Scientific literacy

From: Dagmar Fertl (dagmar_fertl@hotmail.com)
Date: Wed Nov 01 2000 - 15:28:40 EST


Hello!

I am a freshman student at University of Nevada, Reno and I am doing an
honors project for my english class. As part of this research project we
were asked to seek out several scientists and ask them a few questions. I
would greatly appreciate it if you could take the time to answer the
following questions.

Thank you for your cooperation and support!

1) How would you define basic scientific literacy? In other words, what
basic concepts and/or ideas should an average person know?

2) Do you believe Americans are too gullible when it comes to topics like
Aliens, UFO's, Government conspiracy etc?

3) What can be done to stop this gullibility?

4) How skeptical should we be when hearing reports of out of the ordinary
occurrences? (Aliens, UFO's, etc.)

Thanks again!
************************************************************
Wow, these certainly were not easy questions to answer, but they were very
interesting and gave me a lot to think about.

1. I think I would basically define scientific literacy in much the same way
some other folks already have - specifically, I like the definition provided
by the National Academy of Sciences - the knowledge and understanding of
scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making,
participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity. This
means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived
from curiousity about everday experiences. It also means that the average
person should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on
the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it.

And interesting tangent from this question would be whether the Internet is
contributing or actually hindering scientific literacy. I find very often
that people are not willing to put in elbow grease to look up information
from various sources and actually go thru the process of what makes up
scientific literacy. Many folks figure that if it's on the web, it's right.

I see that the rest of the questions point directly at one of the popular
arguments for needing a scientifically literate public - scientific
knowledge supplants superstition.

As for specific concepts needed, I think that a basic understanding of math,
physics, biology, chemisty, etc....things that one typically should learn in
high school, or even first year of college, are a foundation. These
certainly do not replace reading and exploring on your own. I would hazard
to say that many of us are scientific literate on certain topics, but not on
all. Hope that makes sense.

2. As for people being too gullible. I personally don't think everything can
be explained away by science and that it's good...to a certain point...to
keep an open mind, but not to the point of paranoia. There certainly has
been a proliferation of science fiction, and I do agree that not everyone
knows when things are fiction and not.

3. This almost sounds like a feedback to the actual question of what is
scientific literacy and its importance. It also smacks of 'you can lead the
horse to water, but you can't make him drink' - you can teach people
science, but do we necessarily foster the thinking process which allows for
'literacy'. In college you are certainly encouraged to be an independent
thinker, but not necessarily in high school. Perhaps encouraging such
thinking would lend itself to more scientific literacy.

4. Again, I think it's important to consider the sources, scientific
information, etc., but to also keep an open mind that it is possible for
something unexplainable by our current knowledge.

Hope this helps. Sounds like an interesting project! Also, consider what
'literacy' really means in the realm of this discussion. I found an
interesting presentation about this topic at one website (I can provide the
address if you're interested).

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