Cushman: Teach Americans Scientific Literacy


By KC Ellen Cushman, Opinion Writer


Research shows that only 28% of Americans are scientifically literate. Most Americans don’t even have the scientific knowledge to understand the science section of the New York Times. How are these Americans supposed to make educated decisions about things such as vaccines, climate change or who they vote for?

To create more evidence-based public policy and stop the spread of misinformation, we need to start focusing on scientific literacy in our schools.

It becomes clear that our science education fails students when you find out that as many as two-thirds of Americans can’t answer basic questions like “Are electrons smaller than atoms?” or “Do antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria?”

Even scarier, 66% of Americans don’t understand the scientific method and in a Pew Research study, only 52% could correctly identify a hypothesis.

We don’t just forget 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 aren’t good at either of those things. As a whole, we consistently fail at recalling basic scientific information, and we don’t know how to think scientifically.

With the internet and subsequent proliferation of misinformation, we become more susceptible to anti-scientific rhetoric. For example, throughout the pandemic, it became all 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 misinformation on my own Twitter timeline. From one Fox 13 News post announcing mask requirements in Mormon temples in my feed, I only clicked once to see the comments, some of which questioned mask efficacy. From there, only a few more clicks took me to tweets that labelled the pandemic as a hoax altogether. In three clicks, I found misinformation that could cause people to not wear masks or get vaccinated.

Additionally, because algorithms on Google and social media sites push more of what gets clicked on, users who engage with misinformation will likely continue receiving misinformation directed towards them.

In 2020, the amount of news engagement went up — along with the engagement on unreliable news sites. Misinformation has become so widespread that Instagram started blocking hashtags related to COVID-19 misinformation.

Misinformation online goes beyond COVID-19. There’s misinformation about climate change, flu shots and several other subjects. The scientific consensus is out. Vaccines definitely don’t cause autism. Climate change is real and comes with disastrous effects.

Disregarding science hurts everyone because all of us will face the consequences of so many Americans choosing not to vaccinate or voting for candidates who don’t support science-based policies. That lack of scientific literacy starts when we’re young, where much of our science education focuses on memorizing and repeating facts rather than learning how to ascertain truth.

To combat misinformation and create more science-based policy, we need to change the science education we give our students. Primarily, we need to teach people to take a reason-based approach to problems and give them discernment between true and false information.

To teach students to solve problems with reason, we need to give students hands-on experience creating hypotheses and applying the scientific method within the classroom. Science for most U.S. students lacks these experiences with problem-solving, instead focusing on memorization of basic biological and geological facts.

In other words, we need to teach Americans how to “speak science.” We use many words differently in conversation versus the way they’re used in science. Words like theory, model and natural have connotations or definitions that have differ from scientific definitions. Teaching people to speak science will give them context to understand science.

In addition to this, we need to teach students how to identify fake science. There are a number of paper mills that churn out fake scientific journals online. These journals can contain misinformation posed as science, making it even harder to not fall for lies online. Students must learn how to identify real scientific, peer-reviewed work from untested literature.

Clearly, our science education fails our students. This has massive consequences not only for public policy, but also for people who don’t know how to read science properly. We have a responsibility to help people make fact-based decisions, and that starts with us.


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