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What Is Scientific Literacy?

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  • Written By: Jillian O Keeffe
  • Edited By: PJP Schroeder
  • Last Modified Date: 26 March 2014
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Literacy is an educational term that technically means being able to read and write. Literacy is also used to refer to the ability of a person to understand a concept. The term scientific literacy does not mean that someone can read and write about science but generally that he or she can understand scientific concepts and progress at a level where he or she can make informed decisions about a scientific issue. There is no standard global definition of scientific literacy.

Scientific literacy requires some understanding of scientific knowledge. One definition by the Programme for International Student Assessment defines scientific literacy as the ability to use scientific information, to spot scientific questions, and to draw conclusions from the scientific evidence. The public understanding of science is a term that is used in some countries, such as the United Kingdom, instead of scientific literacy. It is not necessary to learn lots of information about scientific issues to be literate in science, but it is necessary to know how to learn this information if circumstances demand it.

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Children are taught science in school, and the entire population receives scientific information from the media. Information delivery in the form of museums and public lectures are also used to increase scientific literacy. Despite scientific information being disseminated in these ways, many people in many countries are still scientifically illiterate. Examples of scientific illiteracy include not knowing that the sun is a star, thinking that dinosaurs and humans coexisted, and being under the impression that electrons are larger than atoms.

Generally, scientific literacy means having the tools necessary to understand a wide array of scientific concepts. These tools are the specific ways of thinking that a scientist uses, such as skepticism and use of sources that have been tested for accuracy. Understanding that science is not a separate entity from normal life is another aspect of science literacy, as the person can apply scientific thought to all areas of his or her life.

As the world becomes more technologically advanced, scientific literacy may be a useful tool for job seekers who must adapt to technically complex work. Advances in fields such as genetic engineering may be regulated by governments following the will of the people, and if the people are not scientifically literate, progress may be hindered. Conversely, an illiterate population may not spot questionable scientific issues early on. Understanding of scientific concepts such as risk can also help the public accurately interpret media reports of the danger from issues such as vaccination.

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