Scientific Literacy

Scientific literacy “stands for what the general public ought to know about science” (Durant 1993, p. 129) and “puts emphasis on the understanding of science and technology by those who are not, and do not expect to be, professional scientists and technologists” (Hurd 1997). In order for any scientific advancement the people must have a certain level of understanding of the workings of science and have an appreciation of its aims and general limitations. It also has importance in terms of allowing future generations to be able to cope in a technologically and scientifically advancing world; being able to collect and analyse data effectively, make informed decisions and be a socially informed and responsible, competent citizen (Laugksch 1998 and Hurd 1997). Scientific literacy is incredibly hard to define as it incorporates themes that have changed over time. There seems to be no universally accepted definition. Scientific literacy is used in relation to science education and the general understanding of its principles (DeBoer 1999).
Trusted scientific literacy is vital as a lack of it can often lead to inaccuracies in the media within articles and reports. If misinformation is being shared with the public, their opinions can be warped. This can be particularly detrimental in terms of scientific literacy relating to medicine and health. An example of this is how the media reacted following a study by Wakefield in 1998 which stated that various links suggested that the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine could cause autism. Following the study, The Independent published an article with the headline: “Doctors link autism to MMR vaccination”. Although the article also stated that other professionals working with Wakefield said the evidence found was “not strong” and warned that “deaths would rise… if immunisation rates fell”, many parents across the country became reluctant to let their children receive the vaccination due to the headline of this article along with many others. An article by the BBC in 2005 revealed that due to the fear instilled by Wakefield’s study, there were areas in the UK where up to 40% of children had not received the vaccine and were therefore susceptible to infection. After the study was proven to be false and was no longer prevalent within the news, many people who did not receive the immunisation either forgot about it or considered themselves to no longer be classed as part of a vulnerable group. This has led to outbreaks of Measles across the country in recent years (particularly in England and Wales in 2013) as people were not protected against the potentially deadly virus. This is one example of how one small inaccuracy in scientific literacy can be enlarged through the media and lead to severe consequences in society. This example alone shows just how powerful scientific literacy can be.
Teaching young people the concept of fair testing is essential in creating a link with scientific literacy. The current focus in the curriculum about making young people more scientifically literate will allow them to operate in the world more effectively. Fair testing provides valuable skills such as how changing variables can achieve different outcomes in experiments. This teaches children not only the scientific knowledge but also skills such as interpreting data and how to collect valid and relevant results (Millar, R. 2007). Having a grasp of scientific literacy will allow students to understand the data from experiments and why their outcomes are as such, in addition to giving an understanding of the science behind the overall investigation (OECD 2003). The link between fair testing and scientific literacy allows pupils to be able to comprehend the reasoning, the skills and the science behind the experiments they may undertake.

Written by Katie Jones, Blaze Lambert & Kara Robertson.


BBC (2005) ‘No link’ between MMR and autism Available at: (Accessed: 10 February 2018)

DeBoer, G. E (1999) Scientific Literacy: Another Look at Its Historical and Contemporary Meanings and Its Relationship to Science Education Reform. Available at: (Accessed 11 February 2018)

Durant, J. R. (1993). “What is scientific literacy?” In J. R. Durant & J. Gregory (Eds.), Science and culture in Europe (pp. 129– 137). London: Science Museum.

Hurd, P. D. (1997) Scientific Literacy: New Minds for a Changing World. Available at: (Accessed: 11 February 2018)

Laugksch, R. D. (1998) Scientific Literacy: A Conceptual Overview. Available at: file:///C:/Users/jones_000/Downloads/Laugksch_Scientific_LiteracyScience+education+v+82+n3+407+416+1998.pdf (Accessed: 1 February 2018)

Laurance, J. (1998) ‘Doctors link autism to MMR vaccination’ The Independent 27 February 1998 Available at:

Millar, R. (2007) Scientific Literacy; Can the school science curriculum deliver? Communicating European Research 2005, Pages 145-150

NHS Digital (No Date) MMR vaccine: Biggest percentage of children immunised since vaccine introduced Available at: (Accessed: 11 February 2018)

OECD (2003) The PISA 2003 Assessment Framework – Mathematics, Reading, Science and Problem Solving Knowledge and Skills. Paris: OECD (Available online)

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