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Civic Scientific Literacy: A Survival Tool for the 21st Century

However important improved public understanding of science might be, it is only part of the picture of how society reacts to new developments in science and technology, especially when controversy breaks out. Extensive research supports strong roles for values, beliefs and trust, arguably stronger factors in many cases than the role of science literacy by itself.

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Civic Scientific Literacy: A Survival Tool for the 21st Century

  1. 1. Civic Scientific Literacy: A survival tool for the 21 st century Jon D. Miller Director and Professor International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy Institute for Social Research University of Michigan [email_address]
  2. 2. There is broad agreement that a larger proportion of adults should be scientifically literate. <ul><li>It is clear that citizens will need to understand a critical core of scientific and technical constructs to be able to follow, understand, and participate in public policy debates on a number of important public policy issues. </li></ul><ul><li>There is a broadly held belief that scientifically literate adults are more likely to accept and adopt new technologies as consumers and workers, providing a market place that is receptive to technological innovation and development. </li></ul><ul><li>Individuals will face a growing number of personal health decisions that will demand some knowledge of genetics and probability for effective decision making. </li></ul>
  3. 3. In 1975, Benjamin S. P. Shen defined three kinds of scientific literacy: <ul><li>Consumer scientific literacy concerns our level of understanding of the products and choices that we make in daily life for ourselves and our family. </li></ul><ul><li>Civic scientific literacy concerns the level of knowledge that we need to understand public policy issues involving science and technology and to make sense of disputes about these issues. </li></ul><ul><li>Cultural scientific literacy concerns understanding science as a way of knowing and how it relates to other ways of knowing. It also involves an appreciation of the beauty and elegance of scientific reasoning. </li></ul>
  4. 4. Today I will <ul><li>discuss the rationale for civic scientific literacy , </li></ul><ul><li>review how it has been measured in the United States and 40 other countries, and </li></ul><ul><li>talk about the implications for communicating basic and emerging scientific ideas to broader publics. </li></ul>
  5. 5. The original logic for this measure of civic scientific literacy developed from a conversation with a physicist. <ul><li>In 1957, the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) sponsored a national survey of American attitudes toward and understanding of science (and religion). About two month later, Sputnik I was launched. </li></ul><ul><li>The 1957 NASW study included three knowledge measures: (1) Strontium 90, (2) Salk vaccine, and (3) fluoridation of water. </li></ul><ul><li>In a conversation with my friend Leon Lederman, I complained that I needed some science knowledge items that would be true in 100 yeas, and Leon suggested that atoms, molecules, DNA, and some similar basic constructs were very likely to be useful for some time to come. </li></ul>
  6. 6. From this logic, I constructed an Index of Civic Scientific Literacy that should be thought of a measurement of each individual’s toolbox for making sense of science in the 21 st century. <ul><li>The CSL Index measures each individual’s understanding of a set of basic scientific constructs – atom, molecule, DNA, the solar system, and genetics and inheritance – that serve as tools for reading, understanding, and making sense of scientific information at a level found in the Tuesday Science Times in the New York Times , in a Nova science television show, or web sites sponsored by AIP members and institutions. </li></ul><ul><li>It is not a measure of occupational skills related to science or technology. </li></ul>
  7. 7. The idea that formal schooling and adult learning through the life cycle are alternative routes to the same place is fundamentally wrong. <ul><li>Formal schooling is important because it can provide a set of basic constructs that can be used for years to understand and make sense of new and emerging scientific ideas and information. </li></ul><ul><li>Given the pace a scientific and technological development, it is impossible for formal schooling provide the actual content of the Tuesday New York Times in 2031 or 2041 because the science has not occurred yet. But it is possible to help a student acquire a set of basic constructs that may make it possible to read science news in 2031 or 2041. </li></ul>
  8. 8. Since 1988, a series of national surveys in the United States have asked science knowledge questions. <ul><li>The U.S. studies have incorporated a mixture of open-ended and closed-ended items throughout the last 20 years with some rotation and updating of the item pool. </li></ul><ul><li>The surveys in 1988, 1990, 1992, 1995, 1997, and 1999 used national probability samples of adults and were conducted over the telephone. </li></ul><ul><li>The surveys in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2008 have used a national online probability sample operated by Knowledge Networks. </li></ul>
  9. 9. Percent Correct on CSL Questions, US, 1988-2008 Percent Correct 1988 1999 2008 Indicate that light travels faster than sound. 78% 75% 86% Agree: “All plants and animals have DNA.” -- -- 85 Agree: “The center of the Earth is very hot.” 82 81 80 Agree: “The continents on which we live have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move in the future.” 81 80 72 Understanding of the meaning of the probability of one in four. 56 55 72 Indicate that the Earth goes around the Sun once each year 50 49 67 Provide a correct open-ended definition of an “experiment.” -- 35 61 Agree that astrology is not at all scientific. 62 59 59 Disagree: “Antibiotics kills viruses as well as bacteria” 31 45 55 Agree: “Electrons are smaller than atoms.” 46 46 54
  10. 10. Percent Correct on CSL Questions, US, 1988-2008 Percent Correct 1988 1999 2008 Disagree: “Ordinary tomatoes … do not have genes but genetically modified tomatoes do.” -- -- 51 Disagree: “Lasers work by focusing sound waves.” 40 43 48 Disagree: &quot;The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs&quot; 40 51 47 Provide a correct open-ended definition of “DNA.” 27 29 44 Agree: “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” 47 45 37 Provide a correct open-ended definition of “what it means to study something scientifically.” 22 22 34 Agree: “The universe began with a huge explosion.” 34 33 30 Agree: “ More than half of human genes are identical to those of mice.” -- -- 27 Provide a correct open-ended definition of a “molecule.” -- 13 25 Provide a correct open-ended definition of a “stem cell.” -- -- 20 Number of cases 1,600 1,883 1,147
  11. 11. Using the Item Response Theory (IRT) technology, it is possible to compare scores across a period of years for a single country or across countries. <ul><li>The Index of Civic Scientific Literacy produces individual scores ranging from approximately zero to 100. Individuals with a score of 70 or higher are considered to be scientifically literate. </li></ul><ul><li>The proportion of American adults who qualified as scientifically literate increased from 10% in 1988 to 28% in 2008. </li></ul>
  12. 12. Civic Scientific Literacy in the United States, 1988-2008
  13. 13. The Longitudinal Study of American Youth (LSAY) has followed a national sample of students since 1987 and these young adults are now 36 to 39 years old. Over the last 23 years, the 5,000 young adults in the LSAY have provided a wealth of information about their understanding of science, their life and career plans, and the ways that they acquire new information about science and technology. <ul><li>In 2008, the young adults in the LSAY were asked the same set of scientific literacy items that were used in our study of U.S. adult that year and a linked IRT methodology was used to compute the level of civic scientific literacy. </li></ul><ul><li>The results indicate that 43% of these young Americans – the core of Generation X – qualified as scientifically literate. </li></ul>
  14. 14. When this measure of civic scientific literacy is used for cross-national comparisons, the results indicate that the United States ranks second in the world. <ul><li>The Eurobarometer asked a comparable set of science knowledge items in 2005 and these data are available for 32 countries (the 27 EU members plus Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Turkey. </li></ul><ul><li>A comparable national survey was conducted in Japan in 2001 by the National Institute for Science and Technology Policy (NISTEP). </li></ul>
  15. 15. Civic Scientific Literacy in 34 Countries, 2005.
  16. 16. It is important to understand the factors that have contributed to this growth in civic scientific literacy in the United States. <ul><li>Given the performance of American secondary students in national assessments within the U.S. and in international comparative studies, we would not think that student learning during high school is the driving force. </li></ul><ul><li>To examine several possible factors – including college science courses – a simple structural equation model was constructed. A structural equation model predicts an outcome from a set of independent variables for which we know either chronological or logical order. </li></ul>
  17. 17. A Path Model to Predict CSL for U.S. Adults, 2007.
  18. 18. Total Effect of Variables on CSL for U.S. Adults, 2007. Total Effect Respondent age -.22 Gender (F) -.18 Educational attainment .69 College science courses .74 Children at home .03 Religious fundamentalism -.20 Interest in science, technology, medical, or environmental issues .05 Television use -.10 Print use .15 Internet and electronic media use .22 R 2 = .75
  19. 19. A Model to Predict CSL in Young Adults, 2008.
  20. 20. Total Effect of Each Variable on Young Adult CSL, 2008. Total Effect Parent Education .33 Gender (F) -.23 Educational attainment .55 College science courses .66 Minor children at home -.09 Religious fundamentalism -.34 Interest in science, technology, medical, or environmental issues .03 Informal science learning .14 R 2 = .64 Chi-squares = 176.3; degrees of freedom = 14; Root Mean Square Error of Approximation (RMSEA) = .032; Upper confidence limit (90%) of RMSEA = .043; N =2,086.
  21. 21. What are the implications of these results for communicating basic and emerging scientific ideas to broader publics? <ul><li>In the short-term (the next 20 years), college science courses will continue to be critically important and AIP should aggressively support the expansion and improvement of these courses. The changes at UC Berkeley are an excellent example for other institutions. </li></ul><ul><li>The adult audience for good science communication is substantial and growing. The 28% of American adults who are CSL represent 66 million adults. </li></ul><ul><li>But, we must recognize that the long-term health of our democracy will depend on fixing our broken secondary education system. No other major country tries to finance its school through property taxes. And the current Republican campaign to bash teacher unions and teachers will not attract talented young people to teaching. </li></ul>
  22. 22. The material in this presentation comes from several recent publications. Requests for reprints should be sent to: