You Might be Scientifically Literate if…

A 1610 portrait of Johannes Kepler by an unkno...

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A common theme of this blog is that humans are potentially but not innately rational creatures; reliable reasoning is a skill that takes time and effort to learn, so flawed thinking and equally flawed inferences come naturally to us, oddly enough using the very same mental processes that otherwise let us think reliably much of the time.

We are natural magical thinkers, often given to making up and telling stories, imaginative and imaginary alike, and all too often believing both.

Fortunately, that can often be remedied, and one doesn’t need a genius IQ, either. We’ve been pretty smart since we’ve been human, and people today aren’t stupid either — ignorant maybe, often willfully so, but not innately, inherently stupid — anyone can learn, it’s only a matter of whether they want to.

But critical thinking, and its close cousin, scientific thinking, do not come without training even to the smartest of us without a good background in science literacy, which can do a lot of good for anyone seeking to make reliable decisions, not just ivory tower academics.

I think that branding education in science literacy as elitist is dangerous, because it has the tendency to create an élite when only a few can actually seek and attain it.

My view is that full science literacy entails the thinking processes of science, more than just being aware of factoids and trivia, but really being able to put yourself in a scientist’s proverbial shoes and accept it, to fully integrate that knowledge and truly understand its nuances while keeping one’s critical faculties alert in a healthy medium between the dangerous extremes of credulous gullibility and abject denial…

…just so there’s no question of what I mean by full science literacy in this post.

But regardless of whatever your specific level of education is, or whether you self-identify as a skeptic, a religious or theistic non-believer, train or work as a scientist or philosopher, any combination of, or none of these things, you might be scientifically literate if several or more of the following apply to you…

  • …you do not believe that the peer-review process is completely broken and must be dumped or circumvented at all costs.
  • …you look at science and see researchers as, strangely enough, actually being better at doing (*gasp*) science than at organizing implausibly sweeping conspiracies to ‘hide the truth.’
  • …you know that measly 5-figure research grants don’t even come close to the money rolling into the bank accounts of politicians, lobbyists and corporate execs who work to discredit science for their own vested interests.
  • …you look at the universe around you and see what’s actually there, know something of how the world really works, fully appreciate it as-is and not fret that it wasn’t specially made just for you.
  • …you see the world as a thing of wonder, not of evil, reality as it actually is, not needing anything ‘more than just this’ to be complete, and feel liberated and awed rather than disturbed and dissatisfied. Nothing real is ‘mere.’
  • …you approach matters of science as a scientist would, not as a conspiracy theorist, politician, or clergyman.
  • …you know that your personal opinion, even when widely shared, does not trump the knowledge and training of experts in their own fields of research.
  • …you know enough to give scientists the benefit of the doubt unless and until they are demonstrated wrong by others with the same qualifications as they.
  • …you know better than to get your science from media talk-show pundits, politicians, clergymen, actors, playboy bunnies, or slick online videos with obvious intent more to appeal to your biases and sway passions rather than inform minds.
  • …you know a logical fallacy when you hear one, and better still, identify it, and why an argument using it crashes and burns.
  • …you know that while scientists are fallible and occasionally pompous, they’re not bumbling, cynically dishonest incompetents either…they’re professionals, and they really do know their stuff, since that’s their day-job.
  • …you are aware that anything that can act in the world in any way, even if it’s arbitrarily labeled ‘supernatural,’ can be meaningfully investigated by rational and scientific inquiry if it is in principle testable.
  • …you know that it’s silly to try to use science, reason, and reality to debunk science, reason, and reality, and why that’s silly.
  • …you know that quantum mechanics is not magic.
  • …you know that science doesn’t require any faith, that it’s true no matter your beliefs.
  • …you know that not all science is done in laboratory experiments, that it doesn’t need to to count.
  • …you know that there is more than just a single scientific method; there are many such methods, in different fields of research.
  • …you know that science is ethically neutral, neither the inevitable harbinger of soulless dehumanization and doom, nor a cornucopia of warm and fuzzy goodness or endless blessings.
  • …you know what you know with confidence, and are willing to concede and find out what you don’t.
  • …you know that problems caused by misuse of science can’t be solved by ignorance, but by better use of science.
  • …you know how to tell science from pseudoscience, from quasi-science, from bad science, from proto-science, and from just plain-old non-science.
  • …you know the ways our minds and senses can mislead us to make faulty inferences and come to unsound conclusions, even when they are working normally but under unfamiliar conditions.
  • …you don’t get your shorts in a bunch if the universe does not conform to the expectations of your intuition and the dictates of personal common sense, which often isn’t.
  • …you know about scientific controls in research, what they are, what they do, why they work, and what they’re needed for.

And finally, you might be scientifically literate if…

  • …you know more than just how to regurgitate data and recite textbook passages you learned in high school or undergrad college; what science is; how it works; its very purpose; something about its conceptual underpinnings, and a passable understanding of its history as well.
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