Thinking Like a Scientist

First of a short series (I hope). Summary of and commentary on some talks at ScienceOnline 2014

“What is Science Literacy”

I had some high hopes for this session, since this is a topic I’ve discussed before and care about. Unfortunately (for me) a fair fraction of the talk was dominated by discussion of science engagement. This is no small matter, and I concede that if you can’t engage with an audience they won’t become literate in the first place, and also that the audience seemed to be interested in that discussion, but I was hoping for more discussion on what literacy actually is. If you haven’t defined the problem, it’s hard to come up with an answer. I was anticipating more discussion on science not being a list of facts to be memorized and literacy being a combination of knowledge and the ability to apply the knowledge, which only came up late in the session, and not in a lot of depth.

At the beginning, though, the problem was framed in terms of a discussion the moderator (David Ng from UBC) had had with an 8 year-old, who asked (1) are unicorns real, and when that got a “no”, asked (2) could they be real (again, no), and finally (3) what if you actually saw a unicorn anyway, leaping over a rainbow. How would that change your answer?

The questions were in the context of the mythical creatures, rather than horses that might have something growing out of their forehead, so even though there might be some creature that looks like a unicorn and biology doesn’t rule such an animal out, it’s the magical things they do that tell us that they don’t and could not exist (violation of conservation of energy was offered as a prominent reason).

But what about question 3? We never really got around to answering that, but here’s my take, which I covered just last week: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The non-existence of unicorns and the reasons for this are quite well-established. If anyone were to report seeing a unicorn, the general reaction would be that they were mistaken — their eyes were tricked, or their video was a fake — and what evidence they had would be closely scrutinized, because it contradicts a large volume of careful science that has already been done. And THAT is a bit of science literacy — an understanding of the process by which we accept things as true or not within science. It’s too bad we ran out of time before the discussion could go there.

One other bit that came up was that the true goal of literacy is to get more people thinking scientifically even if they aren’t scientists, something with which I agree and tends to get lost in discussions that are focused on how many scientists we may or may not need, and falsely assumes that science understanding is or should be an all-or-nothing affair.