Scientific Literacy 101

Under the Microscope - By Nathan Hollwell

"Modern science is broken," is a phrase that I do not agree with.

Although science may have strayed from the path of public reliability and corporate bias, I do not believe it is totally broken. I would amend the first phrase by stating, "modern science is in danger of being broken."

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One method of preventing this from happening is science literacy. For those who are wondering what science literacy encompasses, it involves society being aware of scientific truths. This also includes questioning the data that is received from "science news." Scientific articles undergo a strict peer-review process before being published, however news outlets that report the results of these articles do not undergo this peer-review process. This infographic identifies some key factors that one should look for when reading science news.

Considering the 10 types listed, I believe there is one problem, which includes two of the types listed above, that contributes to a vast majority of false claims by science news sources.

Problem:

The first of these mistakes is false connection. This can be observed through multiple news articles that claim a fact from a scientific article, however the article has described something different entirely. In combination with false context, the public can glean incorrect "scientific facts" from reliable news sources.

Solution:

When reading a news article that claims a fact you believe to be false, you have a few options to check the credibility of these claims.

First, go to the original source. If possible, try to find the original scientific article that is making the claims stated in the news source. Often, authors try to write the abstract or conclusion so that a broader audience can understand it. If the article you're looking for is behind a pay-wall (more about this in the next post), try contacting the author(s) directly. All recent journal articles have an email address included. Once the original source has been found, discuss it among your peers and think about it critically.

Secondly, double check to see if other news sources have claimed the same fact. Try targeting news sources where there is a scientific editor or author reporting on the news. Check the credentials of the author on Google Scholar to understand if they are qualified to be talking about that subject. Often nature.com or sciencemag.org will publish articles available to the public that summarize scientific articles published in their own journals. For non-STEM news, find leaders in the field that are well-respected to see if they have written a news article about the subject. I find a great way to find these leaders is through Twitter, which has a plethora of scientific users ready to comment and give feedback. Double checking your sources also leads you to find articles that are outside the "echo chamber" that feeds your social media.

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Finally, if you are familiar with some basic scientific truths, try to apply them to the claims to see if they can be disproven. An example is the belief that the earth is flat. If you apply basic scientific principles to this belief. you will quickly come to the realization that this is not feasibly possible.

In order to get a holistic scope of how science literacy is a factor worldwide, I’ve compiled some data from the National Science Foundation that looked at national science literacy surveys of various countries around the world. The surveys asked participants a series of known scientific facts and marked correct answers. To understand how we can improve science literacy in Canada, I believe it would be beneficial to understand the science culture of other countries.

Science has become an integral of our modern society and affects every aspect of our lives. I believe that giving citizens the power of science literacy is most effective way of improving science culture, and by extension society itself.