The term ‘Scientific Literacy’ is one that can often be heard in academic conversation but what does it actually mean? To be literate is having the “ability to read and write” (Oxford Dictionary, no date), therefore it would be assumed that being ‘scientifically literate’ is about having the knowledge to be able to understand different scientific concepts. However, scientific literacy is not just about knowing how to carry out a range of different experiments. It refers to having a knowledge of scientific concepts and being able to apply what we know to decisions that we make throughout our daily lives, regarding “personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs and economic productivity” (Literacy.net, no date). This entails that being scientifically literate gives you the proficiency to be able to “ask (about), find and determine” (NSES, no date) scientific experiments, and establish whether information that has been shared is of a reliable background. From this we can use individual methods to judge and evaluate the experiments, resulting in conclusions which have come from personal knowledge and research.
The best and most well-known example of scientific literacy, or a lack of scientific literacy- leading to inaccurate reporting- is the MMR vaccine scare. This started when a paper was published in 1998 and reported that twelve children had been found to have bowel syndrome and signs of autism after receiving the vaccine. However, the report provided no hard evidence to support the argument that there was any link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The main author of the report, Dr Andrew Wakefield, initially stated at a press conference that parents should avoid the MMR vaccine. It was later found that the author of the report did not have the medical qualifications to assess the risk of the MMR vaccine, and he was found guilty of four counts of dishonesty. These events had a major effect on public confidence in the MMR vaccine. Vaccination rates continued to fall, even after there were many reports showing that there was no link between the vaccine and autism. When it was found that Wakefield had actually been funded by a lawyer firm that wanted litigation against MMR, confidence eventually returned but a combination of poor scientific practice and lack of scientific literacy led to inaccurate reporting in the media for several years.
In terms of scientific literacy in the classroom, the process of fair testing is an important part to any science-based activity that you may be conducting with your pupils. Therefore, it is vital that you teach them just how important this element is. Fair testing means that only one factor is changed at any one time ensuring that all the other conditions are left the same throughout. In scientific terms, changing a factor is known as changing a variable. It is essential that children understand the effects that changing one or more variables has in order to fully understand the experiments you teach them. But how does teaching fair testing link to scientific literacy? By making your children aware of fair testing, you are stating that an experiment will have no deliberate advantages or disadvantages as they follow a procedure that will provide a legitimate outcome. Through this, students will then be able to “identify questions and draw evidence-based conclusions”. Fair testing ensures that there is less of a bias within the experiment. Scientific literacy is linked to fair testing through the fact that it is “evidence-based” and not simply an answer that people are to believe. Fair testing helps to reduce this idea of “bad science” in schools. It will help your pupils to progress within their scientific literacy and encourage them to become more questioning, providing results that have evidence to back up the findings.
Literacy.net (no date): Scientific Literacy: [online] Available from: <http://www.literacynet.org/science/scientificliteracy.html> [10/02/16]
National Science Education Standards (no date): Chapter 2 – Principles and Definitions: [online] Available from: <http://www.nap.edu/read/4962/chapter/4> [10/02/16]
OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] (2003) The PISA 2003 Assessment Framework – Mathematics, Reading, Science and Problem Solving Knowledge and Skills. Paris: OECD.
Oxford Dictionary (no date): Literate: [online] Available from: <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/literate> [10/02/16]
Radio 4, Science Betrayed, Thursday 24 March 2011 at 20:59 (available online at http://bobnational.net/record/55921)
John Muir, Shaun Finnigan, Danielle Mackay, Rachel Billes