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September 20, 2018

As Canada celebrates science literacy week with activities intended to highlight our science and our scientists, it’s a good time to ask: what do Canadians really know about science? And, more importantly, why should we care about science literacy?

What do Canadians really know about science?

The evidence on this is mixed. CCA’s 2014 Expert Panel assessment Science Culture: Where Canada Stands found that while Canadians have mostly positive attitudes towards science and low levels of apprehension about science compared with citizens of other countries, it also found only 53% of Canadians understood that antibiotics were not effective against viruses; only 46% were able to describe what it meant to study something scientifically (that is, using the scientific method); and that around 42% of the population had attained a basic enough level of science literacy that they could grasp general coverage of scientific and technological stories in the media. And yet, these results rated Canada as the most scientifically literate country in the world. These data need to be updated, but other data exist.

An online survey commissioned by the Ontario Science Centre in June released earlier this week found some other disquieting results: half of respondents believed the science is “unclear” on the causes of climate change, half of respondents believe genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are bad for your health, and 19% believed that there is a link between vaccines and autism.

These point-in-time findings provide a current picture of science culture and literacy. Perhaps Canada should regularly track knowledge and attitudes about science. But they also provide insight into why we should care about science literacy.

Why Does Science Literacy Matter?

It may be self-evident that knowing about science helps us to understand the science we read or hear about, the science that is used to inform decisions. Easier said than done: the information environment that Canadians inhabit is complex. 

We’re facing a tsunami of information from a variety of sources: from social media platforms and blogs to traditional news reporting instruments; from government reporting, to think tank studies and commercial advertising. The most reliable of these sources, academic peer-reviewed journals, publish hundreds of thousands of papers each year making it impossible to “keep up.” We also find ourselves subject to confirmation bias reading from sources that tend to support pre-existing beliefs. I rather like the way philosophers Willard Quine and Joseph Ullian cautioned about it in their 1978 book The Web of Belief: “The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are.”

Enabled by multiple information platforms, we’re also seeing that the range and diversity of health and science info makes it hard to determine the right response. Some are of such dizzying complexity that we lack the reflective time to consider the implications: CRISPR’s promise of correcting “errors” in our genome, the reliability of artificial intelligence to make smarter health decisions, the manufacturing of impossibly small molecules and machines that may speed access of new health products to the market. Other info is less other-worldly, but no less complex: the health risks of wine, marijuana, sugar or carbs.

Maneuvering in a busy world of science information gives one answer to the question, why does science literacy matter? Knowing something about science can help distinguish between claims that are truthful from those that are not, to understand which new information should be heeded and what can be set aside for the moment. Indeed, part of being science literate is knowing where to find the resources to make sense of the scientific evidence. There are some phenomenal resources to help the public including science centres, libraries, museums, and health journalists.  Two of my favorite “explainers”  (full disclosure both are long-time friends and colleagues) are Indiana University pediatrician Aaron Carroll writes for the “Upshot” column in the New York Times in which he explains the science behind recent studies in clear language; and University of Alberta professor Tim Caulfield has been debunking celebrity science and other health myths for years. We at the Council of Canadian Academies try to contribute to a better understanding of science by conducting assessments of the evidence on topics of public policy importance to Canada and Canadians.

Democracy as a Science Experiment

As important as science literacy is for people to understand science, a science-literate public may also be the best hope for a well-functioning democracy.

This view sees science literacy as an antidote to the many varieties of fundamentalism that undermine pluralistic, cosmopolitan, multicultural democracies. A science literate society not only better understands the science behind a policy (e.g., it is a good idea to know a little bit about stem cell science before deciding whether to fund it), a science literate public also understands how to think carefully about how policy gets made, who decides, and using what criteria. When decisions are made to build bridges, dams or pipelines; to regulate chemicals or and food; or to require vaccination, or fluoridate water, a science literature public is applying its critical thinking skills to policy making in society.

We should be clear: this does not mean that a public that understands science is always monolithically in agreement, or that a legislature full of scientists alone will produce better public policy. Much has been said about the demise of the “deficit” model of public science communication — the idea that if only the public understood the science better, they would see that policy x is the obvious choice. Research has shown us just how naïve this assumption is.  The classic example is climate change. Dan Kahan and his colleagues at Yale have shown how scientific knowledge of climate change is actually a poor predictor of policy views on the subject. Those with higher levels of knowledge can be found on both sides of the debate (to simplify the discussion). Beliefs about such topics, rather, are strongly influenced by our peers and the groups we belong to and identify with. Our politics drives our policy views, often irrespective of the extent to which they are informed by a detailed understanding of the relevant science.

A science-literate society is also democracy’s best hope in another way, where “scientific” thinking can be applied to the way society functions. The origin of this thinking is traced to the Enlightenment project itself which connects science literacy with civic literacy, something my former colleague at Indiana University Sheila Kennedy discussed in a blog some years ago. On science and democracy Kennedy argued, referencing Timothy Ferris’s The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason and the Laws of Nature, that post-Enlightenment thinkers were well acquainted with the experimental nature of science ― and sought to apply it to political action, quoting Ferris: “Each election, each new law is, after all, a procedure designed to test a hypothesis about how to make constant improvements to a government.”

Cause for Continued Celebration

Science is not equivalent to sound judgment or knowledge. It is not a body of facts or a collection of equations. It is not reducible to all we think we know about the world. Science is a process for making sense of uncertainty. It is a way to think critically about the jungle of claims and counter claims, we encounter every day. Some of these are about science itself, some of these are abut society itself.

Maybe every week should be science literacy week?

Eric M. Meslin, PhD, FCAHS
President and CEO, Council of Canadian Academies

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