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Knowledge should be of practical value

Literacy means need-to-know, argues Anjana Ahuja

If a polling organisation asked me to pose a frivolous question to the public, I might consider this one: What is a Higgs boson? Would my victims know that it is nicknamed the God particle and that it is an essential ingredient in the Standard Model of physics? Might they recall that this elementary particle supposedly gives the universe its mass, and that physicists might throw a hissy fit if they don’t find it? And would it matter if my inquiries were met with blank stares?

A teaser about the Higgs boson is superbly suited to a discussion of how the concept of scientific literacy is changing – and how it desperately needs to change. When I launched my science-writing career 17 years ago, I started as an ambitious do-gooder, determined to drip-feed Times readers a wide-ranging diet of astronomy, mathematics, genetics, engineering, psychology, environmental science and medicine. They would thus accumulate a body of knowledge that reflected the science of the day, as befitted readers of Britain’s premier broadsheet. I delighted in my privileged position of ad hoc tutor, and amassed a treasured stack of letters from readers thanking me for my latest exposition on Fermat’s Last Theorem or Six Degrees of Separation.

More facts

As Chris Toumey, an anthropologist at the University of South Carolina, has been pointing out recently, this approach to scientific literacy has been found wanting.  Jon Miller, a University of Michigan researcher who has been tracking ‘civic scientific literacy’ over a number of decades – by, for example, asking people to define molecules and stem cells, and how similar mouse DNA is to human DNA – noted in February that Americans are doing better now than they were in 1988. Thus 28 per cent of the population could probably understand the science section of the New York Times (yes, that really is one long-established benchmark for civic scientific literacy) compared to 10 per cent in 1988.

Yet, fewer Americans today believe in evolution than 20 years ago. So it’s debatable that this enhanced literacy has made society a better place, or improved democratic decision-making. I see the consequences firsthand:  too many children remain unvaccinated, for example.

Rethink engagement

Toumey believes it’s time to rethink the terms of public engagement with science. Instead of measuring how much scientific knowledge non-scientists can muster, and then lamenting the paucity, why not reframe scientific literacy in terms of a need-to-know instead of an ought-to-know basis?

Toumey suggests that, instead of merely pumping readers with definitions, we instead consider ‘science in the service of citizens and consumers’. The Higgs is still accommodated in this framework – given that many non-scientists find esoteric knowledge enriching for its own sake – but it also includes information on how scientific bodies operate (how does the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence decide which new medicines the NHS can prescribe?) and how science works (what is peer review? What does statistically significant mean?). The idea is to anchor this enlightenment in knowledge of practical value (why are nuclear reactors generally sited in coastal areas?) and thus allow people to dig deep into the science that affects their lives.

Perhaps this will give us citizens who vaccinate their children; complete antibiotics courses; think carefully about their opposition to animal experiments, wind turbines and nuclear power; mull over what to believe on the internet; stop force-feeding their kids barely-regulated vitamin supplements; know whether to worry about a newspaper headline proclaiming that light bulbs give you cancer; and intelligently hold their MPs to account. Armed with a citizenry like that, who’d give a fig about what they know about the Higgs?

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Anjana Ahuja
Anjana Ahuja was a feature writer and science commentator at the Times for 16 years. She is now an author and freelance writer
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