The Importance of Science Literacy
When you think of science, you probably imagine a laboratory filled with beakers, chemicals, and foreign equipment. Or you might visualize impossibly intelligent people wearing lab coats and using complex words and phrases. Many people view science this way because when the topic comes up, these are the types of ideas that are shown to them. However, science is about much more than strange instruments or understanding advanced terminology. In an interview with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and celebrity scientist, he described science literacy this way, “The center line of science literacy—which not many people tell you, but I feel this strongly, and I will go to my grave making this point— is how you think”(Holmes page 1). Dr. Tyson feels that being scientifically literate has little to do with knowing terminology or understanding technical concepts, but rather the way one thinks and their approach in answering a question. It’s about being curious, asking questions, making mistakes and new discoveries from those mistakes. Scientific literacy is the foundation of learning how to build knowledge and make advancements in multiple areas of society.
In the best-selling novel The Martian, author Andy Weir engages his readers with scenes of dramatic situations, including explosions and near death experiences. The novel has successfully piqued the interest of the public because exciting scientific concepts are presented in a manner that is easy to digest. No complicated scientific terms are used. The main character, Mark Watney, explains his thought progression in simple terms, as if he were speaking to someone who doesn’t understand scientific terminology. While he logged about finding ways to create calories to eat, he said, “So how many calories do I need to generate per day along the entire time period to stay alive for around 1425 days? I’ll spare you the math. The answer is about 1100” (Weir 18). This simplification makes the reader feel more at ease in their comprehension. Furthermore, Weir uses humor throughout his entire story not only as a means for the character to keep himself calm, but also to make readers feel a connection with him. This humor is valuable because it entertains the reader as well as teaches principles of scientific literacy.
This book, as well as many other books and movies, has drawn a lot of attention to the world of science. People seem to enjoy these stories and anticipate the arrival of new ones. Although people like science, they don’t typically pursue scientific knowledge on their own. Perhaps this is because the general public has created an imaginary gap between themselves and the super scientists portrayed in these stories as well as real life scientists. Perhaps the average citizen is a bit intimidated by the advanced concepts that science sometimes demands. It all seems very extreme; there are either super genius science types, or there are just the average citizens who live vicariously through them. Of course, this isn’t the reality of the situation, but it seems to be the general perception.
Dr. Tyson is an advocate for spreading science literacy to the general public. In order to capture their attention, he has found it useful to connect with his audience through the use of pop culture references. In an interview with The Humanist he said, “I hold it as my highest priority to understand the audience I’m about to speak with so that the words I use, the rhythm of my sentences, and the references I make are all tuned for that audience at that time”. He continues, “And part of what empowers fluidity when speaking to the public is your exposure to pop culture” (Bardi, par. 14, 13). Dr. Tyson believes that you must be in tune with the connection of pop culture or you won’t be able to communicate effectively with your audience. He is adamant that, “once there is a disconnect, you’re not communicating”(par. 18). This type of communication is crucial to reaching the public because they need something they can relate to. A connection helps to close the imaginary gap between the speaker and his audience. In similar fashion, Weir used pop culture references throughout his novel to build rapport with his audience. Mark Watney wondered why “Aquaman can control whales” (64) and he joked about how “Three’s Company may never be the same after this fiasco” (27).
Let’s also consider the power of celebrity scientists. In Lawrence Krauss’ article “Scientists as Celebrities: Bad For Science, Or Good For Society?” he explains that scientists who gain celebrity status have an opportunity to influence the public’s view of science. In the early part of the 20th century, Albert Einstein rocked the world with his Theory of Relativity. He also introduced the well-known equation “E=mc2”. The public loved his quirky appeal and sometimes zany personality. Then came Carl Sagan, who hosted the hit TV series “Cosmos”. Carl became the face and voice of scientific fascination. After that, there was (and still is) Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest minds of our time. His book, A Brief History of Time, and a movie about his life have rapidly increased his popularity. And Neil deGrasse Tyson; a speaker, author and public personality has brought science into the limelight in recent years. These scientists didn’t necessarily gain fame because of their scientific contributions, but all have used their popularity to promote interest in the field of science. According to Krauss, “public recognition of scientists often has little to do with actual scientific accomplishment, but that does not diminish the opportunities it provides for scientists to promote a fascination with the world around us, and to help science play a more useful role in our society” (Krauss 31).
Science is a universal tool that can be used in a huge variety of capacities. In fact, it’s crucial to our growth as a society. Krauss stated, “Science plays a special role in the development of human civilization, and the scientific process provides tools and examples that can have particular utility in the public arena” (32). Consider the category of health care. A patient who is able to process information more accurately can make more informed decisions about their treatment. Doctors would be able to create more focused treatments for complex diseases. In the field of economics, science literacy could propel employees into higher paying positions. Without it, our nation would fall behind in technology, thus moving markets to other countries. Science literacy is extremely important in education because tomorrow’s scientists are attending school right now. In order for students to have the right tools for future challenges, they need to know how to approach them. In the political sector, people who are making decisions for the masses absolutely need to be able to use scientific logic and reasoning. As Dr. Tyson puts it, “There is nothing scarier than a scientifically illiterate adult with a finger on the button” (par 11).
The best part about science is that it’s for everyone. Science is for rock stars, it’s for national leaders, it’s for soccer moms, race car drivers, kids, and artists. There is a way to use science for just about every aspect of our lives. Whether you’re cooking a meal, playing music, or going for a drive, science is at work. Society could be using science literacy to make huge advances for greater good, but it remains just on the edges of our motivation. Imagine how advanced our civilization would be if everyone possessed this kind of literacy. This is why it is so important to spread awareness for the need of literacy. Perhaps one day we will become a scientifically literate nation, but it will require a cultural shift to understand that science education is not just for the elite, but a seed of knowledge to yield a society of successful citizens.
Bardi, Jennifer. “The Humanist Interview With Neil Degrasse Tyson.” Humanist 69.5
(2009): 9-11. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.
Holmes, Linda. “Neil deGrasse Tyson On Literacy, Curiosity, Education, And Being ‘In
Your Face’.” Feb. 2010.
Krauss, Lawrence M. “Scientists As Celebrities: Bad For Science Or Good For Society?.”
Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists 71.1 (2015): 26-32. Academic Search Premier.
Web. 3 Apr. 2016.
Weir, Andy. The Martian: A Novel. New York: Crown, 2014. Print.