Posted by: soniahs | September 27, 2010

Exam reading: “The myth of scientific literacy”

Morris Shamos’ “Myth of Scientific Literacy” starts off with some grim estimates on the state of scientific literacy in the U.S.: maybe 5-7% of Americans are scientifically literate- able to not only understand science terminology and know some basic facts, but also understand how the scientific process works. While this book was published in 1995, the situation hasn’t changed much.

Summary: Shamos claims that U.S. educational policy (in many iterations) has been trying to increase general science literacy and increase numbers of science-career students, and failing at both. Science is difficult because it requires a non-commonsense mode of thought; deductive/syllogistic thinking (commonsense) can lead to correct conclusions from incorrect assumptions, and science rests on a combination of deduction, induction, quantitative reasoning, and experimentation. Through the history of science education, there has been debate over what to teach and why; Shamos suggests three levels of sci. literacy: cultural (understand some terminology), functional (know some facts), and “true” literacy (understand scientific process). “Science” education generally is focused on technology or natural history studies (not sci. process)- which would be OK for “science awareness,” but also need to add an understanding of the use of experts to assist in making societal decisions. Broad-based sci. literacy is hampered by several factors: mathematical illiteracy, lack of social incentives, science can be boring & hard to learn, and disparagement by public intellectuals (and others.) He especially cautions against movements to discredit rationalism as the best basis with which to relate nature to society through science.

Comments: On use of experts: failing to create a truly sci. literate citizenry (which Shamos suggests is impossible), he suggests a system of public science experts who help make decisions in a transparent way (with citizen watchdog groups.) Overall, wide-ranging discussion of science education, philosophy of science, and possible future models for science education (also incorporating adult ed, though he focuses on formal ed.)

Links to: Pellegrini (models of citizen-scientist expert interactions); Holton (“anti-science” forces)



  1. […] to: Bonney et al. (use this framework for their report); Shamos (discusses different types of evaluation of scientific […]

  2. […] to: Bucchi (similar discussion of lack of deficit-dialogue binary); Shamos (characterizes scientism as anti-science, not a majority scientific […]

  3. […] to: Shamos (key place of experts in public understanding of science-though he doesn’t define this as science […]


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