On literacy

In the previous post, I’ve discussed some flaws in the way that we teach science, and I looked specifically into the effects that those simplified story lines of the science textbooks have on scientists themselves. However, scientists are only a small fraction of the population, and some basic science education is delivered to everybody. The view(s) that non-scientist hold of science will therefore influence the success or failure of science in a multitude of ways, even though they are not active practitioners of science themselves. How then does basic science education shape the views of the non-scientists?

The story lines in basic education on science employ an approach similar to what we find in science textbooks: science is portrayed as an accumulating endeavour; one step builds on another; the collective knowledge available to mankind keeps growing.  And every now and then, a solitary genius (think of, for example, Copernicus, Newton, or Einstein) presents a breakthrough that propels science to a new level of understanding.

The winding roads of research, the long lead-times, or even scientific revolutions do not show up in the science story we tell our children. Rather, we depict science as an essentially straightforward exercise that is predictable, almost predetermined. We even evoke the impression that – in case we hit a really tough problem – we just need to wait for a genius to find a solution. While this story is more easily taught and learned than the complex reality of science as depicted by Thomas Kuhn, it need not surprise us that non-scientists often nurse entirely unrealistic expectations of what science could or should do for them. And because they hold the vast majority in our society, their views – whether right or wrong – matter.

Society at large maintains an ambiguous view of technology (for the purposes of this post I’ll consider the differences between science, technology, and innovation to be negligible). Opinions range from unfounded optimism on one side to unbound scepticism on the other. While optimists view technology as the panacea for any challenge society might face, sceptics consider technology as the root cause for most troubles that individuals experience in modern society. Though both views contain an element of truth of course, both are hopelessly exaggerated. The fact that they both continue to exist, and what is more, to co-exist, is vivid evidence that we are not making progress in the science, technology, or innovation literacy the we teach our children through basic science education.

It’s no wonder that there are significant differences between expectations and realities (see my earlier ideas here and here) of what innovation should theoretically and can practically do. When laymen think about science, they don’t take aspects like lead times or parallel developments into consideration, for nobody ever tried to explain the real complexity to them. Instead, the underlying assumptions reflect the simplified story line of science as a linear and predictable endeavour, following a deterministic approach: Feed the machine with a problem and some money, turn the handle, and out comes the solution that you need. With such unrealistic expectations, it is an almost logical consequence that the general public has little understanding why there is still no cure for malaria, let alone an appreciation for fundamental science like astronomy.

While this might come across as a quite esoteric discussion, it gets immediately tangible when you think about concrete funding decisions for some innovative product. You might try to get funding within the big company you are working in. Then you’ll have to pitch your idea in front of some decision-maker who is mainly interested in short-term objectives. And who just has everybody’s basic simplified understanding of how science (and innovation) work. If you approach this situation with the due realism, you probably won’t get the funding. And if you tailor the message to the unrealistic expectations, you might get the funding this time. But very likely you cannot deliver on those expectations (you’ll have cost overruns, delays, etc.). So you will never again stand a chance to get funding for your good ideas. Try the same out in the open, maybe a bank, maybe a venture capitalist, same story: your realism meets their lack of understanding. The odds are against you; if not this time, then definitely next time.

But there is something that scientists need to learn as well, in addition to the immediate mastery of their trade, apart from normal science (which they already know) and scientific revolutions (though more insight in this overarching dimension of their work would be useful). Scientists must realise that they are working in the context of a society that doesn’t share their view of science, and they must learn to communicate with this wider environment. Blaming the audience for not understanding the message won’t suffice to ensure funding and support for large-scale basic science projects.

Rather, it requires dialogue with the general public, it needs direct interaction, and even translation, to convince society of the value of such a project, to evoke realistic expectations of results, their immediate utility, their longer-term benefits, and the risks and uncertainties entailed in the project. That is the foundation for a fruitful interaction between science and society.

And of course there’s the aspect of political leadership. In August 2012, Xi Jinping, then Vice President of the People’s Republic of China, set an impressive example in his opening address at the International Astronomical Union’s General Assembly, where he formulated his vision for society’s relation to science, wrapped in the goal for science education:

… to create a positive atmosphere for the public to respect, love, learn and use science, and to inspire the creativity for science and technological innovation among the public.

This vision is a vision of science literacy, built on respect and the willingness to learn, with the objective to use science for the benefit of society. I fully subscribe to it.



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