, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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